Home' Greymouth Star : May 6th 2017 Contents Saturdayy Afternoon
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The future of the Coast’s museums
Far left Westport’s Coaltown, Hokitika’s Carnegie, Greymouth’s History House and Shantytown.
n Westport, the Buller District Council bit the bullet about five years ago and
spent $3.75 million on a revamped Coaltown museum. It was moved out of the
deteriorating old brewery building in Queen Street, right into the middle of
town to shared premises with the information centre.
After a shaky start, two and a half years ago they restructured staffing and since
then it ’s been ticking away nicely. Visitor numbers are growing.
“This modern museum re-tells the same old yarns of hard times, but with well-
scripted display panels alongside an excellent selection of photographs, surrounding relics of
local industries and general pioneer ephemera,” according to Lonely Planet, every traveller’s
Unlike History House, in Greymouth, and the Carnegie Building, in Hokitika, the new-
look Coaltown is modern, made of sleek glass and steel.
Susan Watson, who heads the Coaltown Trust, strongly recommends sharing a building
with the local information centre. It means on rainy days tourists call in and many keep on
going into the museum.
“It ’s good having the two things together, that ’s the one thing I would say.”
The trust is in the process of applying for external funding for an archive area. At the
moment, things are stored at the back of the building. The plan is for a temperature and
humidity controlled storage facility.
On Trip Adviser, the museum gets 4 1/2 out of five stars. The comments are glowing: “It
was everything a small museum should be.”
History House in Greymouth also rates highly, though there are few reviews: “My
favourite piece was the chairs that QE2 and Prince Phillip sat in.”
So what do the public make of the Hokitika Museum? “This is a real deal old style
museum and not some trendy weird arty farty mock-up.”
History House was set up in the surplus Grey County Council chambers in 1996. Council
amalgamations seven years earlier meant the building was lying empty.
Kevin Brown, who went on to become mayor, was the first manager. The council put the
call out for donations, and the public responded with a flood of donations.
Grey District Council library and museum services manager Liz Burke said more than
25 years on at History House, the diver’s suit and associated lead boots with oxygen wheel
pump always received a good response “in part, because they were used right outside the
door, on the Greymouth wharf ”.
“The wooden telephone exchange is also hugely popular — many visitors remember the
days of party lines and operators.”
But now the building has been deemed earthquake prone and needs $142,000 of work to
bring it up to standard. Instead, the council came up with an alternative option of moving
the museum into the vacant Dick Smith retail premises in Mackay Street, and contracting
out the museum to an existing tourism operator. It recently voted for the move, subject to
The council says earthquake strengthening the old building is not the only problem with
History House. Despite the wonderful staff, it only sees about eight visitors a day, being out
of the way in Gresson Street, near the wharf.
Although it is just three minutes’ walk from the library and more than five minutes from
the railway station, there are few signs showing visitors the way.
How do you boost visitor numbers? Would the old retail premises so close to the train
station be better? And if so, who would curate exhibitions when current staff are run off their
feet? And what of the wonderful old county council building, opposite the equally lovely
harbour board building?
Bill Gardner, a Friend of History House, suggests Dick Smith as a display-only venue.
“Archives are the hard bit,” he points out. “ Their importance ... cannot be overstated or
If shared with another organisation or business the council loses control, he cautions. He
would prefer to see the historic building restored to house the archives.
Another Friend, Mary Trayes, warns that something must be done to bring the archive up
to date. Displays and new items were coming in all the time.
“Appoint a qualified person for a set-term contract to catch up. (Council) need to put up
Council chief executive Paul Pretorius cautions that if the History House collection is to
be moved it would need to be catalogued first, at a cost.
And what if some who donated items do not want them relocated or want them back?
Could the collection slowly fall apart?
And when it does come to relocating artefacts, you can’t just put them in the car boot and
drive them around the corner.
Then there is the question of money. The council would have to pay a lease for the Dick
Smith building, he says.
Shantytown opened in 1971. It receives no council funding and is run by a trust. Until
recently it has been clearly focused on tourism.
It has also been pushing to host a regional archive centre. Other museums could store
items there, but still access the collection, thanks to digitisation.
It would also rebrand around it.
Chief executive Andrea Forrest described Shantytown as a West Coast museum in the
Shantytown, of course, is different from the traditional museums, for it brings history alive.
The steam train is the drawcard, but the hospital is especially popular.
And that is what Shantytown does so well — it brings history alive, gore and all, be it
through the echoing hospital corridors, or the shrill whistle of the steam train.
Jackie Gurden was engaged by Shantytown last year to look at the archive centre
possibility. The work took her all over, looking at museums in other parts of the country.
She saw some great museums — Riverton, for example, is almost a mini Te Papa — but
once open got into financial strife.
“A lot of community museums are struggling,” Mrs Gurden said.
The operating cost was as important as the initial set up cost and needed to be well fleshed
out. Once open, museums needed skilled staff, and to be marketed commercially as part of a
wider tourism strateg y.
So what about a West Coast archive?
“Shantytown asked, if we did this, who would be involved?”
Across the Coast she found archive needs everywhere, “including the Greymouth Star”.
Any archive centre would not only need the right environment, but skilled staff and also
longevity of personnel and funding.
The only archive on the Coast that could do that currently was a private one, with Solid
Energy in Westport. It has just been handed over to the Ministry of Business, Innovation
Mrs Gurden said there needed to be a regional solution, or else valuable archives would be
stored off the Coast.
“It’s not an easy thing to work through.”
Westland Mayor Bruce Smith inherited the stunning — but quake-prone — Carnegie
Building, which now serves as the front entrance to the Hokitika Museum. The situation
became complicated, but in a nutshell museum staff members are now working from a pop-
up premises and the collection is in storage.
The Carnegie Building recently reopened for part of the day, with Dick Seddon
impersonator David Verrall as tour guide.
“I think the museum in its current location is satisfactory for our ratepayer base,” Mr Smith
The council was committed to strengthening the building, he said. The most recent costing
puts it at over $700,000.
He wanted to see “slow improvement without getting too excited”.
Change should not be too rapid.
“It seems to work pretty well.”
For now he was just happy to see the doors open again at the Carnegie Building: “Now it’s
open again it’s getting 30 or 40 people a day,” he said, noting that was without the museum
Back to Trip Advisor: “We visited on a wet day and it was worth the $6 fee”. And that’s
not bad going.
Submissions on the future of History House close at 5pm on Monday. E-mail
Two West Coast museums are shut with concerns they could collapse in a
large earthquake. So what now? Could Greymouth’s History House move into
the main street and closer to the railway station? Will Hokitika strengthen its
museum? And what about a regional archive? “It’s a huge crossroads,” says
consultant Jackie Gurden. LAURA MILLS talks to some of the major players.
Julia Bradshaw, who recently took up a new post at the Canterbury Museum, in the archives at the Hokitika Museum.
Friends of Histor y House — Mary Trayes and Jack Flood.
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