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Museum Rebuild: the little museum that could


Russell, the tiny tourist town in the Bay of Islands has always prided itself on its links with its past. Its reputation as a tourist Mecca is to a great extent based on the large number of its well-preserved heritage buildings and early colonial charm. With its weather board houses, the oldest standing church in the country, Pompallier Mission and of course that famous flagpole just up the hill, it’s one of the few places in New Zealand where you get a real sense of the country’s diverse and lively history. An integral part of those links with that past is embodied in the Russell Museum, Te Whare Taonga O Kororāreka, which has been a big part of the community since 1956, as well as a tourist attraction in its own right.

But time doesn’t stand still, not even in Russell, and the museum trustees have decided the building is no longer fit for purpose. “It’s long overdue, our mighty little museum is going to get a little bigger and a whole lot better,” says Museum Trust Chairperson, Heather Lindauer. “It’s grown over more than 60 years evolving and changing. It has achieved a great deal but it’s time to look ahead and plan for the future and future needs. It’s an exciting prospect. We maybe a small museum but we have some of the biggest stories in the country to tell.” Planning is still in the early stages, she says as is the all-important job of talking to and listening to the views of the local community.

Early designs are on show at the museum and have already drawn some sharp criticism as well as enthusiastic support. “Architects Isthmus Group, have been given the tricky task of coming up with a building design that will have to tick a whole lot of boxes,” says Curator Kate Martin. “It needs to provide the space and amenities expected of a 21st century museum and demanded by visitors these days.” But she adds, “It is equally important to produce an empathetic design that is true to the significant site the building occupies both historically and culturally. While it absolutely must fit in with the general look and feel of our village, it’s important it is not faux, false or pastiche. Russell has employed many building styles and techniques over the years and we hope this will be the latest addition to the compelling incentives for people from all over the world to visit our town.”

Ms Martin says she’s reluctant as yet to put a firm figure on the cost of the rebuild because the design is still very much a work in progress, but it will be several million dollars. She does acknowledge it will be a big ask for a tiny community like Russell with a permanent population of only around 800 people. “Little communities do wonders all around New Zealand every day,” she says. “A lot of locals are already giving us their time, energy and considerable skill for free, we now need to expand and build on that, and we know we can.”

Initial plans envisage a two-storied structure comprising two rectangular buildings referencing the boat sheds of the surrounding area and Russell’s long maritime tradition. The colour and exterior cladding are still under discussion between the architects and Heritage New Zealand to ensure compliance with legal, heritage and aesthetic requirements. Exhibition space being designed by Story Inc. will allow visitors to better explore the area’s powerful narratives of the arrivals and encounters in the Bay of Islands that centred on Kororāreka Russell, and that are pivotal to the founding of the New Zealand we know today. “Our rich museum collection will be enhanced with digital technologies to provide exciting interaction and multi-layered storytelling that will connect us and our visitors to our dual Māori and Pākehā heritage and to our shared future,” adds Ms Lindauer.

Local Community Board Chairman, Terry Greening, believes it will be an economic asset not only for Russell but for tourism in the whole of the Bay and Far North “You have a re -invigorated Waitangi Treaty Grounds on the other side of the water and developing plans across the North. A re-invigorated Russell Museum will add to an improved experience for visitors both local, regional and international and that’s surely what we are all after. I am looking forward to what we can achieve.”


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