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Background to Canterbury Museum Revitalisation

Canterbury Museum
Rolleston Avenue
Christchurch, New Zealand

22 May 2002

Canterbury Museum was founded in 1867 with the first building on the current site opening in 1870. The Museum houses a very large collection (c. 2.1 million items), which is undoubtedly of national and international significance. It is the third largest museum in the country, and has suffered neglect in terms of basic maintenance, let alone capital development, up until the last few years.

The local and regional community is strongly supportive of the Museum, both through extremely high visitor support (550 000 per annum) and the commitment of local government.

Canterbury Museum has spent four years of rigorous investigation, research, and testing and refinement of its foreseeable housing needs in a process to formulate a comprehensive capital revitalisation programme. This programme will position the Museum to deliver greatly improved services to a substantially increased number of visitors over the next 30 years.

Amongst the funding commitments sourced by the Museum are (gst inclusive):
 $15.75 million (over six years) from central government
 $9 million (over five years) from Christchurch City Council
 four grants totalling $1.478 million from Lottery Environment & Heritage
 $2.81 million from local government.

In addition, the Museum raised $14.625 million (gst inclusive) from the local community for the earlier (1990-1995) stages of the project, which involved earthquake strengthening of the nineteenth century buildings and construction of the Garden Court building.

During the past few years, Canterbury Museum has been working hard to shrug off the boring and dusty stereotype. This has been reflected in rapidly growing visitor numbers. The Museum now has 550 000 visitors a year, as against 380 000 five years ago. As the redevelopment unrolls it is expected that visitor numbers will rise to 750 000 midway through the project and one million upon completion.

Highlights of the Canterbury Museum revitalisation include:
Blue whale
The Museum’s largest collection item, the blue whale skeleton, will resurface high above the new-look entrance and circulation spine. The trademark whale was on display from 1909 to 1994 but was put in storage when work began on the Garden Court building. Weighing nine tonnes, the blue whale is 26.6m (87ft long).

Robert McDougall
The building of the Christchurch Art Gallery provides Canterbury Museum with a unique opportunity to enhance its redevelopment plans.

Acquisition of the McDougall would afford a wonderful opportunity to use the 770m2 of high quality exhibition space to display a significant portion of the collections currently in storage because of lack of space. This includes selections from the extensive paintings and drawings collection (over 7 000 items), photographs (800 000 plus), architectural plans (13 000), costume and textiles (13 500), furniture (3 000), and European and Oriental decorative arts (8 500 objects).

New life for Maori meeting house
After an absence of nearly 50 years, the superb whare whakairo (carved meeting house) named Hau te Ananui o Tangaroa will return. Between 1874 and 1956 the whare stood outside in the Museum grounds where it housed the Maori gallery. Measuring 18.3m (60ft) in length, 6.1m (20ft) in width, and 6.1m (20ft) in height to the top of the tekoteko (ridge pole), the whare will be housed on the uppermost level because of its imposing size. As well as providing a venue for potential daytime Maori cultural performances and educational activities, it is hoped the whare will support educational sleepovers.

The new visitor experience
The new visitor experience will move away from the traditional museum approach of subject-based galleries that unfold some kind of sequential story. Instead, four major exhibition components are planned: special exhibitions; a new Antarctic experience; two discovery centres (one natural, the other human history); and a pathway through the remainder of the public area devoted to riveting stories about Canterbury/Waitaha, New Zealand, and the world.

Over the past four years, Museum staff have painstakingly sifted through the collections to identify the top stories we have to tell. About 50 of these, supported by our collection strengths, will unfold in a new story-based exhibition pathway meandering through the Museum. This sequence of changing historic and contemporary stories will create and sustain a sense of drama, exploration, and surprise. “What’s around the next corner?” should become the catch phrase in a continuously developing museum experience.

New Antarctic experience
Canterbury Museum holds the premier collection of artefacts telling the heroic tales of Antarctic discovery and exploration. The existing Sir Robertson Stewart Hall of Antarctic Discovery, although more than 20 years old, continues to attract large numbers of international and domestic tourists, and local visitors. Accordingly, the current floor area will be doubled for the new experience. This new experience will complement the existing acclaimed International Antarctic Centre at Christchurch International Airport.

Special exhibitions
A programme of regularly changing special exhibitions will be mounted in a newly dedicated area off the main entrance. The exhibitions will have high impact and high visual appeal. There may be a number of smaller shows running simultaneously or the occasional ‘block-buster’ occupying the whole space. Special exhibitions will be sourced nationally and internationally; community groups may sponsor special interest shows; and the Museum will mount its own shows from its rich collection resource.

Stage one of Canterbury Museum’s building programme is a new entrance nearer to the centre of the Rolleston Avenue frontage, while retaining the existing facade. The entrance will flow into an amazing full height atrium and circulation spine running from the entrance through to the Robert McDougall Art Gallery, which the Museum is negotiating to acquire for future expansion.

Congestion on arrival is a key problem for the Museum and up to 11 tourist buses can arrive at any one time. While visitors appreciate the Museum’s content, the majority get hopelessly lost. The high numbers of international tourists mean that nearly 60% of Museum visitors each year are first-timers. As visitor numbers are projected to grow, orientation problems within the Museum will worsen. A circulation spine, with the skeleton of the great blue whale towering above, will greatly simplify and enhance the visitor experience. The existing entrance will be used for access to a relocated café and shop.

There is also the opportunity for the city to create a new, people-friendly piazza or Museum Square at the head of Worcester Boulevard.

Collections and Research
Canterbury Museum has a priceless collection of 2.1 million items, with a conservative replacement value of $300 million. Space constraints mean that less than 1% of the collection is on display. While no big museum can ever hope to exhibit all its artefacts, visitors to Canterbury Museum deserve more.

Revitalisation of the Museum is not just front-of-house. They also involve high quality storage facilities to ensure these artefacts are preserved for future generations. Every item in the collection has a vital role to play as the Museum’s research resources are developed, making them accessible for scholars and school children alike. Plans include a $6 million computer inventory, including photographic and video images, and an estimated $7 million of conservation work on collections in hand. The great museums of the world have long been underpinned by scholarly research based on their collections. Canterbury Museum’s redevelopment will provide much better facilities for visiting researchers and the Museum’s own staff, and a greatly enhanced public research centre.

Business as usual
Throughout the redevelopment, Canterbury Museum will remain open. In fact, the Museum plans to make a feature of the project, allowing visitors to feel part of the action and watch as this fascinating work unfolds. It will be history in the making.

On show
A special exhibition featuring detailed models, plans and illustrations of the revitalised Canterbury Museum is on display on Level 3 in the Chathams Gallery. It will be updated as work progresses.

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