This weekend sees the passing of an Auckland icon. After 48 years, Centennial St in the Auckland War Memorial Museum is going to be dismantled as part of the restoration of the East Gallery. Glory Days met with museum staff, heard of their sadness at the closure and learned of their exciting plans for the future of the space.
Auckland 1866, as the exhibition is officially known, was a gift to the Museum in 1967 from the historic Auckland department store, Milne and Choyce and shows business and residential premises as they might have appeared in the rapidly growing seaport town of Auckland. The businesses displayed actually existed and are drawn from locations in Queen Street, Wellesley Street, Shortland Street, Customs Street (then Customs House Street) and Wyndham Street. The shops and bars are furnished with merchandise typical of the period. Advertisements, timetables and prices of goods shown have all been taken from almanacs and newspapers of 1866.
And it's the condition of many of those objects, over 1,600 of them, that has necessitated the change. It is doubtful that the exhibition was ever intended to remain in situ for as long as it has, the longest standing exhibit the museum has maintained, and most of them were included without classification or accurate recording beyond being included on some hand written lists. Without disturbing the displays it has been very difficult to assess the quality of the items and over 48 years a great deal of degradation has occurred. Unmoved fabrics in particular become brittle and will need to be humidified before they can be moved.
Centennial St is not being carelessly discarded either. All the objects will be removed from display, restored, catalogued and will then join the reservoir of objects, over 1,000,000 of them, that will be involved in stories the museum plans to tell in the future. Those facades that can be saved will be and those that are too structurally degraded will be removed. Though their construction was revolutionary at the time, they were not intended to remain in place for as long as they have and a number of them are not in the best health.
To create an ongoing legacy for the exhibition, Auckland 1866 and its collection items will become Auckland Museum’s first exhibition to be recreated online. Through a digital project, the exhibition has been captured as it is today within the gallery. In future, once the exhibitions closes, visitors will be able to continue to interact with and move around the space online, discovering different stories and collections items along the way.
RealSCAN is a tool that supplies three views - a Virtual Floorplan, a Dollhouse/3D Model and a Virtual tour. This incredible technology will enable people to "virtually" walk around the 1866 exhibition and into shops like never before. This coupled with the panoramic imagery will provide an interactive Bespoke Tour developed by the curators at the Auckland Museum which will make 1866 and items within this collection come to life, in far greater detail than the current format allows.
Scott Milne, descendant of the Milne family, acknowledges the desire and need for Museum refurbishment. “Auckland 1866 was a cutting-edge exhibition development in the 1960s. Visiting the Museum’s current exhibition, Taku Tāmaki Auckland Stories, it’s easy to see how much things have changed over the years. The new presentation really shows you how far museums have come.”
David Reeves, Director of Collections and Research, says, ‘The role of the museum, as being a place where you come to look at old things , is still valid but, like museums worldwide, we are moving to a storytelling mode of engagement,’ allowing visitors to engage in ways suitable to them. Like Milne, he points to the Taku Tāmaki exhibition and notes that its interactivity has precipitated the upload of over 27,000 piece s of information by the public showing visitors’ desire to participate. Gone are the days, he says, when a museum could just be a single authority on history and a ‘storehouse of physical evidence’.
The explosion of digital information has encouraged people to seek knowledge in more varied ways and there is no place for an institution that presents only a singular view of the past. While Centennial St was pretty, it was a very mono-cultural representation of a moment in history and no longer fits within the museum’s remit to present stories from multiple viewpoints by presenting what we know and asking visitors for their side of the story as well.
Not only that, but the exhibit is preventing the restoration of the building in order to keep it functioning for the benefit of future generations. Much of the building behind the display requires restorative care and the interior work will ultimately reveal the original neo-classical design for the first time in almost 50 years. Features include marble skirting, columns and an engraved timber stage. As David Reeves says, ‘There is no way we’d be allowed to slap black paint on heritage marble today’ and returning the space to its original condition will take a careful team the best part of a year.
Once the space is ready, the Museum will install a war memorial enquiry centre in which people will be able to share knowledge and to learn about the human contributions to New Zealand’s war history. ‘It will make the whole top floor more cohesive and provide a reverential space for learning and contemplation,’ says David Reeves. He says that it’s important to remember that the museum was originally built using money provided by everyday Aucklanders to honour those who had died in the First World War and that because most of them were buried overseas, the museum acts as a tombstone for them. The newly restored section will highlight the personal stories of those who went and never came back and, as such, fulfils the museum’s original brief appropriately.
Auckland 1866 will officially close at 5pm on Sunday, 27 September 2015, following a special finale weekend as part of the Auckland Heritage Festival on 26 and 27 September. Aucklanders are encouraged to visit, share their memories and learn about the technology that will enable the exhibition and its collections to continue to be available online. There will be behind the scenes tours that reveal the original heritage architecture and the gallery will come alive with Victorian characters, activities and photo opportunities.
We’ll be there and hope to see you too. Please post your photos on our Facebook page, we look forward to taking one last walk along Centennial St with you.
View more images of Centennial St on our Facebook page.