The Watt St buildings of the Whanganui Regional Museum have been largely closed to the public for two years now and the building site hoardings came down in January. While the temporary site on Ridgway St has been busy throughout, there is mounting interest and speculation about the reopening of the principal exhibition spaces to the public. How can it take so long to get the place open again?
Opening day is scheduled for 2019, but behind the closed doors there has been a lot going on and there’s still plenty to do.
The process started in 2016 with the removal of all exhibits and furniture from the main buildings (with a few honourable exceptions on the grounds of sheer size) in preparation for the major earthquake engineering. That work, financed by the Whanganui District Council, involved installing steel supports and new walls around the whole interior of the 1928 building and similar, smaller scale alterations to the 1968 extension. Along with a new roof and a major overhaul of lighting and electrical systems, the first part of the project was finished in January this year and has created a completely revamped vessel for the Museum’s programmes and exhibitions.
Meanwhile, with the support of funding from the Lottery Grants Board, Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage, Te Puni Kokiri and a number of philanthropic trusts, the vital collection storage areas beneath the public buildings have undergone a transformation. New vaults, shelves and storage cabinets, along with specialised climate control systems, have dramatically improved conditions for over 300,000 collection items. Dedicated store rooms have been built for photographic negatives, taonga Māori and the huge collection of natural history specimens. A building initially designed and built as an underground carpark is now a store house suitable for a collection of national significance.
Upstairs, the Museum has taken advantage of the clear-out and refurbishment to rethink all of its exhibits. With over 3,000 square metres of public space to refurbish and reinstall, Museum staff and contractors have been fully engaged since 2017 on exhibition development, conservation and preparation of thousands of objects and artefacts for display.
Ninety years of additions and alterations have been stripped out to reveal and highlight the contrasting architectural styles of the 1928 and 1968 buildings. A lot of the Museum’s heritage display furniture has been refurbished or supplemented with new joinery. New facilities including an air-conditioned gallery, an audio-visual lounge and a bigger, better souvenir and book shop have been built. The result is a completely refreshed and rethought museum, combining long-standing Whanganui icons with many items from the collections never shown before.
Regular questions about the reopening have included the fate of the sunfish, the Street, the collection of Lindauer portraits and the waka. The Museum staff are not revealing details about the exhibition contents until closer to the opening date, but promise plenty of surprises when we open.
Frank Stark is the Director at Whanganui Regional Museum.