I spent a week of the summer holidays in Nelson, the supposed sunniest spot in New Zealand. It rained every day. In an attempt to keep dry I had a hugely enjoyable visit to the Suter Art Gallery where I discovered two things of interest.
First was that the new gallery is a perfect model for the proposed new Tauranga museum, and the second was a fantastic exhibition called ‘Pale History’ by the artist Sally Burton. Yes I know it was an art galley and not a museum, but hear me out on this. Also, don’t ever say we don’t need a museum. It is vital to teach our children about our past, and also to show all treasures (taonga) we have stored away and out of sight.
The new Suter Art Gallery in Nelson opened less than 18 months ago and cleverly incorporates an old Edwardian building into the heart of a modern complex. When inside it feels like all one modern building. Set on the edge of a park, there were wonderful views out over lakes and trees and the placement of a café on the lake side was an ideal setting to enjoy coffee and cake. The café was full of people, both locals and tourists. In other words it was a desirable location and making revenue. What I found most innovative is that the gallery had distinct exhibition spaces that could be opened or closed to make rooms bigger or smaller. They also have a small theatre auditorium where films, shows or talks are given and also meeting rooms for various clubs and societies, an archive of historical material and they have a resident curator who teaches regular classes to schoolchildren about both art and the history of the area. The gallery is also available for hire as a wedding venue. It was a perfect model for a large variety of uses and hence for the generation of revenue.
The gallery was free to enter, and hence people came and went all day long. I have a concern that if Tauranga’s new museum will have an entry fee to recoup the building and running costs, and this will stop people visiting the museum multiple times. If instead it is run on a commercial basis, and raises money from other sources, such as being a wedding venue and hire opportunities, then there will be no need to burden visitors with an entry fee. People would visit ten times a year rather than just once.
The second thing that I saw at the Suter Art Gallery was an exhibition about a the early European settlement of New Zealand. Sally Burton has created a wonderful representation of “The Wairau Confrontation” (sometimes called Massacre, Incident or Affray) of June 1843. I quote from one panel at the start of the exhibition;
“The pattern established at the Wairau of European greed for land, callous overriding of Maori rights to retain ownership of their lands guaranteed by Article 2 of the Treaty, and a refusal to negotiate, continued to dog New Zealand’s colonial history. Taranaki, Waikato and Bay of Plenty wars all bore witness.”
Burton has created figures made from driftwood and paper with wonderfully realistic and expressive faces. Each one represents a historical figure involved in the incident. She has researched the events and the people and has combined history, art and literature to bring an important event from the past to life.
My own feeling is that it would be wonderful to bring this exhibition to Tauranga for us to view and to use as a model to create something similar for Gate Pa. It is an exceellent example of how to bring historical events to life, either in our own new museum or, better still, on the site of the battle itself. Why don’t we use the old bowling club at Gate Pa as a permanent memorial to what happened in 1864 and as a way to teach our children about the crucial period in our quite recent history.
Last year saw a great resurgence of interest in New Zealand’s colonial history and much was said about our failure to teach the joint history of Maori and Pakeha in our schools. For us to grow as one nation we must address that gap. Putting history to the forefront in Tauranga is our chance to do things better. The ‘Pale History’ exhibition is one of the best pieces of art and storytelling about our troubled history that I have seen. We can learn a huge amount from its example.
Marcus Hobson is the ARTbop Contributions Editor. He is a writer and reviewer, as well as a passionate book collector. Many of his stories feature themes of art and artists and he is married to an aspiring painter. Marcus lives at the foot of the Kaimai Ranges near to Katikati.
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