Canterbury earthquake

By Pauline Dawson

In the early hours of September 4th a significant and damaging 7.1 magnitude earthquake hit the city of Christchurch in Canterbury, New Zealand. Luckily there was no loss of life and few injuries related to the quake, probably due to the time it took place (4.36am). However there was extensive damage to many homes, buildings and roads in the region and services such as power, water and sewage were disrupted and still remain problematic in some areas.

After it was established that although severely shaken up, most people were safe and work was started to secure, assess and clean up, thoughts turned to Canterbury’s cultural and physical heritage. NZMuseums lists 62 museums, galleries, archives and historic collections in Canterbury, from large institutions such as the Christchurch Art Gallery and Canterbury Museum, to small local sites often run by volunteers and community historical societies.

Christchurch Art Gallery in central Christchurch is housed in a relatively new building opened in 2003. Its extensive sculptural glazed façade came through unscathed and due to structural integrity and design, the building sustained no damage. In fact it was so secure that since 2003 the gallery has been the designated civil defense headquarters during emergency situations such as these. The permanent collection was unscathed and there were only two items in the Andrew Drummond exhibition which sustained minor damage. They were vulnerable free-standing pieces and both will be easily repaired by the artist. The gallery had emergency plans in place and commented that the storage and installation measures routinely undertaken and the drills performed worked well.

Civil Defence settles in to the Gallery. Photo courtesy of Christchurch Art Gallery

The Gallery Director, Jenny Harper told me how they made their collection quake-safe. “Our exhibitions team spends a lot of time and effort to ensure that things are as safe as they can be. The way works of art are attached to a wall or anchored to the floor is vital to the safety of these pieces. Our ceramics on display have custom – manufactured mounts or are ‘quake waxed’ in their cases. Crates are stacked and stored in a very particular way along with other gallery exhibition furniture. All of this takes a degree of time and effort by staff who are often busy. The professional standards to which they adhere have served us well during this emergency.”

The Gallery is now operating as usual and on track for the opening of the Ron Mueck exhibition on October 2nd.

Christchurch is distinguished by its heritage buildings, with many in the gothic revival style such as the Canterbury Museum’s beautiful stone building opened in 1870. This building had been earthquake strengthened in the 1990s and sustained no structural damage. Collections sustained minimal damage in the initial quake and continuing aftershocks but a full assessment is still being carried out by staff. Not all larger institutions escaped without harm though. At the University of Canterbury, Dr Alison Griffith, said staff were “heartbroken” at the extent of the damage to the Logie Collection of Greek and Roman antiquities.

Like the Canterbury Museum, it is common for historical collections to be held in or alongside heritage buildings. Sadly many of these did not fare well in the earthquake, although wooden structures seem to survive the best. Near Darfield, the epicentre of the earthquake and 40km west of Christchurch city, the Deans’ Homebush station homestead sustained extensive damage as did the museum housed in the old stables. Also in the area, the mud brick Coton’s Cottage, part of the Hororata museum complex, collapsed.

Kaiapoi Museum, located in an 1890 brick Courthouse building was so damaged, it had to be demolished. Waimakariri Mayor Ron Keating said fortunately all the exhibits were saved after contractors put in safety props so staff could get access. Keating said the fault-line ran directly under the museum.

A more positive story came from Akaroa Museum. On Banks Peninsula to the east of Christchurch and so further from the epicentre, the museum is mainly housed in a building described by the inspecting engineer as “built like a bomb shelter” but also includes three heritage structures. The weatherboard 1840s Langlois-Eteveneaux cottage came through beautifully, except for its chimney, which cracked at the base but remained upright.  The 1850s custom house which is also looked after by the museum has a timber frame and weatherboard cladding, but has earth infill to interior walls, finished with a plaster coat.  Much of the plaster is now lying on the floor, and will need repair.

Director of the Museum, Lynda Wallace related some interesting points about the quake. “We lost only 14 small objects from stores and exhibition spaces. In our small object store particularly, it was very obvious that the mobile carriages provided a safer place for collections than fixed shelving.  Our only losses in this store were from the fixed shelving at one end, while the many objects stored on the mobiles had not shifted.  We can only assume that the mobiles were moving on their tracks, absorbing some of the energy of the quake.  In our archives store, also mobile units, not a single box or book fell.”

It says a lot about people’s dedication and passion for these collections that they left their own homes and families to assess damage, secure things and in many cases rescue items in difficult conditions.

The New Zealand Geonet website describes the Christchurch quake as ‘unprecedented in our recorded history’ and it caught many unprepared. Nonetheless New Zealand is camped on a fault-line and this should be a consideration in the storage and presentation of national, region and local historical collections. Although much comes down to budget, and this is particularly of concern to smaller community-funded organisations, measures should be taken where possible to preserve heritage as safely as possible (support for this is available from National Services Te Paerangi) and lessons can be gained from the Canterbury experience.

(Many thanks to Jenny Harper and Neil Semple of Christchurch Art Gallery and Lynda Wallace from Akaroa Museum for their assistance in preparing this post)

Image: Civil Defence settles into the Gallery. Photo courtesy of Christchurch Art Gallery

Pauline Dawson is an essayist, blogger and arts writer from Dunedin. She has written essays for several art catalogues, and her creative non-fiction work had been published in JAAM literary journal.

Twitter @artandmylife