Otago's best kept secret exposed!

By Lynnaire Johnston of Word Wizard.

Tucked away in a two-horse town in East Otago is a museum that hasn’t featured on too many radars until recently. But that is all about to change…

The seaside resort of Waikouaiti, half an hour north of Dunedin, boasts a very special historic building. It is one of the few early banks that is still in use today, albeit not for banking. Instead it houses the Waikouaiti Coast Heritage Centre’s 9000 item collection of historic artefacts and memorabilia dating back to the days of the region’s first settlers.

Old Waikouaiti Museum building. Image courtesy of Waikouaiti Coast Heritage Centre.

Most people don’t know that Waikouaiti was intended to be the region’s principal city. Back during the gold rush era it was a hive of bustling activity as the town, then known as Hawksbury, was the gateway to Central Otago. However, the lack of a deep-water port saw Dunedin based further south and the town’s fortunes declined.

The bank was built during a period in which the main business district was moving away from the bay and onto the main road that runs between Dunedin and Palmerston. This prominent location is one of the reasons the Waikouaiti Coast Heritage Centre is now garnering interest from a number of quarters. One of those is the Historic Places Trust (HPT). Thanks to its distinctive architecture from the pencil of renowned Otago architect RA Lawson, its age (145 years), and its near-original condition, the HPT had already deemed the museum building worthy of a Grade 2 registration. This is now under review, and some time within the next 12 months it could be given New Zealand’s highest building honour – a Grade 1 listing. Such recognition would put the museum securely on the heritage map and see it receive the same prominence as the town’s two other Grade 1 buildings – Matanaka Farm and St John’s church.

Since it was built in 1867, the former Bank of New Zealand building has had only two significant occupants – the bank and more recently the museum. The Waikouaiti District Museum Society purchased the building from the BNZ in 1964 for the princely sum of one pound. It was rather dilapidated and required extensive repair before it could be opened as a museum, which it did two years later.

Since then it has been quietly but consistently receiving visitors and expanding its collection. That was until the current members of the Museum Society decided on a rather ambitious project. They realised that the museum’s many artefacts needed to be housed in a more appropriate environment with controlled temperature, light and moisture. The decision was made to build a new exhibition centre to complement the existing historic building, which would then be renovated and brought up to current building standards.

Planning for this is now underway with all the required consents obtained and a plan of the new building drawn up. Sited on vacant land behind the current museum, the new 400sqm building will house an exhibition gallery, collection storage, workshop, staff room and public research facilities. It will also take over the role of Visitor Information Centre, which is currently operating out of the existing building.

Artist's impression of the new Waikouaiti Coast Heritage Centre. Image courtesy of Waikouaiti Coast Heritage Centre.

Expected to cost in excess of $1m, fundraising is also well underway. A tireless fundraising committee has held several highly successful events including an historic hat show, an autumn garden fete and an auction. Coming up later in the year is a tour of historic homes and next Easter, the region’s first food festival – an ambitious undertaking in anyone’s book.

Once the new heritage centre building is complete, the existing building will be refurbished, returning it as closely as possible to its glory days. It will then be reopened to the public showing how life was lived in the 19th century. Many of the private rooms already house displays of furniture, clothing and implements from the early settler days of the region.

Another group following the redevelopment project closely is National Services Te Paerangi of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. National Services Te Paerangi has given the Waikouaiti Coast Heritage Centre a generous grant to assist it in relaying its plans to the wider community via a new website, a Facebook page, brochures and publicity for local fundraising events.

You can follow the Waikouaiti Coast Heritage Centre’s redevelopment progress on Facebook (search for Waikouaiti Coast Heritage Centre) or visit the website at www.wchc.org.nz.