If you want to walk in the footsteps of the past, then the far ends of the country are good places to start. The far north has an extraordinarily varied number of historic locations, from the earliest surviving European house to the grounds where the Treaty of Waitangi was first signed; and the deep south was the location of early European whaling and sealing ventures and of hugely important early interaction with Māori.
Such thoughts occurred to me last weekend when I was privileged to attend the second Southland Heritage Forum in Invercargill, which was held in the rather grand Southland Masonic Centre. Even before reaching the forum it was wonderful to be a historian exploring a place where grand Victorian buildings and ornate memorials abound – there is history at every turn.
The forum was the initiative of Heritage South, which was established after an earlier forum, held two years ago, that brought together many people from throughout the province who are passionate about protecting and developing the evidences, in stone and in memory, of the past. The definition of heritage that grew out of that initial meeting is worth quoting: ‘Heritage means those things inherited from the past, that we wish to pass on to future generations and which define the culture and character of the south, its communities and people.’ I love the way this definition locates heritage as central to local identity. I am impressed, too, by their wide understanding of heritage – from physical objects and places to memories and traditions, from Invercargill’s wonderful Civic Theatre to Gore’s ‘rolling r’. The forum recognised this breadth by highlighting especially the district’s heritage foods – will I ever forget the oyster soup at the Heritage Dinner on Saturday night?
Driven by a group of energetic women, especially Cathy Macfie, Rebecca Amundsen and chairperson Rachel Egerton, the Heritage South has achieved a lot over the last two years:
- 12 newsletters
- four informal gatherings at the Thornbury Vintage Machinery Museum, the Hokonui Pioneer Village, the Waikaia ‘Switzers’ Museum, and Te Hikoi Museum in Riverton
- a Heritage Month in March 2013, with another projected for March 2015
- continued development of the Southland Oral History Project.
Then there was the weekend’s forum. It began with an evening on the First World War. Between songs and skits recreating scenes from the Great War, provided by the Southern Institute of Technology, and (of course) a stop for Anzac biscuits, there were talks on the war, with Aaron Fox discussing Southland’s contribution, large in numbers, to that conflict. Over the next two days there was a refreshing mix of keynote speakers, panel presentations and workshops. Jane Leggett gave a brilliant survey of some of the conflicts and choices that heritage advocates had to confront, and there were some fascinating short talks. I enjoyed Graye Shattky’s description of the work of the neighbouring Central Otago Heritage Trust, Jim Geddes’s impressive account of the success of the Hokonui Moonshiners’ Festival, and Win Clark’s pertinent engineering tips on how to preserve old masonry buildings.
Lying behind the discussions was a larger issue. Heritage South is now tasked with developing a heritage strategy for Southland. It is clear that if heritage is to flourish, then it cannot simply be a matter of talking to the converted. There is a need to attract new audiences, to make heritage pay, to align it with tourist goals and to find ways of using the region’s heritage assets to attract people to the deep south. What is it that would get people to leave Auckland and fly south to explore history? Was it vintage machinery, was it a Burt Munro trail, was it whaling and sealing sites, was it Invercargill’s Victorian buildings, was it the early Māori–Pākehā encounters, was it flax-milling or was it whisky?
The group pondered a catchy slogan – several humorous suggestions were offered: ’It’s swede as’, ‘Of gorse its Southland’, ‘Southland for slow tourists’ and, with Hokonui in mind, ‘The spirit of Southland’. Certainly the Southland Museum provides no answers. It has magnificent objects, but its two signature exhibitions – on tuatara and the Sub-antarctic Islands (much as I find them fascinating) – hardly awaken interest in other attractions just outside the door.
The problem is for Southlanders to solve and, given the energy and creativity of those behind Heritage South, I am certain they will indeed evolve a strategy. So watch this space – and thank you Invercargill for hosting me so warmly on a cold winter weekend.
Click to read a post about the same forum by David Butts, Manager, Heritage Operations at Manatū Taonga – the Ministry for Culture and Heritage.