The redevelopment of what used to be called the Otago
Settlers Museum is undoubtedly a great success. But there are
concerning issues surrounding it which need some careful
Readers may remember I did not support the name change to
include ''Toitu''. At a practical level it obscures the path
to resources in publications using the old name. It was also
a public relations ''own goal'' because the opinion poll
conducted by the museum showed overwhelming opposition, which
was then blithely ignored.
It thus became an issue for the city council, decided on the
mayor's casting vote. It is an odd use of the casting vote,
which conventionally favours the status quo. In explanation
Mayor Dave Cull said the institution was now a new museum and
so a new name was appropriate.
With respect, it is not a new museum, being on the same site
and with the same collections, but an existing one expanded,
physically. But the change of name and other things suggest
it is changing its focus.
''Toitu'', the Maori word added to produce the new name can
mean ''inviolate'' or ''to be preserved'' or ''to be kept
pure'' and is also the name of a creek which used to reach
the harbour not far from the Cargill monument in what is the
centre of historic Dunedin. The name thus links the museum
specifically to the city and this is not an accident.
I was on a tour of the premises shortly before their opening
when director Linda Wigley addressed the group. When it came
to question time I asked if the museum was not losing its
focus on wider Otago. She acknowledged it was focusing more
on Dunedin and I asked why that was and if it was a good
thing. She said that as history museums had sprung up in
other parts of Otago, she thought her institution should
avoid poaching on their ground.
This has at best limited merit. As there is now a maritime
museum at Port Chalmers I would not expect the Otago Settlers
Museum to expand vigorously in that direction. Even so I
would not expect it to entirely neglect the subject which is
so important to Otago history, particularly as the museum has
Similarly, while Central Stories in Alexandra is concerned
with the gold rushes near there, I would not expect the
Dunedin institution to have nothing to show or tell on the
subject. Again, it has plenty of significant material in its
collection and it is an important aspect of Otago history.
The wider point is, really, that the Dunedin institution is
not in any sort of competition with the Alexandra one. The
Dunedin institution is here and is a window on the history of
Otago. If you minimise attention to the gold rushes, you are
not doing justice to the history or your audience.
I made some comments of this sort, and Ms Wigley replied that
there was always the Otago Museum anyway - to tell the wider
story, I suppose she meant.
It was perhaps a throwaway remark but there is a serious
misperception behind it. The ''Otago'' in the Otago Museum's
name is not a signal of its focus but of its ownership and
location. It was founded by the Otago Provincial Council to
be a window on the world for Otago. It is like the
''British'' in the British Museum.
Of course, its collections do cover Otago, covering its
natural and some human aspects, but most of them range much
further, which is exactly how it should be. We are a very
small country. More than most, we need to know about Asia,
Africa, the Americas and Europe, as also the wider Pacific.
It is hugely to Dunedin's advantage it has such an
encyclopedic museum, but some years ago that vision was
After the creation of Te Papa - a navel-gazing misconception
on a national scale - it was suggested the Otago Museum
should be renamed, and perhaps become ''The Museum of
Otago''. That would have entailed a loss of the wider vision
and would have been severely hampered anyway, because the
Otago Settlers Museum already had the most substantial
collection of human historical material.
That is to say, material from the time of written records
which starts with the first European contact. The Otago
Museum had the greatest collection of Otago prehistoric
material, and still does. But the only way it could realise
the new vision would be by taking over the Settlers. Which
some then wished to do.
It was a great folly and I, and others, pointed this out and
the idea then faded. Given the way our museum institutions
have developed in Dunedin it is better to build on what we
have got, as we wonderfully have with the settlers. But do
not abandon the wider vision.
Peter Entwisle is a Dunedin curator, historian and