Astonishing heritage

When senior museum consultant Rodney Wilson was commissioned by the Dunedin City Council to help review management structures at the city's museums and the Dunedin Public Art Gallery, he went off at a rather large tangent.

He began his report by saying he was going beyond his brief to describe the context in which the museums are found.

He called this Dunedin's special heritage.

Clearly, Dr Wilson, a former director of the Auckland Museum, is astounded by the "built environment", and he thinks the people of Dunedin should be too.

While they were aware of the beauty of their city and its exceptional architecture, as with many things that are commonplace and familiar, they were not aware of "the uniqueness and very special nature of their city".

Its architecture was "astonishingly well-preserved" and Dunedin was without parallel through Australia and New Zealand.

Christchurch, Wellington and Auckland were but "faint shadows" on historical urban environment.

Melbourne was pretty good and Bendigo's noteworthy, but as Dr Wilson raved "nowhere!" was so well-preserved.

"Dunedin's architecture is a style book - illustrated with superb examples - of public, ecclesiastical, industrial, commercial and domestic architecture from early Victorian time to the fine Art Deco buildings of early modernism."

Quito, Ecuador, was a world heritage site as the best preserved example of Spanish colonial architecture in the Americas and "Dunedin's status" was equivalent.

Dr Wilson goes to on urge the council to explore with Government special status for Dunedin as a national heritage city, along with consideration on how building owners can be encouraged and supported.

What a good idea.

Imagine the fillip for the morale of those who live in the city.

Pride in the beauty and the buildings endures while enthusiasm for rugby teams rises and falls on the rankings.

Imagine, too, the extra grunt behind Dunedin's important tourism industry, especially for visitors from the rest of New Zealand and from Australia.

Those viewing Dunedin's many marvels are much more likely to appreciate them when told how just how special they are because that is how human nature works. Dunedin would have a solid "point of difference" to draw tourists on route to Queenstown or Milford Sound.

Dr Wilson goes so far as to propose that the city should first and foremost sell itself as a heritage city, ahead of other marketing.

Perhaps, though, penguins and albatrosses have a broad appeal that stone will struggle to match.

And while Dunedin is the premier heritage city of the South Pacific and has glorious examples of Victorian and post Victorian buildings and precincts, it is hard to imagine it ever having the pulling power of centuries-old heritage like Prague, Bath, Istanbul or Quito for that matter.

The obvious question is: What, if anything, is the city doing about special status for Dunedin? The "confidential" report, just released under the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act, was finished in May last year.

Has the council been too busy with all its projects and all its spending to give this matter the consideration it deserves? Is the idea flawed? Disturbingly, Dr Wilson reports interviews with a long list of relevant people but adds efforts to secure an interview with Tourism Dunedin were not successful.

There might be very good reasons for that, but Dunedin, if it is to get appropriate heritage recognition, needs strong advocacy across several fronts.

Dr Wilson links the city's various museums, including the art gallery, with the extraordinary legacy of Dunedin as the former financial and industrial centre of New Zealand.

They benefited from the tradition of philanthropy and their quality and depth vastly outweighed what was found in other cities of similar size. They, too, can be part of the Dunedin package as national heritage city - or however else the unique status is tagged.

Dunedin residents themselves should regularly remind themselves that they are living in history, that they are surrounded by a staggering architectural range and quality.

At the same time, Dunedin needs a prestigious official stamp recognising its special heritage.

What a difference that would make to the perceptions of locals and visitors. Their eyes would be opened to the treasures before them.


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