Project seen as preserving cultural heritage of town’s people

North Otago Early Settlers Association president Helen Stead looks at a photo of former...
North Otago Early Settlers Association president Helen Stead looks at a photo of former association president Robert Bruce Meek, part of the Portrait Project. Mr Meek was born in 1883 and died in 1959 while he was still president. PHOTO: JULES CHIN
"I will live in the past, the present and the future. The spirits of all three shall strive within me."

So said Charles Dickens in his book A Christmas Carol. That is also the philosophy adopted by the North Otago Early Settlers Association (NOESA) and its president, Helen Stead, but she added: "And we must protect it".

The dedication of the association to protect the past over the last decade has resulted in up to 180 portraits of individuals being prepared for public display at Whitestone City.

Mrs Stead said the portraits served a dual purpose. She foresaw them attracting people to the district who came seeking family history, and they also preserved the cultural heritage of the people of the town for future generations to see and read about.

"We are all keen that these portraits have a happy home in Whitestone City, where they can be seen at any time the building is open. But there’s no good putting up pretty pictures unless you’ve got the story behind them."

The information they had gathered told the stories of the 180 lives caught on freeze-frame.

"We’re talking about the place, the people and protecting both of them and promoting your place. That is my philosophy, if you like."

The Portrait Project has been a decades-long campaign by Mrs Stead and NOESA committee members, who, along with other people interested in history or heritage, continue to research information about the people featured in the photographs.

But it has not all been plain sailing for the association.

A one-vote majority at the group’s 2015 annual meeting was all that kept it alive. That moment of crisis came at a time when the group had yet to begin its mission to "deframe, copy and reframe" the portraits.

Mrs Stead said after the vote in 2015, the group "focused" on conserving the heritage of the 85-year-old association and its prized portraits, and moved the project from being a "problem to a possibility".

She said before her role as president, Kathleen Stringer, from the Waitaki Museum and Archive, and former NOESA president Ralph Sherwood spent time giving each photo a number.

She said the numbers were helpful in matching things up during this process.

"As part of the process, the original frames were tidied up."

Now the project had been completed, NOESA would be "winding up" as an incorporated society and would hold two special general meetings, the first on July 18. Mrs Stead wanted to thank all of those who had been involved.

A date is yet to be set for the official "handing over" of the Portrait Project.