Writing 600 words on ‘why we need a museum’ seems a rather strange thing to be doing only days before the doors are due to open at the new MTG Hawke’s Bay. This process seems to belong to the other end of things; the beginning, when no one else (well perhaps just a few) believed that a strong and vital museum was a good idea, let alone the cultural lifeblood of the city and the region in which it sits.
So there it is, my argument – that a strong museum (theatre and art gallery) is a key indication of the vitality of the region in which it sits. It is the place from which we as a community and culture can measure our progress, and the place others will collect in order to examine our achievements and our failures.
This in a nutshell is why we need museums and indeed art galleries. Yet some are, I hope, only now realizing this. The delay, in part, is because they have only recently encountered the exterior of the new MTG Hawke’s Bay building and realized its potential and that it makes them feel rather good about the place in which they live.
I write those lines knowing that, following this another writer has taken up the exploration of some of the Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust collection’s finest holdings. This is a glimpse of museum content and the visuals always win out in the argument for why museums matter. No one really takes the ‘community treasures’ proposition seriously until you put items, rather than figures, in front of them. Museums are a case in point – where balance sheets can never be a true expression of value. It is through the display of its collection that the concept of a museum really comes to life.
Our collection – that of the Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust – is one of the region’s largest publically owned assets. The collection is owned by the people of Hawke’s Bay, governed on their behalf by a Trust. The collection has been built over 150 years, through gifts, bequests, loans and deposits from all types of New Zealanders who, in a myriad of different ways, have felt a connection to Hawke’s Bay and who have decided to deposit their treasures with us for the benefit of all.
Over the years that tradition of giving has built into not only one of the largest, but also one of the most admired and respected collections in the country. Where MTG excels is the way in which we’ve learnt to make the collection work for us. We see the collection as a way of bringing together endless expressions of wonder, aimed at both locals and visiting audiences.
Right now, as MTG reaches completion, it is a good time to recall that the new building was always promoted as an opportunity to create an exterior package that expressed the wealth that lay within.
If a museum celebrates all that a place can do – affirming our collective beliefs and acknowledging our collective achievements – then an art gallery can be seen as a place of collective creativity.
Art galleries create spaces accepting of new thinking, or at least with the willingness to engage with complex, challenging or abstract ideas. This is a space that illustrates to the country (and to the world) that it can handle ideas, creativity and innovation at the highest level. These are attributes that move outside of the sphere of creative production; qualities that attract business, investment and tourist attention. Art galleries can speak of the past, present and future, and of the possibilities of a place.
That MTG Hawke’s Bay not only brings museum and art gallery together in the same space, but also incorporates a theatre – an iconic space in its own right that brings its own vitality. This trifecta makes the MTG project unique, not only in this region but anywhere in New Zealand – an innovation of which Hawke’s Bay should be immensely proud.