Hawke’s Bay Museum and Art Gallery has been closed to the public for what seems a very long time. However, even the casual observer can now understand why, as activity onsite increases daily and the true scale of the project becomes more evident.

Less obvious is the work that continues offsite, where museum staff and volunteers are preparing for reopening and the launch of the new facility. On top of such details as packing, moving and unpacking over 100,000 collection items, the team is now creating eight new exhibitions across the fifteen exhibition spaces, all of which are required to open on the same day.

This redevelopment, on the books for more than twenty years, is powered by both a vision for a museum and art gallery that is more representative of the cultural wealth of the region, but also by a pragmatic reality. The Museum holds a very fine collection, owned by the people of Hawke’s Bay and governed by the Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust, but a collection that had outgrown its home. Those who came behind the scenes never failed to remark on the working conditions and the overcrowded facilities in which the collection lived and staff worked.

Now 45 weeks into an 85 week project, there have been a few delays. None of which are expected to affect re-opening; all of which will deliver major long term benefits. In particular, the 1936 Louis Hay-designed museum and gallery will now be one of the few Art Deco buildings in Napier to benefit from what we’ve learnt from the Christchurch earthquake – it is being re-strengthened according to the latest recommendations. While initially invasive, this work will be all but invisible once the refurbishment is completed.

Although the attention of passers-by focuses on the new wing, it is the restoration work on the Louis Hay building that promises to be something of a revelation to those that know the building. The restoration of the old entranceway – the dramatic steps were unceremoniously removed for a loading dock in the 1970s – gives a hint of the grandeur to be revealed. The old oak doors, used for many years in the Century Theatre, will once again open into a vaulted entrance which leads into the Octagon Gallery.

This entrance will be used by those visiting the Regional Archive, home to an extensive collection of photographs, manuscripts, diaries, letters and other printed materials. While these resources are already heavily used by researchers and students, the new Regional Archive facility is being expanded to include specialist archive storage areas, a public reading room and two dedicated exhibition galleries devoted to displaying the history of the region. Cataloguers are working away behind the scenes to deliver a greater understanding of what lurks in the collection and this work will be supported by a new online catalogue – funded in part by Lotteries New Zealand – to ensure a greater degree of public access than ever before.

Many of these newly researched holdings will be included in our opening regional history exhibitions. We have always had difficulty in telling the Hawke’s Bay story, not in the least because the events of 1931 tend to overshadow. The new gallery spaces in the regional archive wing will allow us to tell historical stories either side of that date and thus give both locals and tourists greater access to the history of the region that surrounds them.

On the ground floor of the new wing, the entrance foyer and shop will greet visitors as they arrive through the Tennyson Street entrance. A new education suite just off the foyer will provide a purpose-built space at the heart of the new building for the over 10,000 students who visit the museum every year. The foyer will provide visitors with a new meeting place – while dramatic views from the first floor of the new building will give a new perspective on Marine Parade and what is in effect a new town square bordered by the Museum, the Memorial Arches and the open colonnade of the Masonic.

The 1931 Earthquake exhibition finds a new home in the basement floor of the new wing. This show will capitalise on the success of earlier earthquake exhibitions – while at the same time presenting a raft of new research that has been done using the records of the day. This exhibition will tell the human story of the Hawke’s Bay Earthquake.

New gallery spaces on the ground and first floors will allow for more of the collection to be exhibited, but also make it possible to bring in international touring exhibitions. The exhibition Treasures of the Han Dynasty from Xuzhou in China has already been announced and there will be others to come.
As it stands, visitor numbers to the museum were steadily climbing over the five year prior to closure. This was in a facility that many locals had simply forgotten and that some visitors couldn’t find. One thing is clear – on reopening, nobody will have to ask where the Museum and Art Gallery is … it will be the hottest destination in the region.

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