Heritage buildings need 'significant' help - historians

4:29 pm on 6 June 2021

Blenheim's high-profile museum lets in ants, reaches "very hot" temperatures, and could be a "death trap" in a quake.

Marlborough Heritage Trust trustee Cathie Bell

Marlborough Heritage Trust trustee Cathie Bell has asked the Marlborough District Council to give more thought to heritage. Photo: LDR / Chloe Ranford

It isn't the only heritage building nearing "the last quarter of its life".

Several heritage buildings across the region needed "significant replacement or renovation", Marlborough Heritage Trust trustee Cathie Bell told the Marlborough District Council at its long-term plan hearings last week.

But not a dollar had been put towards building or upgrading heritage assets in the council's long-term plan, which prioritised and allocated council spending for the next decade.

"Heritage is more than dead things on a shelf in dusty, old buildings. To some people, the Edwin Fox is a hull and some bits of old timber. But to me, it's a talisman of how my great-great-grandfather set out to raise a family in New Zealand."

According to the trust's submission, the walls of the Marlborough Museum were a fire risk, its doors let in ants, and its roof had leaked since "day one", 31 years ago.

The rear half of the building's floor had also not been reinforced with steel, as was planned, which "could be a death trap for staff or result in damage to the collections".

Bell said the dock that housed the Edwin Fox, one of the world's oldest ships, also had "serious corrosion issues".

"We, as a trust, are a partnership between the heritage organisations in the region and the council, but at the moment we feel the council is not really engaged with us."

Two of the trust's eight trustee positions were set aside for council representatives under a partnership agreement, yet the positions had remained empty for almost three years.

The trust had tried to fill the vacancies multiple times but had seen little interest. Bell thought some council staff were overloaded, working "the equivalent of three full-time jobs".

"For them, the trust is not high on the agenda ... but for us, those positions are really important and affect our ability to operate. They affect our banking covenants, for example."

Former Marlborough Historical Society president Paul Davidson submitted in support of the trust later that day, saying heritage had long been "neglected" by the council.

The Marlborough Museum had not been expanded since it opened three decades ago, with staff constantly trying to fit "two quarts of history into one pint of space", Davidson said.

He had used the annual plan process in the past to ask the council to put the museum's main exhibitions into the new Blenheim Library and Art Gallery, freeing up most of the museum's display space. The council did not support him.

"I just don't think it's good enough. We only have to look over the hill to see that operating expenses for the Nelson [Provincial] Museum are 10 times what is given to the Marlborough one, and they're not 10 times bigger than us."

Marlborough Mayor John Leggett said the issues raised by the trust were "concerning to hear" and would be dealt with.

When a councillor questioned if some of the trust's price estimates were inconsistent, trust chief executive Steve Austin said the council was "in danger of missing the point".

"I think the bigger picture is what we're here for today."

Councillor Francis Maher said the council owed it to the trustees to return the relationship to a level playing field. He was a former trust chairman and could not vote on the issue during deliberations this week due to a conflict of interest.

"Councillors do have to be aware this is one organisation that burns people out a lot quicker than most," Maher said.

Councillor Mark Peters said he was concerned that the Marlborough Heritage Trust was missing two of its trustees.

Bell said the trust was preparing to lose $10,000 a year from the council when its partnership agreement expired at the end of June. She said the council planned to audit the trust to see if it was "value for money" before revisiting their agreement.

"We're keen to have that happen as soon as possible, so we can clear any blockages in the trust's operations," Bell said.

The trust could request funding from the Ministry for Culture and Heritage but was holding off until a feasibility study into a heritage and environment centre in Picton was completed.

The study was successfully pitched by the Picton Smart and Connected group last year. If successful, it could see changes to the Edwin Fox Museum and the Picton Museum.

Long-term plan submissions were heard over three days in the council chambers last week, wrapping up on Thursday.

Each funding request the council approved would up this year's rates increase, set to be the largest in more than a decade, at 5.8 percent. This year's final rates increase would be set on 30 June, when the long-term plan was adopted.

Name suggested for new library

Mary Ann Muller, a Nelson woman who wrote articles for Nelson's influential Examiner Newspaper under a pseudonym because her husband did not approve

Mary Ann Muller. Photo: Alexander Turnbull Library / Reference: 1/2-021456

New Zealand's pioneer suffragist's name has been put forward for a new library and art gallery in Blenheim.

Mary Ann Muller was a 19th-century suffragist who published articles calling for women to be emancipated from men under the pseudonym Femmina.

Historians wanting to honour her legacy have asked for all of a part of a new library in Blenheim to be named after Muller.

"There has been a lot of support to mark her with a public memorial, and the Marlborough Heritage Trust asks that the council do this at the new library, given her historical and literary significance," trustee Cathie Bell last week said.

The new $20 million library and art gallery, mostly funded through the government's 'shovel ready' initiative, was due to be completed by next year - 13 years after it was mooted.

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