24 September 2004 Whose Canterbury Museum is this Anyway? Opinion Piece by Roy Montgomery
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Don't get me wrong. I can appreciate a good Ben Mountfort design as well as anyone; well, anyone with a tertiary education, an interest in historic places, or some connection to the Canterbury "Pilgrims" (I can only lay claim to the first two attributes I'm afraid). Indeed, I'm very grateful that we have managed to preserve so many Mountfort designs within the Canterbury region. If only we could say the same for other Victorian-era architects such as Samuel Farr and Frederick Strouts. However, as someone who has a role in teaching heritage conservation at a tertiary institution and who feels morally bound to alert students to the political and ideological dimensions of what David Lowenthal has termed the "Heritage Crusade" I must say I feel rather disconcerted by some of the claims and assumptions being made about the Canterbury Museum revitalisation project and the apparent threat this project poses to civic heritage.
Although the name Mountfort and those of other architects seem to dominate the argument about what to do with Canterbury Museum the fact is that the museum was not founded by B.W. Mountfort nor indeed by another mid-Victorian English Gentleman. I doubt whether Julius von Haast, the actual founder of the museum, born and educated in Bonn, Germany, had a pre-existing interest in the Gothic Revival style when he arrived in Canterbury in 1860. No doubt he was quickly persuaded of the charms and suitability of this style for a state-of-the-art natural history museum of the 1870s but he was probably more concerned with what the internal space was like for housing specimens. At worst, von Haast, while perhaps dreaming privately of some baroque or Bavarian style castle, would have been shrewd enough to go with the provincial flow of the time, and let an experienced provincial architect weave his magic spell. I think that if von Haast was here with us today he would be rather distressed to see that almost all of the debate revolves around the Rolleston Avenue exterior, the harmony of the rooflines, and whether or not Mountfort's great legacy will be vandalised.
It seems to me that something else is going on here. It seems to me that a relatively narrow and elitist view of heritage is being used under the guise of the civic interest. One could argue that crusading for the "authentic" Gothic Revival character of Rolleston Avenue serves only a very small coterie of art historians and the well-to-do in the neighbourhood. Of course, this architectural style, in more than a single specimen form, gives the city its Victorian flavour, but it is very unlikely that tourists and the citizens of Canterbury who live outside the "heritage mile" are going to pull up to the Canterbury Museum in 2007, pause, and say "Hang on! I smell a rat. This is not an authentic period museum building. We must not cross this threshold. We must desist and instead go and spread the word about the wanton destruction and debasement of fine Victorian architectural design in this now very faux indeed English city." I don't think so. I suspect that the vast majority of visitors will think a pretty fine modernisation job will have been done and they will appreciate the retention of the old amidst the new. Yet you'd think that the place was being demolished completely judging by the furore.
What is equally perturbing is the degree to which a fixation on this type of heritage debate deflects attention from other, perhaps more humble heritage issues. What about 20th century civic architecture in Christchurch? Who has ever heard of the architectural firm England Brothers, let alone Edward England, yet almost everyone who has grown up in Christchurch during the last century will have made regular use of the department store buildings designed by the younger England. In the last twelve months two of his major works have been lost, the most notable being the Hallenstein's building on the corner of Cashel Mall and High Street. What of the Modernist buildings in the city? Personally, I worry more about the fate of the Government Life Building (1964) in Cathedral Square than I do about the facade treatment of Canterbury Museum. What about the single-income housing heritage of the city? What about the corner dairy, the very first supermarkets, notable brothels, school dental clinics, Marae buildings, Sunday Schools (we have enough church buildings), fire stations, hairdressing salons, and "Chinese" greengrocers? This may well reflect my own bias and cultural immersion, I am after all, a baby-boomer, but it serves to show that having a Victorian theme park identity imposed on the city may not reflect a majority view. If one starts considering heritage in multi-cultural terms, something the Christchurch City Council seems keen to embrace, then I think that much of the time spent arguing about the violation of the Mountfort estate would be better spent in preserving the smaller but more diverse heritage of the city, a heritage lived by the vast majority of the city's inhabitants.
I think it is important to acknowledge that large civic buildings, whether public or private, and whatever their original function, are invariably expressions of the politics of any given period, and whenever changes are proposed in such spaces the arguments made are usually territory claims of some sort. In this case, Canterbury Museum's Rolleston Avenue exterior, the ancillary arguments notwithstanding, is presented by some as inviolable cultural territory, yet the arguments really revolve around aesthetic concerns.
Proposing a new, separate museum somewhere within the "cultural precinct" – I wasn't aware that the culture of Christchurch was confined to a precinct. Where is that exactly? – seems to me something of a cop-out. That seems to me to say "Let's preserve the 'best' (read Victorian) heritage in the premium location (read Rolleston Avenue) and the rest can sort itself out off-site." I think the more responsible and forward-thinking approach is to take an integrated approach and work within current parameters, creating a dynamic, multi-cultural space, one that acknowledges that societies and their museums are not static communities and objects. I don't think von Haast, nor Mountfort for that matter, would have envisaged the Canterbury Museum as a museum piece of the future.
Roy Montgomery, Lecturer, Environmental Management and Design, Lincoln University, Canterbury, New Zealand