The seductive power of other people’s lives is irresistible. Through art, architecture, literature and film, we become like sanctioned sleuths or respectable voyeurs, noting the décor, the personal possessions, the furniture, the different spaces that allow us to piece together the daily lives of those who live – or lived – there and to imagine, briefly, what it would be like to call this place home. Experiencing interior spaces and objects soaked in history, writes Sebastian Clarke, self-confessed house museum hound, “is like time-travel – magic”.

For house museums, that history is also culturally and geographically specific. In an increasingly homogenised western world in which we all follow the same trends, the same architecture, the same Netflix series, says Vivienne Stone, director of McCahon House in Titirangi, Auckland, house museums offer an experience “that you can’t get anywhere else”.

But house museums are notoriously difficult to categorise. At one end of the spectrum you have the artist’s studio or writer’s study that looks as if the occupant has just popped out for a cup of coffee. At the other end, you have a museological arrangement of prized items indicative of a particular time in a particular place, if not a particular owner. New Zealand does not have a long tradition of house museums compared with the US, Britain or Europe, but those that do exist illustrate the full gamut of objectives and curatorial approaches.

Olveston Historic Home in Dunedin is a prime example of an historic house museum showcasing fine art, furniture and artefacts befitting an upper-class merchant family in the early twentieth century. Built for local businessman, collector and philanthropist David Theomin, it was gifted to the city by the last member of the family in 1966 and now stands, like the rambling Gothic mansion Highwic in Auckland, as a record of wealthy colonial life in New Zealand.

Also in Auckland, the Pah Homestead is an elegant Italianate mansion designed by Edward and Thomas Mahoney in the late 1870s for politician and businessman James Williamson. Purchased by the Auckland City Council between 2000 and 2002, the restored homestead has a Heritage New Zealand Category 1 listing and is now home to the 9000-strong Wallace Arts Trust collection of contemporary New Zealand art.

Each of these examples uses architecture, landscape and, to varying degrees, artefacts to illustrate a particular period in New Zealand history. As Elizabeth Aitken Rose explains, literary house museums, too, serve as inadvertent catalysts “for broader reflections on New Zealand’s evolving social history, cultural identity and heritage values”; their focus, however, is inevitably pinned to the person who lived or worked there. Again, approaches to the thorny issue of authenticity differ widely. In her tour of four literary house museums in New Zealand, Rose argues that, though authenticity of site and contents may be important to a writer’s devotees, it is “inevitably contrived”, muddied and undermined by changing museological trends, building maintenance, exhibition curation, the use of simulacra and other mythologising tactics.

The results are variable. Visitors to the Frank Sargeson House on Auckland’s North Shore can see Sargeson’s papers, typewriter, gardening tools and a patchwork quilt made by friend and fellow writer Janet Frame in a welcoming, cordonless space that is more house than museum. The Katherine Mansfield House and Garden in Wellington, in contrast, are “magnificently restored examples of Victoriana” with only a limited amount of material evidence connecting the museum to the writer and her family. (The house has been redeveloped since Rose’s evaluation to showcase more evidence of the young Mansfield.)

The first Ravenscar House, Scarborough Hill. Photo by Gil Hanly
Completed in October 2021, Ravenscar House is a dramatic addition to Christchurch’s cultural precinct. Photo by Stephen Goodenough

In Christchurch, the Ngaio Marsh House, intermittent home for the queen of crime for 76 years, is a paean to Arts and Craft architecture and to Canterbury cultural life as enjoyed, and to a large extent driven, by Marsh. For Rose, the house feels “genuine … as if Ngaio had just stepped out to do some shopping”. The small house in Eden Street, Oamaru, where Janet Frame spent “12 frequently miserable but formative years”, has been refurbished as the place, according to the street signage, “where Janet Frame learned to love words”. Apart from the desk and typewriter, however, many of the artefacts were sourced elsewhere.

Unless locked up on the day they are left, house museums of all stripes are required to balance the impossible demand for authenticity with a more flexible approach to community involvement and curatorial interpretation. Increasingly, the strictly hands-off approach, typified by cordons and no-go areas, is being accused of destroying the sense of life and liveliness so central to a house museum’s reason for being.

“To be frozen in time,” writes Clarke, “is a curious fate for any place”. The most successful house museums, he argues, are those that maintain a changing programme of exhibitions and events involving artists, audiences and new curatorial approaches to interpretation. As he writes of Fairhill, the Melbourne home of antique dealer William Robert Johnston, with its annual programme of special exhibitions, lectures and workshops, “There is no time for dust to gather here.”

Clarke and Rose are not alone in their concerns. In 2013, Stephanie Meeks, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation in the US, used a keynote conference speech to express her anxieties about current approaches to house museum management. She quoted rising maintenance needs, shrinking municipal budgets, smaller donor bases, a younger generation put off by velvet ropes and doilies and cost overruns – “and no amount of creativity in the gift shop is likely to bridge that gap”.

In her description of Kettle’s Yard [four dilapidated nineteenth-century cottages converted into a home by British art collectors Jim and Helen Ede and later gifted, along with their collection of art, ceramics and furniture, to the University of Cambridge], Susan Wakefield echoed these thoughts. She admired the careful balance between the dynamic potential for change and the experience of time past, while acknowledging the “twin dangers confronting all house museums: preserve the past in aspic and lose vitality, or go for growth and change and lose the warmth and charm of experiencing the lives of others”.

Paul Dibble’s The Long Wait in the garden of the first Ravenscar House, Scarborough Hill. Photo from the Susan Wakefield collection.

The new Ravenscar House Museum in Christchurch, she insisted, will include temporary exhibitions, an active acquisitions programme and changing displays that will attract local visitors, tourists and senior students while also connecting to the museum, the art gallery and other regional artistic communities. As Bronwyn Labrum [former leader of curatorial special projects at Canterbury Museum] said, “People are interested in stories and this is an incredible story. It will make people think – it won’t be a sedate place to go and visit then have lunch in the gardens – it will be live and lively, facing the future while looking back to the past.”

Taken from Ravenscar House: A biography by Sally Blundell (Canterbury University Press, $60), which explores the story of Ravenscar House in Christchurch, a purpose-built house museum created by Jim and Susan Wakefield. After their house on Scarborough Hill was demolished following the Canterbury earthquakes, the couple commissioned a new house museum. It opened in 2021.

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