So many museums: Corwar Gatekeeper’s Lodge, Ashburton

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Small museums a great way to learn more about the rich heritage that people share, and a good reminder of how important museums are to our communities. After all, they only exist because they are so popular.

There are 13 museums in the Ashburton District – including 12 heritage museums and one art gallery. All are open to the public.

It’s easy to forget that art galleries are also museums – yet they exhibit, interpret, collect and share, and follow international museum conventions too. This is why many art galleries are called art museums, especially internationally.

The number of museums locally seems unusually high for the size of the Ashburton District, and much greater than neighbouring regions get to enjoy. If we need any proof that our heritage is as significant and valued as well-known neighbours, such as Timaru and Oamaru with their heritage streetscapes, our museums are the evidence.

One kind of museum that is sometimes forgotten are wharenui (Maori meeting houses). Many consider these to be New Zealand’s first museums – community places that share knowledge, treasure heritage and are interested in the past, present and future of their communities. Of course, wharenui also do much more than this. In many ways they are model for museums today.

Many interests

Local museums cover a huge variety of interests.

From the collection largely contained in just one room at the Foothills Museum in Mount Somers; to the huge railway warehouses needed for the train and fixed engines at the Plains Museum in Tinwald or the aircraft hangars needed to house the planes at Ashburton Aviation Museum.

From the Lynn Woodworking Museum’s collection of wood turning and hand tools, reputed to be the best in the world, that regularly welcomes international specialists who travel especially to see their collections. To the Ashburton Fire Museum that tells a very local story, with plans in place to expand their facilities that house fire equipment right back to the first 1874 fire brigade and the famous fire appliance, Pride of Ashburton.

From the big boys toys of fire engines and farm machinery, to tiny turned wooden objects or mineral samples, there really is something for everyone in these heritage and art collections.

Yet at Corwar Gatekeeper’s Lodge near Barhill, everything is housed in one tiny cottage.

Corwar Gatekeeper’s Lodge

Corwar Lodge is an interesting kind of museum – its more house museum than any other type. As a house museum, the building and surrounds are an important part of the collection, and the objects inside are all on display to give a sense of what the cottage would have been like during its past. Together, inside and out combine to help us interpret the past.

The cottage is a Category A listed building under the Ashburton District Plan, meaning its significance is recognised as having regional significance, with restrictions that govern its preservation.

Corwar Lodge is a small building, just 46sqm, its walls constructed of concrete. It was built in the 1870s for John Cathcart Wason, the owner of Corwar Estate and creator of the beautiful, and now historic, Barrhill Village.

The Lodge was built as a gatehouse for Corwar Homestead, the large mansion that Wason had built to overlook the Rakaia River. This was the formal entrance. Another entrance for workmen was positioned further along the road. It was the Gatekeeper’s job to open the main gates for people arriving at the property, and to direct them up to the main house.

The kitchen-living room of the tiny house is the first room entered. It has a pantry beyond, and to the right, two connected bedrooms. These are arranged so that the fireplace for cooking and heating is central. Apparently its heat warmed through the thick concrete walls and helped keep an even temperature year round.

Worth a visit

Many families lived in these four tiny rooms. With the furniture, embroideries, textiles, pots, pans, pictures and household fittings in place, it becomes possible to imagine how a family could live here. Its a perfect place for peeking through the tiny windows from outside and imagining the stories told around the fire. This is how most people get to experience Corwar Gatekeeper’s Lodge. It’s well worth a drive in the country, along with a stop at Barrhill Village, just along the road, to help imagine the wider story.



  1. Corwar Gatekeeper’s Lodge today – worth a visit. ©Ashburton Museum.
  2. An undated photograph of Corwar Gatekeeper’s Lodge when occupied, on display inside the house museum. ©Ashburton Museum.
  3. Interior view of a bedroom in the cottage. ©Ashburton Museum.
  4. A peek out through the windows of Corwar Gatekeeper’s Lodge. ©Ashburton Museum.

Author: Tanya Zoe Robinson


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