Does Ashburton have history?

The team from Ashburton Museum are often out in the community, talking to schools, service and special interest groups about the work that we do. We welcome thousands of visitors to the Museum each year, who gain a sense of Ashburton’s heritage and unique identity.

The Museum collection is unusually large for a district the size of Ashburton – it’s one of the largest collections in the South Island, with an extraordinarily large photographic collection, containing six million photographic frames related to this District. Thousands of objects, archives, ephemera, maps, plans and more are housed along kilometers of shelving, with others out on exhibition.

We’ve also written this Heritage Page weekly since June 2011, covering literally hundreds of heritage stories based on items from the Museum collection and the many heritage stories to be discovered from throughout our District.


No history?

It’s therefore a real surprise to be out in the community and have people remark to us, that “Ashburton has no history”. It’s hard to get to the bottom of what these observers mean. Do they really think that there’s no local history, or is history so much a part of their daily lives that they don’t even realise it’s all around them?

Unusually, it’s the people with deep connections to the District that most often make this observation. Perhaps they feel that they know this place so very well, that it’s not ‘real’ history they are experiencing, but part of their familiar, interconnected and everyday life, lived in the present. It’s not like being a tourist, discovering new stories when out and about; at home, stories exist all around us. Or perhaps home is so familiar that they haven’t thought a lot about how it has changed, as history evolves slowly and tends to creep up unnoticed.

Living history

One of the best treasures of Ashburton must be the Ashburton Domain. It always looks great, and there’s always people out and about walking, training and playing sport, picnicking and socialising. Every day there’s something new to see, and a real sense of the seasons changing.

It’s also been described as a place of ‘living history’. As Domain users will have noticed, throughout the grounds, there are plaques and trees commemorating events that took place in Ashburton – centennials, memorials, important visitors or things that people felt important enough to acknowledge in a permanent way.

Cultural landscapes

Another way of thinking about history is through the idea of cultural landscapes. The way that the environment has been changed by people, and the way the landscapes we treasure impact on us.

These may be linked to an historic event, activity, or person, for example showing how people have overcome physical constraints to create opportunities – the interaction between people and land. Ashburton District has a perfect example of this, through the effect that irrigation has had on land, and subsequently, people.

Cultural landscapes can also play an active social role in contemporary society. The beauty of the local mountains and the way people orient their day to them are examples. How often do locals remark on how the mountains look each day, know what weather that may bring, gain an uplifting sense due to their beauty, or know which way they are driving because of the mountains?

A further type is an associative cultural landscape. These have value by virtue of religious, artistic or cultural associations – the meanings in the landscape rather than the specific material cultural evidence in it. This too is all around us, in street names and places, stories and histories. These aspects are particularly poignant locally, as a region that so many people have travelled through – from Maori wayfinding along rivers and by sight of Hine Paaka, to newly arrived Pakeha, seeking to cross the rivers.

Relational history

But perhaps the most important history is that made and found through people.

The local quirks, idioms or experiences that make a place unique, or distinctive.

It seems a local characteristic that Ashburton people orient themselves through things that have been or once were. For example, by giving directions to places by using the names of people or businesses who once lived or worked at points along the way as the common markers. Locals may not even realise they are doing it.

When locals say they are meeting at “Farmer’s Corner” they don’t mean the corner where the present day Farmers Department Store is, or a place where local farmers like to catch up – they mean the corner of East and Havelock Streets where a different business, the New Zealand Farmers Co-Op (no relation to the department store), once operated, many years ago.


Yes to history

It seems that in Ashburton, history is alive and well – it’s just that people often don’t spot it. It’s present in smaller physical things like memorials, plaques, street signs and landmarks; through huge spaces of landscapes; and through less tangible things like associations, names and relationships that people are familiar with. Perhaps discovering this is a bit like being a tourist – looking for the small, big and quirky ways that history is present locally. At least that’s a good way to start answering the question, with, “Yes, Ashburton has plenty of interesting history”.

By Tanya Zoe Robinson


  1. The changing cultural landscape of the Ashburton District. ©Ashburton Museum.
  2. A postcard showing swimming baths at the Ashburton Domain. ©Ashburton Museum.
  3. Gates at the Ashburton Domain commemorating the Coronation of Edward VII. ©Ashburton Museum.
  4. ‘Farmers Corner’ at the intersection of East and Havelock Streets. ©Ashburton Museum.

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