Ashburton Museum through the years

The Ashburton Museum has come a long way since the Ashburton Historical Society first met on 30 October 1958.

Individuals with a mutual interest in this district’s history came together with a common goal: to preserve and display materials that were deemed important to Ashburton’s past. 63 years and several Museum buildings later, the Ashburton Museum and Historical Society is still going strong, supporting the Museum and its staff which has been a department of Council since 2014.

In 2021, the Ashburton Art Gallery became a Council facility and merged with the Museum. This has already proven to have been a very positive change for the organisation, and there is great potential to attract new audiences to exhibitions and programmes.

Things weren’t always so prosperous however. The task of preserving and displaying our district’s history was once a very daunting task, and the Society’s collection didn’t even have a permanent home in the beginning.

Early days

In 1960, Librarian Thelma McArtney joined the Society’s committee and expressed the importance of collecting historical photographs, and the need to photograph buildings about to be demolished. From then on, the Ashburton Historical Society started collecting items of significance including photographs, which were stored in various sites around town.

The Museum’s first proper premises, Pioneer Hall on Havelock Street. The building is now being incorporated into the new Civic Centre and Library building. (Archive reference 02.1982.0530)

After six years and a lot of hard work, as well as much generosity from the community, a very successful display of local history was held in the Balmoral Hall. A kind offer by the Ashburton Borough Council secured the Society a permanent premises, this being a small brick building which was the former County Engineer’s office. This building came to be known as Pioneer Hall.

Much alteration and repair was necessary before it was possible for the Society to display and store their accumulated historical materials. Several donors supplied items such as carpeting, curtains, chairs, a heater and a second-hand vacuum cleaner. By May 1972, the rooms were opened to the public every Friday evening and every afternoon except Saturday. Local organisations such as the Country Women’s Institute were asked to help staff the new museum. The following year, the group became an incorporated society.

Edwardian/Victorian dining room display, from when the Museum was situated in the old Technical High School. (Archive reference 03.1988.0140c)

According to the Guardian, the initial displays included domestic equipment from roughly 1850-1880, information about the Wakefield family, a collection of archives and photographs including Ashburton Road Board records and a selection of local books by district authors from the Ashburton Public Library.

Shifting about

In 1978, the Society was offered a portion of the old Ashburton Technical High School building. This provided more space for displays, but once again the Society had to undergo an arduous refurbishment and set-up process. The new Museum rooms were opened by Canterbury Museum director Roger Duff that same year.

You wouldn’t see this today… kids being allowed to touch Museum collection objects! These two young boys can be seen getting to grips with the old Mayfield telephone exchange switchboard, which is still held by the Ashburton Museum to this day. (Archive reference 02.1983.0363a)

The extra space was appreciated, but the ATHS building was far from adequate for the long-term storage of the Society’s collections. Regardless, it was during this period that the Museum’s first paid curator was appointed: Mrs M E Kenny. She was employed for four hours per week. By 1987, this had risen to six hours of paid work per week.  When Rita Wright took the reins at the Museum, she began the mammoth task of cataloguing the entirety of the Historical Society’s collection. A very industrious committee did much of the voluntary work.

The Ashburton Museum, when it was housed in the old Technical High School on Cameron Street. (Archive reference 05.2009.0027d)

When the Museum shifted into the old County Council building at Baring Square East, the position of curator became a full-time job. After moving again and setting it all up, the Society were thrilled when this new Art Gallery and Museum complex was opened on 16 September 1995. Local MP (and later New Zealand’s first female Prime Minister) Jenny Shipley and Deputy Mayor Joy Harris opened the building. At this time, the Society changed its name to the Ashburton Museum and Historical Society.

Ashburton Art Gallery and Museum in 1999, previously the Ashburton County Council building. (Photo reference 05.2013.1229.)

Both the Art Gallery and the Museum thrived at these premises, but eventually it was necessary for a purpose-built facility to be erected. This was so that the Gallery and Museum staff could provide the best care possible for our collections, and have increased space and flexibility for exhibitions.

The present Ashburton Art Gallery and Museum building.

To really appreciate how far the Ashburton Museum has come, you need only check out the photos on this page; they really speak for themselves!

By Connor Lysaght

Unless otherwise stated, photographs and research materials on this page are owned by the Ashburton Museum & Historical Society Inc. This post was modified for this blog and was originally published in the Ashburton Guardian, 22 January 2022.


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