The call to reopen Tiritiri Matangi Island's lighthouse to visitors is surely a minor concern amid larger stories of suffering and deprivation. Yet perhaps we might pause to reflect on the significance of this and other landmarks around the coast.

Since the 1860s Tiri's light has winked across the Hauraki Gulf, having been assembled as a cast-iron kitset from England.

Auckland's closest lighthouse was open to the public for 130 years until the Maritime Safety Authority closed it in 1995.

Amid the sweeping reforms of the 1980s, Tiritiri and other lighthouses were demanned, after a number of distinguished lighthouse-keepers and their families had guarded the coast. Tiritiri Matangi's extraordinary reinvention as a wildlife sanctuary has ensured the maintenance of a human presence, while most other lighthouse locations remain lonely and abandoned outposts.

Just as extraordinary, perhaps, is that the founding Department of Conservation ranger, Ray Walter, was also the last lighthouse-keeper. As regular weekend volunteers, a favourite ploy of ours has been to invite him to recount yarns from his keeper days.

The attentiveness of adults and children alike has spoken of the universal fascination with the lighthouse-keeper's life. Little wonder, then, that Walter supports the reopening of the light.

Tiritiri is classified as an "open sanctuary". This term reflects an ethos of public access and an ability to walk through bird habitats - one step beyond looking into aviaries. Surely the same ethos should be applied to cultural heritage? Looking at a lighthouse is a two-dimensional experience compared with entering the space within.

I count myself among the lucky ones to have known Tiri as a more open sanctuary than it is today. Until the lighthouse door was closed, weekend visits were always punctuated by ascending the tower to gaze over the gulf, to watch the beam's wide sweep by night. Lighthouse towers are famous for their acoustics, and one evening the more tuneful in our group put the tower to the test and sang a cappella 20m up.

But why the allure of lighthouses? Waiheke journalist Simon Johnston speaks of their eerie romanticism as both guiding light and danger signal. In suggesting safety as well as peril, these sentinels remind us of our fragile claim upon the coast.

They loom large within our cultural landscape as icons built before satellites and radar. As such, they constitute national heritage that begs being experienced, not just conserved.

Of course, lighthouses are still sites of practical significance to seafarers and cannot be left prone to random entry. The Maritime Safety Authority is rightly cautious about pleas to restore public entry, given its role of keeping the coastline safe. But land-based health and safety concerns are cited as ruling guided visits out of bounds. The spectre of Cave Creek understandably casts a long shadow over public agencies.

Is it a coincidence that lighthouses were closed to public entry the same year as that tragedy? And is our risk-averse society robbing citizens of the chance to know and to grow from experiences of places that are literally on the edge?

Carefully managed inspection is surely as reasonable as visits by school children to fire stations or factories. Our world is widened when we see inside workplaces. There is a natural curiosity about what makes things tick.

Lighthouses are no ordinary buildings. If they were, would they have inspired so many books? (Our children's favourite is The Lighthouse-Keeper's Cat; on another shelf is Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse).

They are outstanding sites to which people make pilgrimages as if they were shrines. (At New Year, we drove the dusty road to Cape Palliser and joined others climbing the 254 steps to the lighthouse).

Lighthouses are special buildings in special places. They remind us of the paradox that strength and vulnerability can co-exist on the coast, as well as in ourselves. Their bold paintwork towers its way into secular mythology, bestowing a curiosity to peek within and see the inner sanctum of cogs and prisms.

While our national nature conservation efforts are world-class, we lag in cultural conservation. To know ourselves we need a range of living landscapes that speak to our past and present.

Tiritiri Matangi has become a Mecca for visitors seeking a close encounter with bush and birds. As its restoration matures, Tiri is becoming an expression of the way New Zealand once was and, in places, can still be.

As Auckland's closest lighthouse, looking at Tiri's tower is central to the visitor experience - more real than any exhibition or museum display. Its light, like other accessible ones in New Zealand can, and should be, reopened for controlled public viewing.

Through unlocking the door, we can cast light on our heritage as well as our vulnerability as a coastal people.

* Robin Kearns is an associate professor of geography at Auckland University.