Tauranga's new-look civic precinct offers a glimmer of hope for supporters of a decades-long battle to see a museum in the country's fifth-largest city.
Tauranga City Council commission chairwoman Anne Tolley said it was "astonishing" a city with such a rich cultural and historic heritage did not have a museum.
"It's sad that our heritage collection is shut away in storehouses where it is not readily available to the community," Tolley said.
Tauranga's heritage collection is locked in a storage facility at Mount Maunganui, where 35,000 items have been housed for more than two decades. With Rotorua Museum closed until 2025, much of the Bay of Plenty's history is currently hidden in storage or on loan to other regions.
In Tauranga though, a refresh of the council's Civic Masterplan, due for completion this year, could include a museum, Tolley said.
"Our expectation is that the refresh will include places for gathering, learning, exploring, debating, entertaining, and remembering the past. This could include the possibility of facilities such as a discovery centre, library, museum, public meeting venues and open space, a performance venue, conference centre and a hotel."
Former city councillor and long-time advocate of the museum, Anne Pankhurst, sees the new civic precinct as the last hope for a museum to open in her lifetime.
As a councillor in 2005, she was chairwoman of the funding group tasked with raising $11 million – half of the then $22m cost of a museum on the Tauranga waterfront.
"We had an amazing response from the corporate sector – the port, Zespri were all really keen to support a museum in some form," she said.
Any shortfall would be met by the Government of the time. Pankhurst said then Prime Minister Helen Clark "pretty well gave the nod" to the project. However, a council shake-up in 2007 saw five councillors, including Pankhurst, lose their seats.
Fast forward 10 years to 2017 and the cost of a museum, on the then favoured Cliff Rd site, had ballooned to $55m with the council proposing to contribute only $15m.
With the first sod yet to be turned, Pankhurst still favours a museum as an "anchor tenant" on the Tauranga waterfront, with a line of sight across to Mauao. The building would create a waharoa (gateway) to visitors experiencing Gate Pā, Mauao and other historical sites across the city, she said.
"You would get a lot of people moving into the waterfront zone. All the investment on The Strand becomes worthwhile because you have 100,000 people (annually) down there," she said.
Sixteen years on, her dream hasn't changed and is reinforced by the success of Puke Ariki – an amalgamation of the public library and Taranaki Museum which opened in New Plymouth in 2003.
She has always envisaged an experiential museum with a strong focus on telling the stories behind the artefacts and taonga, using modern technology. The building itself was of lesser importance than its contents and did not need to come at an unacceptable expense, she said.
"To build a building is not the answer, it's to build a place to tell our stories," she said. "For me, it is about telling our past to our future rangatahi so that they understand where they all come from."
The last non-binding referendum on the museum, held in 2018, resulted in a 40/60 split against the proposal.
Pankhurst maintains this is due to Tauranga's high "immigrant" population – people who grew up in other parts of the country, without a strong connection to Tauranga.
"It's a very historically rich region, and we're not showing that off, not just tangata whenua history but Pākehā history, and then the mix. Kiwifruit alone has a very rich history," she said.
She understands there will always be those who don't agree.
"The museum is polarising, you either want one or you don't, it's a very black and white issue for people."
The prospect of a cultural heart for the city received a further boost earlier this month when the proposal for the Western Bay of Plenty Heritage Education Centre was submitted to the council by Taonga Tū Heritage Bay of Plenty. The group, chaired by former history teacher Bruce Farthing, sought funding to explore the opportunity to establish the centre in the CBD.
Submissions to this year's Long-term Plan also saw a range of support for a museum or heritage centre in Tauranga and a $150,000 heritage projects fund has since been created.
Council's commissioners also recently approved a $100,000 budget to increase community access to - and engagement with – the heritage collection in storage.
The temporary library, set to open in the Goddards Centre next year, will include a space for "pop-up" exhibitions, to display items from the collection.
Meanwhile, the Rotorua Museum Te Whare Taonga o Te Arawa in Rotorua's iconic bathhouse faces years of continued closure.
The museum was closed in 2016 for earthquake strengthening and is not set to re-open until 2025.
The $53.5m project has been funded by Rotorua Lakes District Council, Bay of Plenty Regional Council and a host of charitable trusts and donors. The $4.22m balance of the funding received will go towards the development of exhibitions for the re-opening.
Museum director Lizzie Marvelly said the city's residents and visitors alike were missing the iconic attraction.
"The museum plays an important role in connecting people to the stories of Rotorua, providing space for remembrance and lifelong opportunities for learning. Rotorua residents often tell us that they can't wait for the museum to re-open. The museum was also a big drawcard for visitors and has left a gap in tourism offering for the area," she said.
Marvelly said the museum was a community hub that offered the chance to remember, learn be inspired and entertained.
"Te Whare Taonga o Te Arawa cares for and enables access to significant taonga/objects that embody important stories about Rotorua and its people," she said.
Marvelly, who took on the directorship in July last year, said a huge amount of work went into developing exhibitions and the stories they told. Despite the museum being closed, her role was to guide the development of the new visitor experiences and exhibitions for the re-opening.
"Visitor experiences and exhibitions take years to develop, progressing through the stages of engagement, design, object selection and care, manufacture/production and installation," she said.
Friends of Rotorua Museum president Mike Creswell said the group shared the city's frustration but while the lengthy closure was disappointing, it was not unexpected given the age of the building.
"It's not too surprising. We understand the issues involved and we've got to make sure we prepare well for the opening," he said. "We understand our role is to maintain interest in the arts and the museum during the closure."
Creswell said the museum was very important to Rotorua to display art and antiquities of all types, as well as offering educational events.
Creswell said reinforcing buildings from the era of the bathhouse always took longer than you would imagine, before taking into consideration the geothermal location of the building.
"All of these huge problems could be solved by moving the museum somewhere else because, as we know now, if you were planning a museum the last place to build it would be in the middle of a geothermal field, but it can't be moved because otherwise it would lose its unique character. It's a brilliant vista down there with the Tudor building and the bowling greens.
"Obviously, it's brilliant as a centrepiece for the Government Gardens area."
While funding was not available for the biennial art awards, due to be held this year, Friends of Rotorua Museum will host the inaugural Bay of Plenty Artist's Exhibition at Rotorua's Lockwood Show Village next month. Opening to the public on November 8, the exhibition has already attracted 75 artists.
"It's been an excellent response, we're pleased about that," Creswell said.
Where are Tauranga's treasures?
The Tauranga Heritage Collection, which comprises over 35,000 items, has been stored in industrial Mount Maunganui since the Historic Village closed as a museum in 1998.
Tauranga City Council's annual budget for managing the collection is $753,605 which includes salaries for two full-time curators, and lease of the storage space.
More than 10,000 items in the collection are available to view at www.handsontauranga.co.nz , where you can search the collection by theme, date, classification and colour.
Where are Rotorua's treasures?
Taonga and any removable heritage items have been taken from the Bath House building (home to Rotorua Museum) and placed into specialised storage facilities while the building undergoes earthquake strengthening and redevelopment. While the majority of the taonga will remain in Rotorua in the museum storage facility, some have returned to the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa in Wellington, and Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira, for safekeeping while the Bath House building is strengthened and redeveloped.