As my tenure as director of the Whanganui Regional Museum comes to an end, it is probably inevitable that I start looking back.

I came to Whanganui nearly four years ago to help with the task of rebuilding and updating a 120-year-old museum with some rather shaky buildings and an extraordinary legacy.

The museum began in a quintessentially Victorian manner. Bewhiskered Samuel Drew - businessman, taxidermist, amateur scientist and prominent citizen of the would-be metropolis of Whanganui - sold his burgeoning collection of artefacts, specimens and stuffed animals to the town at a gentleman's discount.

Amid great excitement in 1895, an elegant little building was opened to house it, one of the first purpose-built museums in the colony. Together with the opera house, and later the Sarjeant Gallery, Ward Observatory and Alexander Library, the museum helped establish Whanganui as a centre for scholarship and culture.

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As years passed and the city grew, so did the museum. The first building was doubled in size and then left behind when a grand new one was erected in Watt St in 1928. Thirty more years and that too was straining at the seams.
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Built between 1892 and 1895, and opened in 1895 in Wicksteed Place, later renamed Drews Ave. Photographer: A A Willis, around 1900, Whanganui Regional Museum collection
Built between 1892 and 1895, and opened in 1895 in Wicksteed Place, later renamed Drews Ave. Photographer: A A Willis, around 1900, Whanganui Regional Museum collection

In 1968, a large extension was built, more than doubling exhibition space and adding a lecture theatre and classroom.

Understanding of the role of museums was changing, however. All the facilities built up to that point were focused on spectacle - putting the collection before the public, no matter how chaotic things were out front nor how crowded they got behind the scenes.

In the mid-1990s, the museum took over the two-level municipal carpark beneath the extended building and was finally able to spread out its holdings and start the huge task of arranging and cataloguing them. Just counting all 300,000 or more of them took years.

The recent rebuilding project, leading up to the reopening in March this year, has brought a whole spread of new exhibitions and changes to the public areas of the museum.

Behind the scenes, however, equally important progress has been made.
Laid out on kilometres of new steel shelving, stored in climate-controlled vaults, photographed and catalogued for future access, the scale and scope of the museum's holdings have become much clearer.

The museum today. Whanganui Regional Museum, 2019
The museum today. Whanganui Regional Museum, 2019

The reaction of museum professionals from around the country helping with the refurbishment project was consistent - the Whanganui collection is unparalleled.

Taonga Maori, photography, social history, the natural sciences and archives are represented by thousands of objects and papers not found anywhere outside the big four metropolitan museums - and often not even there.

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The result is a deep well of knowledge and culture specific to this place and of genuine fascination to the rest of the world.

Plainly, Whanganui loves its museum - close to 60,000 visitors in the eight months since opening attest to that.

Frank Stark is outgoing director at Whanganui Regional Museum. He finishes his term at the end of 2019.