Once again, season’s greetings, as another year turns over. We are Te Whare Taonga o Kororāreka, the house for treasures of Kororāreka – Russell. We care for those taonga that come to us from the wider community of this place that is dear to the hearts and minds of so many people gathered here or scattered far and wide ki ngā hau e whā (to the four winds). It has become a habit of ours to report to our community around this time of year, in an attempt to update you on what we have been doing, and what we plan to do. This year we have a different story for you. Soon, we will need your help in a more direct way than has been usual for us. Bear with me for a momentary digression into the past…

Russell Museum has been fortunate to have benefited from the gift of time, as well as treasures, from its people. Founding curator, Marie King, set up the professional practices that protect and conserve the museum collection. As a lifelong resident of this place and a descendant of some of Te Pē-o-whairangi’s earliest settlers, she was embedded in the community, both in body and in soul. The welfare and longevity of Russell Museum and its community was central to her life, as shown in her two books about Russell – Port in the North and A Most Noble Anchorage. The latter is still for sale, by the way, in the museum shop. She worked part time and opened the museum on request in its earliest days.

Our second curator, Heather Lindauer, was mentored by Marie King and took the museum to another level. She guided the museum through its days as the Captain Cook Memorial Museum, instituted new displays in 1990 and introduced its bicultural name. This move towards practical biculturalism both reflected a nationwide movement in museum practice and one that our museum, and community is still challenged by. It is a challenge I, as current curator, welcome and invite help with. It is one our third curator, Marsha Davis, advanced and defended passionately.

Heather, like Marie King, spent many more hours here than she was ever reimbursed for. Now she is chair of the Trust Board, and volunteers her time on collection work. Her comprehensive local knowledge is invaluable. If Heather can’t answer one of my queries about local history, she will know who to ask. Sadly, the list of people we can turn to for that knowledge shrinks, year by year.

Marie King, 1956-86 Heather Lindauer1986 – 2008 Marsha Davis2008-2011

I took over as curator from Marsha in April 2011. Like her, I count among my tupuna, (ancestors) some of this town’s earliest residents, both Māori and Pakeha. As it was to her, curatorship of Russell Museum’s collection and guardianship of its place in, and its importance to the community, is more than a job for me. Here is where our fathers, our grandparents and many generations before them still have a visible presence in our lives. They may have gone but within the walls of this museum their lives, their day to day existence, photographs of the houses they lived in, the dusty streets and grassy paths they walked on in search of wandering cows, live on. That history is here, not only for our locals but for everyone who visits as well.

Russell has long been a tourist destination. Visitors come from all over the world to relax and to refresh themselves from their busy lives. They go swimming and laze on the beaches, they catch fish, sometimes from the end of the wharf, they shop, they wander around the streets. They get married here and they honeymoon here . They visit our historic places, the first pub, the old church and Maiki Hill with Te Whakakotahitanga and its reminders of those other fallen flagpoles. Visitors can work an ancient printing press at Pompallier and at Russell Museum they have real objects from the deep and recent past to see, to touch and to wonder about as they encounter ‘The Story of Russell’.

Unfortunately, that ability is now in danger. Te Whare Taonga o Kororāreka, if it had been a ship, instead of a building, would be perilously close to sinking. The museum employs five part-time staff. It is financed solely from admission fees and shop profits. The Far North District Council gives us a reduction in rates. We offer free admission to locals. The community library space is rent free. Many of our artefacts, including the whaleboat Tutanekai, are displayed in our grounds, free to all who wander past. But we still need to maintain and insure these treasures – the whaleboat, Stephenson’s crane, the cannon, the whale pots. We are a registered charity and do not seek to make a profit. However, we do need to break even to survive. For the past five years we haven’t managed to do that. Fortunately we have some reserves which have kept us going until now. We are now actively seeking to change that situation. In the short term we are implementing some marketing strategies which we have appealed to Russell people for voluntary help with. Long term, the trustees and staff, after lengthy considerations, have concluded that in order to attract more paying visitors we will need to make major changes to our building, grounds and displays.

Should we fence the grounds, as Waitangi National Trust has done? Should we retain our traditional small museum ‘feel’ or expand and modernise our offerings with interactive and digital displays? Is local history what visitors want to see? Or should we move our focus to…children…maritime…natural or Maori history? Should we cut our opening hours or increase them? Rely on volunteers instead of paying staff?

What do you the people of Russell want your museum to be? What will best serve the interests of the town? How important is your museum to you? How can we best continue caring for the treasures and the heritage of our past while becoming once again a financially viable enterprise?

These are all questions museum trustees and staff are grappling with. We don’t want to do this alone – we’d love some input from Russell people. If you, or anyone you know, has either expertise or time that you think might help please come and see us. Anytime.

Nga mihi mahana ki a koutou,

Shelley Arlidge