Lately, we’ve been spending rather more time than usual looking over our shoulders – it’s inevitable I suppose that we seek to be reassured by the history of this place as we rush headlong toward the reopening of the Museum next year.
In the weeks before Christmas we chanced across a delightful file of ‘miscellaneous’ papers written by museum directors’ past. During our spare moments we pored over the scraps of paper, reading aloud to each other snippets of this and that – from intriguing anecdotes about the collection, to all sorts of amusing advice about how to run a museum.
It is the voice of Leo Bestall (1895 – 1959), the Museum’s first Director that dominates these files. I immediately felt a very strong impression of him and was possessed by that nagging desire that inflicts a historian from time to time – to meet the man. How I wish I could have talked to him – if it is possible to know a man at all from the leavings on a few pieces of paper I don’t know – but I thought we might have got along rather well and I felt the disappointment that comes from lifetimes that don’t cross.
Working in a museum, a type of public institution that exists in the world mainly because of the passionately obsessive curiosity and drive of particular individuals, long dead men have a way of looming over us. Just as I was feeling over-burdened by the weight of one demanding institutional ancestor – thank you William Colenso – I read these documents and felt Leo shake my brain about even more.
Bestall’s perspectives on museums in general, and this one in particular were refreshing and energising. He was no passionless academic, he doesn’t get too tangled in questioning whether museums should exist and why, he knew it and he just got on and did it, scrambled over the hurdles and seemed to have a rather good time.
It’s all too easy to feel exhausted by the demands of this new museum we are making, especially now the calendar has ticked around to 2012 and reopening looms just one year away. Bestall’s lessons were good and timely ones for me.
Just before Christmas the whole team visited the museum site to have an explore and share a morning tea with our lovely builders from Gemco. I was particularly keen to get back into the ‘Bestall’ Gallery because the name meant more to me than it had before. Uppermost in my mind as I walked around was the fun and thrill of what we were doing. In particular, I had such pleasure in seeing the restoration of Bestall’s building underway, its galleries are a thing of beauty and I know they will be a pleasure to inhabit in their new form.
It was Leo’s vision, and sheer bloody-mindness that made this building in 1936. In proof that passion bears fruit that outlasts us, I think he would be quite delighted to see the HBMAG’s current team wandering about the bones of his building, as alive to its possibilities almost 80 years on.
So Leo, a 2012 New Year’s toast to you, thanks for those letters you left behind, we are thinking about you, and we think what you made here in Napier in 1936 was pretty darn fantastic.