Heritage Awards, Festival

Artbeat column no 442 by Peter Entwisle
Published in the Otago Daily Times, 30 March 2009

Last year Auckland had a heritage festival “to celebrate the unique stories and secrets of Auckland while reflecting on our city's natural, built and social history,” according to its website. It also said “The festival is part of our long-term campaign to protect heritage areas and buildings and to encourage Aucklanders to celebrate our city's heritage.”

How unfortunate then that it barred one of Auckland’s heritage activists who had just received an award for his efforts to save old buildings. Alan Matson had been recognised by the Orangi Kaupapa Trust for his work with a $3,000 cheque. But Mr Matson was barred from the festival because “His topic was the subject of an Environment Court appeal against the council and was covered by another event,” according to a council source. (New Zealand Herald 16/7/08)

Is this a case of “only in Auckland”? I don’t think so. While our Heritage Festival was happening some were trying to demolish the South Dunedin Methodist chapel while a few, including Ms Elizabeth Kerr, were battling hard to save it. Ms Kerr does quite a lot of this. She does it voluntarily, often by submitting to the relevant committee, a difficult and time-consuming process. She’s been at it for years. (Don’t call her a heritage activist.)

Before the festival I was approached about its new Bluestone Awards. I questioned the concept behind them, suggesting an alternative and some possible recipients. This was not taken up and the awards were made to Ted McCoy, George Griffiths and Jim Ng. All of them have made substantial contributions to our culture which may be legitimately considered part of our heritage. I have no problem with that. What I did question though was the concept of more cultural merit awards when presumably “heritage” is more about preserving what exists rather than creating it.

I’d suggested someone like Ted Daniels, for example, who almost heroically restored Bracken Court, which he owns, after a devastating fire, with little or no support from the community. My interlocutor considered Mr Daniels’ contribution minor although in the field of historic preservation it is not. I might have mentioned Ms Kerr but I daresay the reply would have been similar. And this being Dunedin, not Auckland, I doubt Ms Kerr will be getting any gratuitous cheques for $3,000  because I don’t believe we have a body like the Orangi Kaupapa Trust.

Which is a pity because I know from my own experience that trying to save old buildings in our amnesiac country is a frequently thankless task and neither good for your mental or material well-being. It’s good there are still people like Ms Kerr and Mr Daniels out there doing it for us but you have to wonder how long it will last.

© 2009, Otago Daily Times  http://www.otagodailytimes.co.nz