DOTTED around Southland’s tiny towns and rural backroads, communities’ histories are safeguarded by the very people they belong to.
Asylums of the past, museums big and small harbour vast amounts of knowledge and information, largely cared for by volunteers.
From Rakiura/Stewart Island to Waikaia, Southland District Council roving museum officer Jo Massey has spent the past 15 years dedicated to aiding their efforts displaying local history.
Her work is varied and no day is the same as she catalogues, archives and acts as caretaker to artefacts and records of the region’s colourful past.
She can spend months working in one place.
Stories she came across, and the people they belong to, are what she enjoyed.
Sometimes, there was an amazing story but no object. Other times there was a great object without a story.
“When they all come together through research, or out of the blue sometimes, telling that story is amazing.”
Museum success related directly to community drive; Ms Massey could see how it was reflected in the museums she worked in.
Volunteers were valued, but in some places were not high in numbers.
When asked what she thought was most unique in any of Southland’s collections, Ms Massey found it hard to answer, but spoke in general of weird and wonderful items. She had plenty of stories to share.
That connection between item and story was most special.
A blue-green button the size of a thumbnail, small and seemingly insignificant, was put on display at Waikaia’s Switzers Museum, where it told a story far more meaningful than one might expect.
More than 100 years ago, local lad John William Pinckney was killed in action in 1918 France.
His body was not found, nor word given about his final moments.
It was not until 1927 his remains were located, identified by his officer’s buttons still in place where he lay beneath a bridge.
Lieutenant Pinckney was the only New Zealander to be buried at Bailleul Rd East Cemetery.
“He came back to the community here, it’s a story we tell just around that small button.”
The stories and items housed at the Waikaia museum said a lot about the community it served, she said.
“It says a lot that a small community of 90 people has done this. It says a lot about how they feel about their history, their family connections.”
She felt admiration for the volunteers working as custodians of their community’s heritage.
Ms Massey’s first museum experience had not been forgotten: “It was when I was looking for a job, I didn’t know what I wanted to do.”
During a visit to a friend involved in a programme at the Southland Museum & Art Gallery, she found her assembling kiwi bones.
‘‘She said, ‘Oh, this is really boring’, and I was thinking, ‘It’s amazing, I’d love to be able to do something like that’.’’
Fascination kicked off her desire to work in museums.
Had she ever found it boring? No.
“Even the tasks people might find mundane, you can find joy in that… also engaging other people in that story, sharing that passion.”
Most items in Southland’s collections do not explode, but part of the job was to identify items that could do just that.
Last month, a century-old tin of antiseptic, known as picric acid, was found at the Waikawa & Districts Museum in the Catlins.
The substance can become potentially explosive, and is found at museums from time to time as they come in to their collections.
“Quite often you’ll come across items and you have an inkling, you know you need to do a bit more research and find how to deal with them.
“Thankfully picric doesn’t turn up very often.”
Items accepted into collections, before going through the process of cataloguing and digitisation of records, have to meet criteria.
All the while, it must be considered whether they would be put on display or not.
For the items that do, it can be a source for learning as well as nostalgia.
Whether people used them as craft spaces, meeting places, a community hub or a way to spend a rainy afternoon, Ms Massey appreciated the importance of all of Southland’s diverse museums.