What defines a museum...

Museums Aotearoa defines a museum as an organisation which is primarily engaged in collecting, caring for, developing, exhibiting or interpreting the natural and cultural heritage of Aotearoa New Zealand.

The Southland Museum and Art Gallery, whose building was recently closed to the public, can continue to do this. In order for it to, one thing needs to be made very clear from the outset.

A museum is not defined by its building.

Instead, a museum is defined by its people; the staff who work passionately and tirelessly to preserve and give access to a community’s cultural heritage. A museum is defined by its collection; the objects that are imbedded with the stories of generations past. A museum is defined by its community; the people who actively engage in its offerings and support its work.

For these reasons, the recent referral to the ‘death’ of the SMAG has made me uncomfortable. I do understand the need to give staff and public a chance to grieve and process what has occurred, as the loss of jobs and the physical presence of the museum has been shocking for the Invercargill community. But SMAG, as an entity, it still very much alive. Death implies an inability to go on and move forward and whilst their current building is closed, the essence of SMAG and its reason for being has definitely not ceased.

Having experienced the closure of our own iconic building that housed our art collection, I know how deeply entrenched a physical location can be in the psyche of Southlanders. I do believe however that in order for the cultural renaissance that Invercargill so desperately needs to occur, the core reasons why museums and galleries exist need to be at the forefront of all our minds. For, when you focus on these, the solutions are then about purpose and capacity rather than just bricks and mortar. This doesn't diminish the need for a place to operate from but makes the priorities clearer and expands what is possible.

Sarah Brown