A project to preserve Pahiatua’s past may not have had the wow factor that wins big awards, but it did win the hearts of local people. Tararua District Council’s Joy Kopa reminded delegates at ALGIM’s recent Autumn Conference that sometimes it’s the little things that matter.
Tararua District Council was born in 1989 after local government amalgamation pulled together 11 former agencies. Today, it maintains one of the largest road networks in the country and has a ratepayer base of just 10,192.
Records management is often about finding places to put stuff – hardcopy and digital – and ensuring it can be found if it is ever needed again. But this story is about one of the more interesting parts of my job: Preservation of records.
Under the Public Records Act we are obligated to preserve protected records. We keep other records from the past because they help us make decisions about the future. For example, if a house had been destroyed because it had been built on dodgy land, we would probably not sign off a consent to build another house in the same spot.
But there are other records that we preserve not because we have to or because they are helpful, but because we should. We know the name of the man who was the first mayor of Pahiatua Borough because we have records: but to have a face to put to the name – that is the bonus.
This project was about those records: photos of the colourful character that was Robert ‘Kilty’ Smith, or of council members in the long grass, or the chairman who looks as though he would have been more at home on the set of Gone with the Wind. These images are our photographic history and without them our history would be rather bland.
This project started as quite a simple task – an acorn in the giant forest of Tararua District Council projects – and grew to have a wide impact on the Pahiatua Community.
What started all this?
After the Christchurch Earthquake in 2011 it was necessary to complete seismic evaluations for all our buildings. The Pahiatua Service Centre did not fully pass the test. The building is sound but the facade is at risk.
It was agreed that the interior – mainly the chambers – needed a little TLC and it was decided this would be done sooner rather than later. The period panelling needed to be sanded and re-varnished.
And this is when records got involved. A simple request to take down the photographs while the work was completed set the whole ball rolling.
Rather than see a task, we saw an opportunity.
I invited [the shared service facility] Archives Central to join me. As we worked, we talked, schemed and strategised, and soon the opportunity for digitisation and preservation went from a wee glimmer of possibility to a full-on floodlight of brilliance.
By the end of the day we had a plan, and the photographs were on their way to Archives Central for accessioning and digitisation.
A big high five to Archives Central for taking this on because they accepted this task knowing I would need the images to be available within just one week.
Why this crazy deadline? Considering this gallery of photographs had been “hanging around” in this room since 1929 it seems perverse that this work would now need to be completed with such urgency. But with a fast-approaching citizenship ceremony the mayor wanted the room ready.
Despite the very tight timeframe the digitisation work was completed, the images were uploaded to the website and the files were made available for me to print as reproductions for the chambers.
But the original frames were overly abundant, mismatched and many were damaged by borer. They needed to be replaced. It was time for a judgement call – individual frames or collections? As you can see by the mock ups, we went with grouped collections.
This project thrived on opportunities. Rather than say, “No, let’s stick to the plan,” we decided to be proactive. We took each opportunity and made it an action.
There were gaps in the photo collection, so I started contacting past council members or their families to find photographs we could borrow for digitisation. This was very successful, and we filled many gaps in our history before the framing process commenced.
One gap still remains. William Tosswill was the mayor for Pahiatua Borough Council from 1902 to 1904 but there are no photographs of him anywhere. Our best guess is that any photos of him were wilfully destroyed when he was convicted of embezzlement several years after his time in office. To bring such dishonour would surely earn such contempt.
Pahiatua history is not my forte so I enlisted the help of the Pahiatua Museum. This was a great move. Not only did their local knowledge help identify the families to contact, they also helped promote the project in the wider community.
The added bonus was developing a great rapport with one of the museum’s founding members, Jean Eddie. This new relationship will definitely help with future projects now under discussion.
Then there were the requests
For public meetings we were asked that the room have a “bigger than Texas” monitor for digital displays. There was also a call to bring back a picture of the Queen. And our national flag. And if we are going to have the national flag we should have the Tararua District Council flag.
There was the inevitable threat of bodily harm if we did not re-hang the Lindauer portrait of Samuel Bolton – our longest serving Pahiatua County chairman.
We have a print of Queen Elizabeth on display in our Dannevirke Chambers so it was easy enough to reproduce this for Pahiatua. This was placed just to the side of the monitor. We then mounted the flags of both New Zealand and Tararua District Council either side to complete the look.
Despite some comments that we shouldn’t bring back the Queen’s picture because this was an outdated practice, it was interesting to note that at the first citizenship ceremony in the new-look chambers, every new citizen chose this very spot for their photo.
Finally, we returned the portrait of Samuel Bolton. Interestingly, we had always believed this to be an original Lindauer, but now we are not so sure, so I can see a little detective work in my future.
We also hung our new collections of photographs, including on the back wall where the mayors from the Borough Council and the chairmen from the County Council take pride of place.
The mayoral chain was reframed as well to fit in with the collection. This turned out to be a good decision because originally the chain had been glued to its mounting. It has now been cleaned and stitched in place.
And just beneath the chain is one of the recent additions to the collection – a group photo taken at the opening of the building in 1929. The photo was found tucked at the back of the staff kitchen cupboards.
We had been told several members of the public visited regularly to view the photographs. So, we went one step further and collated a book of all the photographs.
For the first run I printed and bound 25 copies. At the first official viewing we gave a copy to each of the individuals who had assisted with the project, then left the rest at the Pahiatua Service Centre for the public to purchase. I expected this lot to last at least till I retired. But, demand has been so great I have just completed a third print run.
Point of difference
Generally, when deciding which projects to take on, council must be logical, and weigh the pros and cons. Usually, it is important when spending ratepayers’ money that we are ruled by our heads. But sometimes it is far better to be ruled by our hearts. This project was one of those occasions.
When, back in 1989 there was a major push for amalgamation of local authorities, Tararua District Council was formed from multiple preceding agencies including Pahiatua Borough and Pahiatua County Councils.
At the time, this merger was not welcomed with open arms. Even today some members of the public within the Pahiatua area are still aggrieved by the amalgamation. Some are still angry, some are still sad. These old wounds run deep.
One of the biggest concerns was that a council based in Dannevirke would not really care about what happened to the smaller towns in the southern ward.
From the feedback we have received we believe this project has helped in a small way. We have proven to some of our more die-hard critics that we do care about their history. The best tool in our toolbox was a giant bucket of respect: for their beloved building and their treasured history.
This was an opportunity to not only preserve and protect our history, but also to find some of the lost years. It was a way to connect with the community because we were not just telling our story, we were telling theirs.
And in doing this work we improved our facilities. Public bookings for the room have increased, and the mayor and council are now looking forward to holding meetings in the “new” old chambers.
Because we were on a very tight timeframe we needed to be flexible. If there was a way to make it work, an opportunity became a task rather than a point to debate.
We all know that many hands make light work, so when I see a willing hand waving at me, I grab it, shake it, and say “welcome to the team”. The support we received from Archives Central, Pahiatua Museum member Jean Eddie and picture framer Nick Hill was fantastic.
Of course, there is always the question of the dreaded budget. Everyone wanted this work done but no-one wanted it to come out of their budget.
A big thanks to our finance department for explaining the parameters for a “capital project”. Apparently, it is not the size of the project that matters, it is the longevity of the results.
This tiny acorn of a project grew into a giant oak. We learned that “outdated” is a matter of opinion.
The Pahiatua Council Chambers now has new technology side-by-side with the heritage and history of the room. History is now preserved so that if fate intervenes and the building is destroyed, our story remains and the faces of our past will not be lost.
By showing respect for the history of this community we have earned respect, and we have made new friends. Some community members are keen to help with future projects – including working with Eketahuna on a similar project. This will be a little more difficult because there is only one Eketahuna Council photograph in our possession, and so the project will need to begin with a hunting expedition.
This project was not complex, it was not earth-shattering, it did not move any mountains, but it did something we had not been able to do in 29 years – it thawed hearts. One Pahiatua resident actually cried. But they were good tears… they were tears of gratitude.
We even made the front page. For those of you more into social media, our funky little zero budget YouTube video has had, at last count, 173 views in just three months. (And, no, I did not spend hours on YouTube re-running it over and over.)
Lastly, I want to introduce the last image to be returned to the walls of the Pahiatua Service Centre and, perhaps, one of the most visited photographs in the collection. It is of Len Barraclough, assistant county clerk, who was killed in action in April 1943.
This project may not be the big wow kind that wins awards but it is the kind of project that wins the hearts of our people.
So, if there is one message I would like you to take away, it is: Please, have a heart.
Sometimes these very small projects can have a massive impact on your communities by showing the public there is a human side to council.
• The Pahiatua Photograph Preservation Project was a finalist for this year’s ALGIM Information and Records Management Project of the Year.
• Joy Kopa is Tararua District Council’s records and information manager. Joy.Kopa@tararuadc.govt.nz
This article was first published in the July 2018 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.