Manatu Taonga Ministry for Culture and Heritage deputy chief executive Delivery, Tamsin Evans, responds to the article ‘The tragedy of the National Erebus Memorial project’ published in the May issue of LG magazine, regarding criticism of the National Erebus Memorial project choice of site.
Almost 42 years ago now, New Zealand experienced its worst civil accident. The 257 people killed in the Erebus air tragedy on 28 November 1979 is a greater number than more recent disasters at Pike River Mine and the Canterbury Earthquakes combined – both of which have been duly recognised and memorialised.
Families whose loved ones were on the scenic flight to Antarctica looked to the skies for a sign of their loved ones that night. All the lights were left on at Invercargill Airport, in case the plane was lost in the darkness and needed to make an emergency landing.
We all know now what had happened. It left the nation in a state of shock. The families of those who had died were left in the aftermath, which included a harrowing recovery mission, a Royal Commission of Inquiry and court proceedings.
In late 2017, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern promised these families they would finally have a national memorial – where they can commemorate the lives of their loved ones, and where all New Zealanders can understand and acknowledge this significant moment in our history.
From the early planning stages in 2018, local hapu Ngati Whatua Orakei supported the memorial site, which is in their rohe. They met and listened to the voices of family members who had felt voiceless for so long.
It is a privilege for me, and the rest of the project team at the Ministry for Culture and Heritage, to be part of the project to create and establish the National Erebus Memorial.
I acknowledge there is some opposition to the memorial location, and I respect that people will always hold their own opinions. However, as a public service organisation, the ministry has a responsibility to provide the public with fair and accurate information, and I hope this article puts to bed what I believe are inaccurate accusations and unfair criticisms about this important project.
Why Dove-Myer Robinson Park?
There is no national memorial for the Erebus accident. There are a few different memorials or markers scattered around the country and in Antarctica – but no single place of national remembrance where the names of all 257 passengers and crew can be found.
For as long as people have wanted a national memorial, there has been discussion about where it should be. The flight bound for Antarctica departed from Auckland and, while those on board came from across New Zealand and around the world, the majority of New Zealanders (including all the crew) were from the Auckland region. Auckland has always been considered the most logical place.
To understand the wishes of family members, in terms of their preferences for what a memorial should include, we sent a survey to them in mid-2018. 116 family members and 15 Ice Phase recovery operation members took part (at the time, this represented a 68 percent and 71 percent response rate respectively). A clear preference was identified for a peaceful, park-like setting.
We stipulated these preferences to the Auckland Council and were given several options to look into around Auckland. Having analysed the sites, the site within Dove-Myer Robinson Park was identified as the best fit for our criteria – informed by the preferences of ‘Erebus whanau’.
Te Paerangi Ataata – Sky Song has been carefully designed to ensure a welcoming space for everyone and it is sympathetic to both the natural environment and heritage of the area.
The memorial allows visitors to look north to the horizon, as did those on the plane as it took off from Auckland airport.
It has a footprint of 95 square metres (within the park, which is 55,600 square metres) meaning the memorial will occupy just 0.2 percent of the space.
The preferred design was selected through a national design competition, and the independent expert judging panel included a Maori art expert, an urban planner, and the presidents of both the New Zealand Institute of Architects and the New Zealand Institute of Landscape Architects.
In addition, two Erebus family representatives (chosen by the families) joined the panel to review the shortlisted concepts and help select the recommended design.
Before it was confirmed, the design was also shared with Ngati Whatua Orakei and the Auckland Urban Design Panel, as well as the Waitemata Local Board. The Board was satisfied it met all the required criteria, including that the memorial be consistent with the heritage and mana whenua values of the park.
Protecting the pohutukawa
The park is home to a beautiful pohutukawa. There’s some uncertainty around its exact age, but it is thought to have been planted sometime in the mid-nineteenth century.
Everyone agrees the pohutukawa is a magnificent specimen, and great care has been taken to ensure its health and longevity will be unaffected by the memorial. It will remain protected.
From the outset, we believe the chosen design embraces the presence of the pohutukawa. The significance of the tree is recognised in the memorial plans. All works are designed to avoid its root system. Ngati Whatua Orakei is comfortable with the proposed approach to works in the vicinity of the notable pohutukawa is sensitive and culturally sound.
Following a proper process
Building a memorial on council-owned land is not a quick process, but it is a democratic one.
We took a number of steps to ensure we met all the requirements needed to get construction underway. This included gaining resource consent through the Auckland Council, an Archaeological Authority from Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga and, ultimately, landowner approval from the Waitemata Local Board.
There were opportunities for the public to have their say to the Auckland Council as part of the resource consent process and the landowner approval process. A wide group of iwi were also notified and asked for feedback in mid-2019. We have been open and transparent, providing updates to the public throughout.
Our approach has also been backed up by an independent audit, which confirmed the steps we have taken have been reasonable.
It’s also important to note the resource consent was granted by an independent commissioner appointed by the Auckland Council. In granting consent, the commissioner remarked that: ‘Any adverse effects on the environment would be at most minor, and less than minor on any person …’
Promoting the heritage of the site
Heritage is in the name of our organisation and is certainly a priority in projects we undertake. Great care has been taken to ensure the National Erebus Memorial respects the archaeological and heritage values of the site.
The ministry gained ‘Archaeological Authority’ in September 2020, following a thorough archaeological assessment of the site. The assessment investigated whether anything of archaeological significance would be compromised by locating the memorial in this area of the park and the design was adjusted accordingly.
During construction, an archaeologist will be on site to monitor all earthworks and ensure any archaeological evidence encountered is correctly investigated, recorded, and analysed.
I understand the site’s significance to local iwi and hapu, and currently there is no signage or symbolism sharing the history of the whenua to visitors or local Parnell residents.
The headland nearby may have been the location of Mataharehare Pa, but this was removed in the early twentieth century. The memorial also lies within the former Kilbryde property owned by Sir John Logan Campbell.
In addition, the headland at the eastern end of the bay was the site of Taurarua Pa and the beach provided a Tauranga waka (canoe landing). Taurarua was a valuable source of fish and shellfish, the gathering of which continues to the present day.
We have always viewed wider story-telling of the memorial site and the surrounding area as an opportunity to collaborate with mana whenua, and others in the local community. The whenua existed long before the European occupation of the area, the renaming of the park as Dove-Myer Robinson Park, or construction of the soon-to-be National Erebus Memorial. There is a long history that is currently not widely known, and we are keen to facilitate a solution to this.
The Erebus families remain at the heart of the memorial
As we approach the construction phase of the memorial, I thank the Erebus whanau for their patience.
This has been a long journey, and recent opposition to the project in the media and at the site has been distressing and frustrating for many of these families. We continue to talk to family members and listen to their concerns as we have from the very start of this process, just as we continue to respond to any concerns raised by the community.
We continue on with the support of Ngati Whatua Orakei, with the support of the majority of Erebus family members we have engaged with, and those who have campaigned for a memorial since before the project was established, with the support of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and a number of local representatives and in partnership with the Auckland Council.
The National Erebus Memorial will recognise the significance of this event in our history and provide a fitting space where future generations of New Zealanders can learn, reflect and remember.
Accurate, up-to-date information about the project is available online: www.mch.govt.nz/erebus-memorial
Our team is always happy to answer any queries about the project: firstname.lastname@example.org.