Legacy of the Museum

Dr Michelle Smith

Written by Kerry Monaghan

Delving into community history is a fantastic way to discover local identity, even the darker side of things that include death and destruction. That may sound confronting to some, but not historian, curator and researcher, Dr Michelle Smith. She loves her job.

For the last eight years, Scottish born Michelle has been part of the small team of curators at Papakura Museum that brings to life the past of Papakura and surrounding areas through its exhibitions to tell a story.

At the end of May, Michelle will be leaving the museum to start a new chapter in the Hawkes Bay as a freelance Historian Consultant, leaving behind the bulk of her role, but is looking forward to learning the history in a new district.

“My role will be one of the hardest things to give up, but I’m looking forward to a new chapter and I still hope to work remotely on some projects for Papakura Museum.”

Starting out as a volunteer for the museum in 2010, Michelle had previously worked in the disability sector before completing her doctorate in Medieval Scottish history and gender at Auckland University.

“The museum was looking for volunteers and history is my thing. Within three or four months I was offered a contract, as the museum was moving down to the third floor and the space needed developing, so I was thrown in the deep end!” says Michelle.

From there, she worked on different projects until 2012 when she was offered a permanent position as a part -time historian that morphed into an official curator’s role.

With her background in European studies, Michelle says she knew very little of New Zealand’s own history, and even less about Papakura’s past but discovered a love for the district and is proud of the work she has created.

“I always thought New Zealand history wasn’t my thing because we are still a ‘new’ country and my background in Medieval Scottish History is totally different to here. But over the years, what I have learnt has changed my mind. Papakura has a really interesting and rich history and once I started getting into it, I thought it was really cool.”

During her time with the museum, Michelle says one of her proudest moments was working on her first exhibition that she developed on her own, including an accompanying book. Open all Hours focused on Papakura’s Main Street period between 1865-1938, an era of colonial migration, settlement, and its involvement in the New Zealand wars.

“I was proud of doing the exhibition myself. Of course, I had help when it came to the curation of the display, but the book was done in such a short space of time. Since then, I have written a second edition of that book which I’m also proud of.”

In her role, Michelle says she has learnt on the job, so she is always refining how she does and writes things and says even the challenging parts of her role can often be the most rewarding, like finding balance in telling a story without passing judgment or curating an exhibition that was started by another museum.

“Exhibitions like the Waikato War in the 1860’s challenged me as a historian and curator for finding that balance, but when you have a guide from the Waitangi Treaty grounds come and commend you on the work you’ve done, it means a lot.”

Exhibitions for the museum often require planning months and even years in advance, with the aid an external set designer. Michelle admits she often gets so involved in the research and can be a perfectionist but likes to be sure all bases are covered.

Some of her other favourite things has been getting to work with descendants of families from Papakura’s early period and the connections made through sharing their stories.

“Some of the families feel like they’ve become my own, you become very protective of them and I feel very honoured to have families share things with me,”

The museum has been a big part of my life. I’m going to miss that.”

The museum’s current exhibitions are The Story of Papakura and Home Front that details the experiences of the First World War in New Zealand. Home Front will run through to December 21st, 2018.

October will see a new exhibition that will see a darker, but equally important side of the district’s past with the Influenza Pandemic of 1918.

The museum is interested in hearing from anyone who has any photographs or information on families and individuals living in the town or district who were affected by the pandemic.

Papakura Museum

Level 3, 209 Great South Road, Papakura

Contacts for gifting artefacts to the museum: archives@papakuramuseum.org.nz 09 298 2003

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