By Henry Babbage
A vacant building slowly reveals its presence in the bush as you move closer. Along the textured cement of the three-tiered promenade, wet leaves softly depress underfoot. In stages, you transition higher into the encroaching canopy. You’re propped up on columns among the leaves, branches and lichen on the venerable trees which shade the building year-round. Pausing, your hand rests on recumbent posts of damp wood that border the walkway and bare clusters of moss and mould. You can see how the fauna grows around the building. Fern leaves are folded up against the windowpanes. Stalks and ferns flick out from underneath the bottom edge of the door to the exhibitions gallery. From the building you still hear the clicking of cicadas, the sway and rustling of the bush, a waterfall, and a ute pulling over across the road.
Inside you find an empty theatre: office chairs, plasterboard, piping, asbestos. Display cases, MDF. Poster-board ephemera, the cross section of a tree-trunk (its growth rings marked to indicate its size relative to the date when the Sistine Chapel was constructed), A1 sized plan-drawings, maps demarcating Crown land, mouse excrement. The textured smell of the aging carpet, the sound of only your footfall, the rooms and display supports, the suggestion of objects.
In all rooms you find a framed view of the landscape outside: a corner of a room becomes an observation platform — two glass panes that place one amongst a scene, neither purely interior nor exterior. Although the view is not merely scenographic — instead, the building evokes a reverence for the surrounding forest. The displays of the museum are joined by the regional inflections of the landscape. Through Rua Kenana’s eye. The windows act as delicate surfaces that mediate a relationship of alternately protection and openness, between the natural forces acting upon the exterior of the building and the items housed within. The landscape intimately communes with the building — the museum is in the autochthonous bush.
The decay of the building is inevitable. Things happen slowly. Neglect in this case is neither overtly intentional nor unintentional; it highlights the allocation of attention and resources elsewhere. Space is a practiced place. The process of construction that necessitates built structures must be accepted as a surrender — to technologies, to engineers, to suppliers, to contractors, to manufacturers, to politicians, to occupants… to other energies. Further to this, the building is a function of its environment, co-existent with, and subject to, the harshness of natural forces and weathering. But the status of its future has been deemed uncertain; it exists for the moment in an indeterminate state. The mist is poised on the ridge of the valley. It is not so hard to accept the building is living.
The Aniwaniwa Visitor Centre once presented the taonga of its collection coterminously with the landscape that encased them. Now the taonga and objects have been removed from the space that was designed specifically for them, leaving an inverse relation to display. That is, many apertures. The museum once led the viewer to representations of fleeting narratives. Today, to see the museum without its objects and narratives is to see the just modes of presentation. In an effort to save the Nga Taonga Tuku Iho or, Treasures from the Past, a grey metal shipping container serves as a temporary storage unit where objects and artefacts have been moved gradually from the museum. The container is planted upon a clearing, in a shared makeshift lot sculpted from an earthen bank.
These objects have been treated by various modalities of conservation — some have been altered in the process of transportation or in order to adhere to a display strategy of the past. The collection here exists in a conditional context, not presented but preserved, isolated in private, and maintained in a temperature and light-controlled setting.
The museum was once only a set of plans, immanent within a thick canopy of trees. Objects were in between one generation and the next. Other custodians held the objects, facing the past while walking backwards into the future. The inception of the museum made visible one particular view, a theatrical moment. This story is a treatment of space and everything is written in the soil.
*This text originally accompanied a film about Aniwaniwa for an exhibition at a public gallery in Auckland called Te Tuhi.*