Katherine Mansfield Birthplace Society Reception
I begin by greeting everyone in the languages of the realm of New Zealand, in English, Māori, Cook Island Māori, Niuean, Tokelauan and New Zealand Sign Language. Greetings, Kia Ora, Kia Orana, Fakalofa Lahi Atu, Taloha Ni and as it is the evening (Sign)
I then specifically greet you: Greg Thomas, President of the Katherine Mansfield Birthplace Society and your fellow committee members; Justice Mark O’Regan, President of the Court of Appeal and Nicky Saker, our hosts this evening; Oroya Day, founding President of the Society; Your Excellencies, members of the Diplomatic Corps; Distinguished Guests otherwise; Ladies and Gentlemen.
Thank you for inviting me to this reception for the Katherine Mansfield Birthplace Society that marks her birthday in 1888. Susan sends her apologies but, as Patron of Foundation for Youth Development, is, as we meet, hosting a ceremony for graduates of the organisation’s flagship programme, Project K, at Government House Auckland.
I understand Con Flinkenberg will speak of the history of this house, the one-time home of artist Evelyn Page and Professor Frederick Page. Therefore, I would like to speak a little of two important Wellington heritage buildings—of Katherine Mansfield’s first home and, you will not be surprised to hear, of Government House.
Wearing the Governor-General jersey, I approach the matter from a number of perspectives. In addition to being Patron of this Society, and I am also Patron of the New Zealand Historic Places Trust and so have a keen interest in matters related to heritage although I have no particular expertise when it comes to architecture or design.
In addition, Susan and I are the one-time residents and, from early to middle next year, the residents again of Government House in Wellington.
As you may have read in the media earlier this month, we were able to gain a preview of the work being undertaken to conserve Government House when we marked the centenary of building’s occupation by unveiling a plaque on 1October.
That House has a fascinating history, particularly in the period surrounding its opening, which I will not recount now.
However, there is a feature on that period on the Government House website—gg.govt.nz—if you are keen to know more. If I can engender your interest a little more, early history of the planning, construction and opening of Government House has all the makings of an Edwardian farce that even P.G. Wodehouse would struggle to match. There was a calamitous fire, mourning for a dead king, a partially finished house on the grounds of a former lunatic asylum, a ministerial dinner, suspect drains, a mysterious illness and vice-regal evacuation, and questions and ridicule in Parliament. And that covers just the period from 1907 to 1910!
Seriously, however, the conservation project is not a restoration, redecoration or simple refurbishment. In conserving the House the Project Team has tried to be faithful to the original design intentions where known and where practical. That has required significant research by examining historic photographs and other documentary evidence.
Different spaces have been given various ratings, with public rooms such as the State Dining Room and Ballroom having the highest heritage ratings whilst service rooms having lower ratings. No-one, for example, would expect the chefs at Government House to work on an ancient gas or wood-fired stove, or to keep food in an ice-filled safe, all in the name of some slavish devotion to heritage!
Even so, the work I have seen so far on both the House and grounds is mightily impressive. The centenary event was the forerunner of a number of occasions to mark the reopening and Susan and I look forward to welcoming New Zealanders back into the House next year.
Heritage has also played a significant role in the conservation of Katherine Mansfield’s birthplace. I understand the original plan back in 1986 was merely to refurbish the house as a writer’s research centre with appropriate displays on Katherine Mansfield’s life.
However, as the repair work began, traces of the original décor were discovered. Combined with an exploratory archaeological dig in the garden, and information provided by Mansfield’s surviving relatives, the House was restored to become the national treasure that it is today.
It was particularly fitting that on 14 October 1988, the centenary of Katherine Mansfield’s birth, that the House was reopened by Lady Beverley Reeves, your then Patron and wife of my predecessor, Sir Paul Reeves.
The work undertaken on Katherine Mansfield’s birthplace by the members of this Society has a wider significance. It was part of the encouragement of understanding and appreciation by New Zealanders of their nation’s distinctive historic, architectural and archaeological heritage.
Other examples of the desire to preserve rather than demolish can be seen in the ultimately successful campaign by the Friends of the Hunter Building to save the Victoria University of Wellington’s iconic first home in Kelburn, and the current debate around saving the St James Theatre in Auckland.
The work that is being done on Government House owes a great debt to the work of those people, such as those in this room, who have been advocates of New Zealand’s heritage. As Katherine Mansfield herself wrote, just a year before her untimely death in 1923: “[T]he longer I live, the more I return to New Zealand. A young country is a real heritage, though it takes one time to remember it. But New Zealand is in my very bones”.
And on that note celebrating New Zealand and its heritage, I will close in our nation’s first language by offering everyone greetings and wishing you all good health and fortitude in your endeavours. No reira, tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou, kia ora, kia kaha, tēnā koutou katoa.