Ravenscar House: When a home becomes a museum

An artist's impression of the new Ravenscar House planned for Rolleston Ave in Christchurch. The architect is Andrew ...
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An artist's impression of the new Ravenscar House planned for Rolleston Ave in Christchurch. The architect is Andrew Patterson.

Plans for a new House Museum on Rolleston Avenue were recently announced by the Canterbury Museum and Ravenscar Trust. The collection for the museum was started in the 1990s by Jim and Susan Wakefield in their own home. SUSAN WAKEFIELD answers the question, 'what is a house museum?'.

A house museum is first and foremost somebody's house. The house - or an authentic resurrection of it - is preserved to become a "museum", but it does not start out that way.

We built Ravenscar House in Scarborough for ourselves to live in and house our collections. That home was destroyed in the earthquakes. The new Ravenscar House will not replicate the old, now gone forever, but will reflect it. It will also contain and indeed be made of some of our belongings and objects, including works of art, decorative linings, furniture, carpets and domestic bits and pieces with interesting histories.

The upper hall of the original Ravenscar House in Sumner with paintings by Evelyn Page and Frances Hodgkins, 1930s ...
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The upper hall of the original Ravenscar House in Sumner with paintings by Evelyn Page and Frances Hodgkins, 1930s French salon furniture, and lounger by New Zealand maker Carin Wilson.

Christchurch City Council is consulting the public on whether it should gift the land to the Museum for the project. The Press arts commentator Christopher Moore in his comment piece (Sept 21) hit the nail right into the most critical issue for the future joint managers of the proposed Ravenscar House Museum: how are we to keep faith with the past yet stay alive to the present?

The Ravenscar proposal has never been about replicating the exact past that the earthquakes destroyed, but about replacing it with a fine contemporary house, filled with art in the widest sense of that word. Yet the essence of a house museum is its preservation of a complete domestic interior which is interesting and attractive, even uplifting. It is a reminder of the past and the issue is how to make it "a living reminder".

Another house museum on the other side of the world has many parallels with Ravenscar in its origins and essential characteristics, but has 60 years of operating experience against our still malleable future. The house is Kettle's Yard, now owned and operated as part of the University of Cambridge Museums Consortium. Kettle's Yard is a perfect example of the twin dangers confronting all house museums: preserve the past in aspic and lose vitality, or go for growth and change and lose the warmth and charm of experiencing the lives of others.

The library of the original Ravenscar House in Scarborough with 1650 carved door. Window by Christchurch glass artist ...
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The library of the original Ravenscar House in Scarborough with 1650 carved door. Window by Christchurch glass artist Dorothy Ratcliffe.

Like Ravenscar, Kettle's Yard began with a search for a suitable site. The searchers were Jim and Helen Ede, who in Jim's words were dreaming of "somehow creating a living place where works of art would be enjoyed, inherent to the domestic setting, where young people could be at home unhampered by the greater austerity of the museum or public art gallery…" He also saw it as "a refuge of peace and order", according to an article published in Country Life this year. 

My husband Jim and I knew nothing about Kettle's Yard until just recently, but those words very closely match our own brief to Patterson's Architects:   "…the protection and display of the Wakefield-Ravenscar art, objects and domestic setting in a way that affords visitors the same degree of joyful uplift of the spirit that the Wakefields experienced."

Like the Edes, we had already created distinctive houses; like the Edes, we looked at several sites before finding one with great potential; in 1956 they eventually chose to re-model a cluster of four early-19th-century cottages; in 2015 the Canterbury earthquakes have given us no option but to build afresh.

The collections which are offered to adorn the Ravenscar building have been made by us and reflect our non-academic backgrounds; Jim Ede, on the other hand, studied art in his youth, worked at the Tate Gallery and lectured on art. Like us, the Edes lived on in their house, until well after it and its collections were donated to the University of Cambridge in 1966, but the house was open daily and visitors were given a personal tour by Ede. We also gave tours and had open days for charities.

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So both houses have a common theme – the owners' desire to give to others the delight that they experienced in living with beautiful works. There is one major difference: the Ravenscar Trust will continue to own the collections for the foreseeable future. It's simply easier for the Trust rather than a public institution to be flexible about the future of the collections. The other and more important difference may well be in the response to the opening question.

What has happened at Kettle's Yard since 1966 is both an encouragement and a warning. Right from the start, it has been too small for the numbers of visitors it has drawn. It has already had no fewer than five modern extensions, and has just been closed for a huge additional building programme. The website states:  "The project will … allow us to curate exhibitions with major artists from around the world, display 20th and 21st century art in the best conditions, and have the facilities to enable even more people to enjoy Kettle's Yard."

The English is straight-forward but the ultimate goal is not, especially the last item.

Jeremy Musson, writer of the Country Life article already referred to, points out that the unique quiet charm of Kettle's Yard is that the paintings and sculptures are interwoven with the plants and found objects of everyday life, so that visitors can, in a sense, experience what the original owners felt as a combination of joy in works of art and delight in the works of nature. He goes on:   "Without the latter, the experience of Kettle's Yard would evaporate entirely into the character of an art gallery."

The potential conflict between the growth and change which are the essence of life, and the tranquillity of a reflective experience of time past - that is the heart of the issue.

I have thought constantly about this issue ever since the idea of a house museum first occurred to us 15 years ago. We all know of tourist gems which have been destroyed by their own popularity. Public demand is clearly a factor at Kettle's Yard, also perhaps a curatorial demand for "bigger and better". But building more space is not the only way of dealing with demand; they could have tried timed entry, or differential ticket prices. Physical expansion is not for Ravenscar.

 The new Ravenscar House will need life and energy in its management, but will aim to preserve its sense of peace and tranquillity within a changing environment, much like my favourite McCahon: "Tomorrow will be the same but not as this is". Like the former house, the new house will have large rooms, one or more of which could be used for temporary exhibitions; the collections are large and varied enough, and will be added to over time, to enable displays to be changed at intervals; the museum and the trust will lend works to each other in the right circumstances. 

One of the plans we have is for a reading room – based on the large library of the old Ravenscar, and containing a few thousand of our books: on architecture and design, art and decorative arts, landscape design – and for something on a different theme, all our books about New Zealand. Just to be read within the house, but able to be reserved for next visit, on a reasonably-priced season ticket. 

We have other ideas as well – still maturing!

Our hope is to see Ravenscar House become, like its location, something between a museum and an art gallery, but with its own special atmosphere, and above all, a living place.

Dr Susan Wakefield is co-Chair of the Ravenscar Trust. She and Canterbury Museum Director Anthony Wright will be discussing the concept of a house museum and plans for the Ravenscar House Museum at a free public talk at 3.00 pm on Saturday 10 October in the Bird Hall at the Museum. Bookings essential on 03 366 9429 x 817

Read More:

Canterbury Museum announces House Museum

 - Stuff

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