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History rocks . . . North Otago Museum, Waitaki District Archives and Forrester Gallery acting director Chloe Searle is looking forward to welcoming the public back to the museum from December 11. PHOTO: KAYLA HODGE

After being closed for almost four years, the North Otago Museum’s front doors are set to finally reopen to the public next month.

For museum curator Chloe Searle, who has been involved in discussions about redevelopment since she moved to Oamaru in 2010, December 11 could not come soon enough.

“For me, working in the museum . . . it’s about caring and sharing,” Ms Searle said.

“You care for the objects, that’s a big part of it, but what really excites me is sharing a museum is to be a place people can come and have information shared with them . . . and they can share information with each other.”

Since April 2016, the museum and Waitaki District Archive have only been open to the public through a side door in Steward St, while plans to amalgamate the museum, archives and the Forrester Gallery at the Thames St gallery site were afoot.

But in 2018, the Waitaki District Council changed course, ending its $6 million redevelopment plan for the gallery’s 1882 Heritage New Zealand category 1-registered site, deciding instead to pursue stand-alone upgrades for Oamaru’s cultural facilities.

Several events had disrupted stage one of the $1,435,000 upgrade of the museum and archives, including the Covid-19 lockdown, former museum director Jane MacKnight’s departure and the Ohau fire.

“No more surprises please, 2020,” Ms Searle said.

Changes to the building include new display facilities, a refurbishment of the windows, walls and ceiling, a new heating system and the replacement of the floor. Displays include the Waitaki district’s geology; the taoka of the district, including the Willetts collection; the story of Ngai Tahu; and European arrival.

“We’ve definitely modernised it and I think hopefully now the focus is on the stories,” she said.

Ms Searle had tried to pack as many items and stories into the space as possible.

“We’re a little bit of a sample plate for the awesome stories this district has – because you can’t fit them all in a museum and you can’t fit them all in in a half an hour or hour visit,” she said.

While she could not pick a favourite item, the Willetts collection of artefacts from the dawn of human settlement in New Zealand was very special, Ms Searle said.

“It’s pretty significant to have such amazing, amazing stories – it’s pretty rare in the world that you’d be able to see things that belonged to the first people who lived in your place.”

Hours were still being finalised, but Ms Searle hoped the facility would be open six days a week and mostly run by volunteers.

Stage two of the redevelopment would start next year, and would open up the second floor of the building to the public for the first time and include a lift.

“There’ll be an education room, a temporary exhibition space and there’ll be an exhibition that really picks up this story from the 19th century and goes into 20th century stories of this district get into that,” she said.

Documentaries to tell the stories and bring human voices to the displays were also planned.

“There’s nothing like people actually telling their story and getting a sense of them, rather than it all being museum staff doing the talking – even though we love it.”