One of the lesser-known treasures of our collection is Nairn St Cottage, built in 1858, considered to be Wellington’s oldest residential house (restored as near as possible to original condition). The cottage sits on a hill above Aro Valley, overlooking the entire city, which was slightly obscured by a light drizzle the day I took this photo. Even so, one of my favourite things about the cottage is how you can immerse yourself in the story of an English settler family and their home in the same moment as you can look out over a 21st century New Zealand city. It’s impossible to do so without thinking about what used to exist on these streets, what you might find if you dig underneath the apartments, how the city has transformed since the New Zealand Company obtained the land from Māori in the mid-nineteenth century (which Māori, you might ask? That’s an excellent question that we might revisit in a future post).
One of our guides, Judy, has a wonderful way of expressing how time works in Nairn St Cottage: ‘We glide across generations,’ she tells visitors as a way of talking about all three generations of women who first owned the house, and decorated it according to their own era and style. If you peel back layers of wallpaper, and lino, to the wood beneath, the house tells a story at each level. It is these stories that the guides try to reveal. How the house stayed in the family, retaining many of its unique features, and was then made available as a historical home in the 1980s is one of the remarkable discoveries of visiting.
These stories tend to make rich and accessible the everyday lives of people, especially women, over the last century and a half. Looking out over the city, it is easy to imagine those same sorts of ordinary everyday lives are happening everywhere, all at once, right now. But most of them won’t be remembered or retained outside of the direct families involved. One of the things that happens when we place a microscope over the lives of one family is that we discover how even the most ordinary lives can be extraordinary. Perhaps it helps us think about the heritage we are creating now, what should be retained, and valued.
Summer-Christmas-New Year Greetings everyone. May you eat too much and make some family heritage discoveries as well. See you in 2016.