History award for former museum boss

Rita Wright with a story and photo about her first day at work at Ashburton Museum in 1987.

Rita Wright’s contribution to local history over many years will be recognised later this month when she is presented with the prestigious Rhodes Medal by the Canterbury History Foundation.

She was nominated for the medal by the Ashburton Historical Group and was the face of Ashburton Museum for almost 20 years before retirement in 2005.

As well as helping to expand the museum and lift its profile, Mrs Wright has also penned a number of local history booklets and still assists at the Ashburton District Family History Group.

Mrs Wright said it was an honour to receive the Rhodes Medal.

She had always had a strong interest in history, and local history in particular, but did not consider herself a historian.

Her involvement with the Ashburton Historical Society and the small museum it ran in the former technical school building on Cameron Street started in 1987.

She was employed six hours a week to be the public face of the museum.

“We were open from 1.30pm until 4.30pm on Tuesdays and Fridays.

“The museum had a couple of display areas, an office and a bit of storage, but it had a low community profile in those days.”

Mrs Wright learnt on the job in the early days and set up a cross referencing system that was a long, slow process.

With no formal museum training she decided that she wanted and needed to upskill.

With the support of the Ashburton Historical Society committee she attended her first museum course in Blenheim in 1990.

Over two days she learnt about collecting and caring for archives, conservation and arrangement.

“The training was aimed at people from smaller museums and with limited resources and no fancy gear.

“I remember coming back very enthusiastic after that course,” she said.

More courses followed, as did a better understanding of the museum cataloguing system.

Mrs Wright said the museum’s profile started to build and she spent more time talking with community groups to explain the role and purpose of the museum.

More financial support came from Ashburton District Council and from funders like Ashburton Trust.

The museum moved to the ground floor of the former county council building on Baring Square East in 1995 and shared the building with upstairs tenant Ashburton Art Gallery.

Mrs Wright was employed full time and later had the support of other paid staff and volunteers from the historical society.

An irrigation display, excavation site featuring Maori artefacts, section on churches and another on farm implements featured in some of the early permanent displays.

The community became more involved and contributed items for rotating displays that focused on a wide variety of things, Mrs Wright said.

“I remember when Harley Davison was celebrating its centenary, I managed to persuade a local man to display his motorbike in the museum.

“It took five of them to lift it into the display case.”

Mrs Wright said over time historical displays and systems had been brought up to a good museum standard and what could be afforded

Michael Hanrahan took over from Mrs Wright as museum manager when she retired at aged 65.

In retirement Mrs Wright has been able to spend more time reading.

She researched and wrote a history booklet for the Ashburton Licensing Trust that was published in 2015 and has written booklets on the Westerfield School centenary, a local history of Save The Children and another on the Ashburton South Presbyterian Church.

Mrs Wright will be presented with the Rhodes Medal at the Canterbury History Foundation’s Gardner Lecture at Canterbury University on July 25.