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Evicting Sir Peter? University wants to get back its museum building

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Photo by Ballofstring [CC BY-SA 4.0] via Wikimedia Commons

Report from RNZ by Catherine Hutton
The owners of the historic building that houses Sir Peter Jackson’s Great War exhibition say they want it back, and are urging the government to end the uncertainty about its future.

For the past four years, Massey University has leased the old Dominion Museum building in Wellington to the Ministry for Culture and Heritage.

The lease is up at the end of the year but the ministry says it has the funds to run the exhibition for another two years, and it’s keen to stay.

A select-committee report shows Cabinet has agreed to a two-year extension of the lease – until 2020 – giving the ministry time to prepare the case for a permanent military heritage centre.

However, Massey has not agreed to the extension: its vice-chancellor, Jan Thomas, said that wouldn’t be in its best interest.

“I would say that they still have quite a lot of work to do around things that they might like to consider bringing to the table for Massey to discuss. What I have done, is flag to them last year that in the absence of any clear decisions that suit Massey, we will be ceasing the lease and to regain the Dominion Museum Building at the end of 2018,” she said.

Professor Thomas said there were three potential options.

One – the government buys the building at a price that would allow Massey to build something of a similar size and status.
Two – it leases it at a commercial rate that would also allow the university to invest in a new building.
Or three – Massey takes it back.

Professor Thomas said when negotiations began back in 2012, the previous government clearly intended to buy the building – but that was no longer the case.

“We’ve certainly received strong messages that purchasing the building is not something that’s a high priority at this point,” she said.

Buying the building from the university and its co-owner, the Tenths Trust, would save the government the cost of returning it to its original appearance, once the exhibition leaves.

Last year RNZ revealed the estimated cost of doing that had put the Ministry for Culture and Heritage millions of dollars in deficit.

But the select committee report shows the ministry is expecting next month’s budget will contain money to bail them out.

It has declined to be interviewed, but in a statement indicates it was keen to extend the exhibition.

“The government is supporting a lease extension to allow the Great War Exhibition to remain open and increase the opportunity for visitors to experience The Quinn’s Post Trench Experience which opened to the public on Saturday 14 April 2018. In its first nine days of operation, more than 1300 visitors have been through the Trench Experience,” the statement said.

While visitor numbers did drop after the first year, they have been up towards 85,000 annually and visitors rate the exhibition highly, it said.

But Professor Thomas said Massey was keen to have its creative arts centre back in the building.

“We have a world class creative arts college and they’ve been dispersed for the last four years. We need to bring them all together again as a creative hub,” she said.

“We need more floor space, we need some iconic presence at that campus so that we can see where the university is, what the front door is and we also need to regain our capability for running public events there.

“So that sense of public space, where we might have lectures or graduations and so on has been lost for the last four years. We’re very keen to regain those things,” she said.

The ministry said it was working on a business case for setting up and running a permanent military centre, although there are no timeframes attached to this.

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