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After an Earthquake Destroyed a Museum, an Artist Stepped in to Fill the Void

New Zealand’s Lyttelton Museum lost its building five years ago, but Julia Holden is giving it a public presence through a project focused on local history.

Julia Holden’s portraits “The Newspaperman: James Edward FitzGerald (Andrew Tebbutt)” (2016) and “The Heroic Antarctic Explorer: Ernest Shackleton (David Harris)” at the London Street Bookstore in Lyttelton, New Zealand (all images courtesy the artist)

When a 6.3-magnitude earthquake struck New Zealand’s Canterbury region in February 2011, the port town of Lyttelton — just 1.2 miles east of the epicenter — suffered severe, widespread damage. The Lyttelton Museum, whose collection recounts the area’s history as one of New Zealand’s earliest landing points for colonial settlers, was demolished in the aftermath. The institution continues to work on erecting a new building, but in the meantime has found ways to maintain a public presence, most recently through a thoughtful, digitally accessible project that brings to life local history while engaging with the present-day, still-recovering community.

Julia Holden, “The Artist (Hannah Beehre)” (2016)

Created by Christchurch-based artist Julia Holden, Lyttelton Redux uses sound, painting, photography, and performance to tell the stories of those who helped shape what was essentially the primary gateway for the development of the entire Canterbury region. It unfolds as an audio tour, downloadable through international museum app izi.TRAVEL, but also exists online as a virtual museum, allowing anyone around the world to dig into some fascinating tales.

Holden revived the histories of 23 figures — all suggested by the Lyttelton Museum — who were connected to the town, from early settlers and land surveyors to a landscape artist to a prominent suffragette. For each person, she found a present-day local connected to them based on occupation or personal relationships; the contemporary person then served as her living canvas: she painted each subject (with non-toxic paint) to resemble their corresponding original figure, using historical photographs and paintings as a guide. Holden then photographed her participants. The resulting images are immediately intriguing: the figures’ bodies resemble wax sculptures, but their expressions are alive, with glistening eyes peering out from beneath carefully crafted costumes.

The prints now hang in locations around Lyttelton that are associated with either the past or present subjects, and these sites form the walking tour. The accompanying audio is sourced from New Zealand’s Nga Taonga Sound and Vision Archive, complemented by recordings of the participating locals reflecting on their forebearers. Holden is also selling smaller versions of the portraits through 50 Works Gallery to raise money for the museum.

Sergeant Dave Knowles at the Lyttelton Community Police Station beside his portrait, “The Sheriff of Lyttelton: Henry J. Tancred,” which hangs next to “The Sheep Stealer: James McKenzie”

“I conceived of the project primarily as a way of reconnecting people with their town’s very interesting history, linking the remaining buildings by creating a kind of art and history ‘treasure hunt,’ and as a potential fundraiser for the museum,” Holden told Hyperallergic. “The portraits literally speak for themselves.”

Through the project, you can learn about the painter Margaret Stoddart as told by Lyttelton artist Hannah Beehre, or listen to a broadcast from September 13, 1933, announcing the election of the first woman, Elizabeth McCombs, to the New Zealand Parliament; the politician’s great-granddaughter, Carolyn McCombs, served as her living canvas. You can hear a recording of a Māori song performed by members of the Te Runanga o Ngai Tahu tribe to commemorate the centenary of World War I; it accompanies a portrait of a Māori battalion soldier, representing the largely forgotten Māori who served in the war. There’s also the story of the whaler Captain Thomas Gay, whose wrecked ship gave its name to present-day Corsair Bay, as well as the tale of John McKenzie, a notorious sheep stealer who received jail time for swiping a thousand of the woolly animals.

Launched in November, Lyttelton Redux will remain physically integrated into the town through the end of March, while the virtual exhibition and audio components will remain online indefinitely. The photographs may go to the Canterbury Museum in nearby Christchurch. Vibrant and uncanny, they are windows into a rich past that would otherwise, for now, remain largely inaccessible.

Julia Holden, “Elizabeth McCombs (Carolyn McCombs)” (2016)
Julia Holden, “Te Hōia Māori o Te Pakanga Tuatahi o te Ao” (2016)
Julia Holden, “The Nurse (Laura MacKay)” (2016)
Julia Holden, “The Lyttelton Butcher (David Bundy)” (2016)
Julia Holden, “Wheke” (2016)
Julia Holden, “The British Naval Officer (Marlon Williams)” (2016)
Julia Holden’s portraits “The Governor: John Robert Godley (Jeremy Dyer)” and “The Governor’s Wife: Charlotte Godley (Clare Dyer)” at a local bar
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