Okains Bay lies tucked at the bottom of a steep, winding road on the green eastern edge of Banks Peninsula.
It’s famous for a picturesque campground, spectacular Waitangi Day celebrations – and the Okains Bay Maori and Historical Museum.
Two thousand people packed into the small settlement on February 6 this year, eager to catch sight of the magnificent waka paddling up the Opara River, hear the powhiri – and see the museum’s renowned collection of Maori artefacts.
Amassed over a lifetime by local farmer Murray Thacker, it is internationally famous, with one of the biggest selections of hei-tiki in the country, a superb collection of cloaks, some going back 200 years, and many rare kete and taiaha.
Six huia bird can be seen there, when only 150 remain worldwide and just 60 of those in New Zealand.
The rarity of the 3000-piece collection prompted North Islander Ian Day to take up a recently established directorship position at the museum last year.
With a Masters degree in museum studies from Victoria University in Wellington, Mr Day was brought in by the board of trustees as part of a push towards professionalisation.
“Meeting best practice museum standards is where we’re heading,” he says. “The board saw a clear need that they had to up their ballgame. It’s a common thing with smaller museums – they reach a point where they have to either get better – or close down.”
Mr Day was the director at Waikato Coalfields Museum in Huntly, a carver at a number of marae and most recently manager at Howick Historical Village in Auckland.
Prior to that he was based in the red dust of the Western Australian desert, advising museums on heritage and sacred sites and working with tourism providers.
A specialist in small regional museums, he shifted to Okains Bay a year ago with his partner and two burmese cats and they live on-site.
It’s the nature of the job to move around, he says.
His appointment followed a visit to the museum from Te Papa 18 months ago, when the Maori collection was declared as being of international significance and other collections nationally important, including the antique firearms, small boats and some of the buildings.
Along with managing the museum day-to-day, Mr Day is involved in writing policies and reports, undertaking conservation work where needed, renewing and improving exhibitions, marketing and staff management – “everything.”
As one of the hubs of the local community, it’s got to strengthen that role, he says.
“It’s got to provide a better level of care for its collections. We are looking at a five-year redevelopment programme so the layout of the buildings will work better for the visiting public, without losing the ambience and the special character that it’s got. The aim is for long-term sustainability.”
It’s difficult to apply for significant funding to support the redevelopment until the groundwork is in place, he says and that’s what he’s been doing over the past year.
Come April, the fundraising drive will pick up pace. Mr Day estimates it will take around $1 million over the next five years to fully upgrade.
Report writing takes up a lot of his time, but he also works hands-on to improve the condition of the displays, helped by museum custodian Sharon Henderson.
Reorganising the eclectic colonial collection is under way.
Mr Day observes it lacks a narrative at the moment – but presenting it in a more appealing way without losing the quirkiness will be a big job.
“You act as a mnemonic aid; that’s part of the community function. It contains the identity of the people, a museum.”
He smiles when asked whether he will see out the next five years in the bay. It partly depends on his health. But he is enjoying the supportive community. Working in smaller museums is uniquely satisfying.
“The stories are much closer to the surface and more fascinating. You know you’re making a difference.”
Okains Bay farmer Murray Thacker (right), who died last year, started collecting at the age of 11 and it quickly became a lifetime passion.
In 1968 he bought the old dairy factory to house his collection, opening the Okains Bay Maori and Historical Museum in 1977.
Much of the carving on site was created specifically by master carver John Rua, who began attending Van Asch School for the Deaf as a child.
It was at Van Asch that he began learning woodwork and carved sea creatures, kiwi and zoo animals.
His work was later shown in an exhibition, whereupon he met master carver Hone Te Kauru Taiapa, who invited him to learn traditional Toi Whakairo at the New Zealand Institute for Maori Arts and Crafts in Rotorua.
Mr Rua graduated with honours in 1972 and two years later began carving for the Okains Bay museum, later shifting to Christchurch where he set up his own business at the Artist’s Quarters in Oxford Tce. In 1980 he began work on the meeting house and dining room at Ngā Hau E Whā National Marae in Pages Rd.