The Maritime Museum’s volunteers share what the ocean means to them, and why sailing is more than an elite boy’s club.
“This one would have been home built,” James Clarke says, pointing to a wooden sailboat on display at New Zealand Maritime Museum Hui Te Ananui A Tangaroa. This particular wing houses the museum’s collection of smaller boats, a tribute to the vessels used recreationally and competitively by the sailing community. He worries that the skills that built and sailed these boats are becoming increasingly out of reach for people or lost altogether and with them access to the sea.
He is one of the 160-odd people who volunteer at the Maritime Museum, the Auckland institution that’s sat on the edge of the Hauraki Gulf for 26 years and explores Aotearoa’s relationship with the ocean. Its community of volunteers are a varied bunch, and they tell stories of the museum, guide visitors, crew the ships and create painstakingly detailed models. They are also integral to how the museum is challenging the perception of sailing as an elite activity, ensuring boating remains accessible and celebrating the relationship all New Zealanders have with the ocean.
“It’s the Maritime Museum, not the yachting museum,” says Clarke.
In recent years the narrative of the Maritime Museum has changed. No longer centred around a Eurocentric story of discovery and colonisation, instead, it celebrates our shared migrant experience and the significance of Polynesian exploration.
“There’s a lot more social history here than you might’ve found in the past,” says director Vincent Lipanovich. “One of our really key things we talk about is migration; everybody who came to New Zealand pre-1950, no matter what their background, came by ocean — whether it was by waka or steamship.”
The Maritime Museum works closely with Te Toki Voyaging Trust to share that story and celebrate our Pacific sailing and navigation history. Based at the museum, the trust works to revitalise and celebrate traditional Pacific voyaging cultures. Their crew is also made up of passionate volunteers
“The two volunteer communities mix a lot, they spend a lot of time with each other,” says Lipanovich. “Te Toki has done a lot of sailing for us now, and they’ve taken our volunteers out and trained them up to sail on their waka.”
Established over 30 years ago through the leadership and vision of waka expert Hoturoa Barclay-Kerr, its sailing fleet includes four Waka Hourua (double-hulled voyaging canoes), and it runs programmes both on-site – in partnership with the Maritime Museum – and off-site, which focus on developing youth leadership based on traditional wayfinding principles. Like the museum, Te Toki Voyaging Trust wants to help change the perception of sailing.
“We hope that it is becoming a normal and more accessible activity for not only the elite but everyday Kiwis. [The sea] is the life force of our environment and people,” says trustee Kim Barclay-Kerr.
“As with the museum, the trust also relies on volunteers to exist, people that share the same values of aroha, whānaungatanga, manaakitanga and kaitiakitanga.”
Volunteering provides access to the vessels and knowledge which help to diversify the boating community. Before joining the museum in 2015, volunteer Megan Hiew had no sailing experience. Now one of her favourite things is the view from the bow of the boat. “In the right conditions, when the sails are safely set and with the captain’s permission, I’ll convince a passenger or two to clip on a harness and join me out on the net. You get the ultimate thrill with the waves right beneath your feet — especially when we’re slicing the water towards the Harbour Bridge.”
She and Clarke both crew on Ted Ashby. An active collection object, the boat takes visitors sailing out on the Waitematā — a unique experience that is otherwise inaccessible for many Aucklanders in ‘The City of Sails’. Launched in 1993, the 18.1 metre long scow was built by the museum’s staff and volunteers — an undertaking that required 11,000 hours of volunteer labour. Learning to sail has changed the lives of some of the museum’s community.
“We’ve had younger people who started as volunteers, then taken on a little bit of work here, and have gone off and gotten into commercial shipping,” says Lipanovich.
For older generations, volunteering helps maintain access to the community, nourishing social interactions and knowledge sharing — things that often disappear when they cease working. Many of the senior volunteers have been part of the museum for decades. Model-maker Roger Hames has been there 26 years, and Liz Gordon for 17. Her first 14 years at the museum were as a guide, and she now edits the volunteer newsletter, regularly sharing precious information about the museum’s history with staff.
“They have this incredible institutional knowledge,” says volunteer coordinator Sonya Nagels. “They’ve been here for longer than any of the staff, so they tell us how it was. We have a lot to learn.”
It’s these volunteers who are most vulnerable during the Covid-19 crisis. The museum was closed from March 20 until May 27, and volunteers couldn’t return until June 17. “We’re letting them decide whether they feel comfortable coming back. Some of them have partners or family who are very high risk,” says Nagels.
The effects of Covid-19 continue to impact the museum – particularly the halt of international travel. Roughly 45% of their visitors are tourists from overseas who pay to visit the museum (it’s free for Aucklanders). Volunteer numbers may drop too; it’s a field dominated by the older generation who will be taking precautions around their health, while others may no longer be able to afford to donate their time.
“We could not run this museum without volunteers,” Lipanovich says. “They’re giving back, but you also want to make sure that they’re getting something out of it as well.”
It is these benefits that provide hope for the future of the volunteer economy, especially in the wake of the societal change wrought by Covid-19. In fact, we may yet see more people turning to the fulfilment and generosity of volunteering. Many of us have been reassessing the balance and meaning of our lives. For those seeking a career pivot, volunteering offers an opportunity to explore a new field. Older members of the workforce may be retiring earlier than planned, and volunteering could fill that space in their lives.
Community and giving have become pivotal as 2020 unfolds, with discussions around diversity and accessibility taking centre stage. For institutions like the New Zealand Maritime Museum Hui Te Ananui A Tangaroa, its volunteers are key to realising those tenets and reflecting society. Perhaps, most of all, volunteering is vital to the preservation and expansion of our collective memory.
“That’s the important thing about museums; it’s not just about the objects, it’s the people that make it and the stories behind it all,” says Clarke.
“Auckland’s got a lot of stories, and you’re just a temporary custodian of that knowledge. There’s no point keeping it in your own head — pass it on.”
National Volunteer Week celebrates the collective contribution of all volunteers who enrich Aotearoa New Zealand. National Volunteer Week 2020 will run from June 21-27 2020.
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