Open Christchurch, Open Archives: Learning from our history

Risingholme’s purpose as an organisation is to exist at the heart of wider learning communities. This means actively engaging with other organisations to collaborate and create events that enhance the learning opportunities within our city.

Fast forward to May and we see this purpose in action with the rollout of the Open Christchurch festival where we welcomed the public in to experience the wonderful architectural heritage of our 160-year-old homestead and post-war modern hall. It was an opportunity for us to reflect on our history as an organisation, learn more about what makes our buildings so special, and of course create further learning opportunities through the development of an archival project led by our Archives Intern Emily.

Emily came to us through the University of Canterbury’s PACE internship programme. For the past 12 weeks she has been busy in the archives delving into the world of historical research, cataloguing, and exhibition display so that we can share some of the stories behind the buildings and people of Risingholme. As part of the Open Christchurch festival, Emily developed a series of historical panels that shed light on the colourful history of our special community hall. From researching to writing text, digitizing, and planning out endless layouts to tell these stories, Emily reflects on her learning journey below.


Architecture and the archive: a personal reflection

Risingholme had a great turnout for Open Christchurch 2024! The architectural celebration event came just in time for Risingholme’s 80th anniversary, and what a wonderful way to celebrate! The homestead hosted several tours all day Saturday, and the hall was able to welcome about 90 visitors, making it a busy day to be sure.

Risingholme’s hall was a perfect building to focus on for this event, as the building is not only fascinating architecturally, but has a rich social history as well.

As an intern here at Risingholme, I was given the opportunity to dive headfirst into uncovering the history of the hall via Risingholme’s very own historical archives to create historical panels for the Open Christchurch weekend.

Originally built in 1947, Risingholme’s hall follows the modernist architectural style that emerged after the Second World War, with its open floor plans and simple forms. The hall was built with a sense of practicality, as it was to be used long term by many groups of people and it’s certainly lived up to expectations as it continues to be used today.

With this internship being project-based, I was able to see the panels through from the very beginning until the very end. Coming into this internship I had very little archival experience, so I knew that I had my work cut out for me. The archives were generally organized, and I found it relatively easy to acquire basic information about Risingholme and the hall. However, I quickly learned that the most valuable information could only be found by diving deeply into the archives and reading tedious amounts of committee minutes and newsletters. It was never boring though, and I was really excited to be able to work closely with such old documents for the first time.

For about the first month of my internship, I spent much of my time sifting through the archives and gathering any information that I could surrounding the hall. There were simply so many things to see and go through that I found it a bit hard to not get completely sidetracked and lost within the sea of endless information that was the archives.

My favorite story that I was able to uncover through this project was the story of Wiggles, the toothless cat that followed Risingholme’s drama group around for several years. Risingholme has been no stranger to friendly pets in its time, and Wiggles was a perfect example of this. According to former director Jeanne Edgar, the grey toothless cat just showed up one day in the hall during the drama group’s rehearsal of Wiggles the Wizard. She sat down, and never left. Jeanne would even take Wiggles in the car with her for short trips so that she would get used to traveling and could join the group for productions outside of Risingholme.

I stumbled upon this wonderful story completely by accident. I was going through a scrapbook looking for a good picture to represent the drama group, and there was a very small newspaper clipping glued to the back of one of the pages. Wiggles had just been “interviewed” in a newspaper, and this was the clipping that I came across.

I ended up finding some of the most interesting details and tidbits in this same way, by just stumbling upon them. I came across descriptions of the community effort that were quite entertaining as well. You know an organization has a rich history when amazing stories randomly reveal themselves to you! The accounts told of volunteers who had helped with the building of the hall spilling paint buckets, nailing nails in the wrong places at the wrong time, and of some that brought tea or snacks if they couldn’t provide physical labour. When I walked into the Hall on Open Christchurch day, I was surprised that I could actually see the misaligned nails in the flooring (alongside years of dents from square dancing stiletto heels!) The community truly made the hall’s history come to life, and after reading all these accounts I felt like I was standing in a piece of living history.

Moving forward with all my research, it was time to draft the panel text. We knew beforehand that there were three panels to work with, and the research that I had collected informed what each panel would be about. We eventually settled on Architecture, Community, and Performing Arts as the themes of these panels, and from there the research was organized accordingly. Despite being a history major, writing has never been my favorite. However, once the panel text was drafted the true fun began.

Throughout my research I was able to pick out several key images relating to the hall, and we divided these images, along with the text, among the three panels. Then it was time to decorate. There were endless layouts for the panels, but I actually had a lot of fun rearranging the content repeatedly until we got layups that fit just right, both aesthetically and for the sake of the story being told within the text. Being able to see all of my research and hard work laid out physically was really fulfilling, and I am proud of what I was able to create during this internship!

With my parents being back home in the United States, they weren’t exactly able to visit the hall during the Open Christchurch weekend. However, my dad (who works in construction himself) was particularly pleased to hear about New Zealand Worker Bees and the huge community effort in constructing the hall. You really don’t see many efforts like this in the United States. I not only learned a lot about Risingholme through this internship, but about New Zealand itself as well (I had never heard of netball before coming here!) Being able to report back on new things that I had learned to my parents at home every week was really special, and this internship was truly a rare gem of an opportunity that not every student gets with their study abroad experience.

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