Museum director goes out on a high

Arrowtown’s former Lakes District Museum director David Clarke reckons he’s paid his dues.

Having spent almost half the museum’s existence running the show, he officially stepped down at 5pm on Tuesday, passing the baton to long-time staffer Jane Peasey, who’s become the town’s first female museum director.

Clarke, 67, was hired as the director in 1989, as a fresh-faced 37-year-old, tasked with giving it a ‘‘bit of oomph’’.

Having opened in 1948, early directors were instrumental in building new displays, some of which are still there, and moving it, in 1955, to the former BNZ bank building before it ‘‘drifted along for a while’’.

‘‘Then I came along and did all sorts of things.’’

From Invercargill, Clarke had earlier graduated from the University of Otago with a history degree before pottering for several years, spending some time after graduation doing ‘‘all sorts of jobs’’, then three years travelling.

In Queenstown, he worked as a builder and had a ‘‘little landscaping business’’ before he decided to return to his first love at the museum.

Over the past 34 years, he estimates he’s raised about $5 million for the museum and $3m for the community, staged about 150 exhibitions, organised the education programme, research facility, helped the board purchase the historic post office — the second-oldest
operating post office in New Zealand — and in his spare time worked within heritage protection for Arrowtown’s buildings, and helped groups involved with the restoration of the Chinese Village and historic gaol.

He’s also served as a Queenstown councillor and independent commissioner and met a host of famous people and world leaders including the Queen, Nelson Mandela, Olympic Committee head Jacques Rogge and every New Zealand prime minister, with the exception of Chris Hipkins.

‘‘It’s been busy — I’ve been flat out for 34 years.’’

He notes he’s technically broken the law by delaying retirement till now.

‘‘I went to a dinner with [the late] Lex Perkins, he was a JP, and I signed on a serviette after a few drinks I was going to retire at 63.

‘‘It was sitting on my fridge, signed by a JP, so I broke the law.’’

But there’s good reason for waiting another four years to pass the baton.

‘‘We were in a situation where we needed all these things and I wanted to go out on a high note, rather than things left not done.’’

The biggest of the to-dos was the massive seismic-strengthening project, which had been on the cards since 2014, but only officially finished a year ago.

Ready to go since 2019, cost estimates had the project landing between $2m and $3m — something out of reach of the trust-run facility — and then Covid hit.

While the museum didn’t qualify for shovel-ready funding, it later attracted a $2m grant from regional economic and investment unit Kanoa and $1m from Central Lakes Trust, leaving the museum to raise the final $250,000.

Clarke says seeing that project through to completion has been one of his biggest highlights, and after the museum was given one of the Impact100 $100,000 grants last week for its digitisation project, the future’s looking bright for Peasey, who’s been with the museum 11 years, and her team.

There will still be headwinds, though.

‘‘We’re a museum in a tourist area, and we get a council grant, but we’re not a council museum, so we have to make our own way in the world and find money from everywhere.

‘‘That’s been the stressful part of it, making sure that we get the funding to keep the doors open.’’

Clarke says he’ll continue part-time until he hangs the Arrowtown Autumn Festival exhibition in April, but intends to help with some special projects, if Peasey will have him.

Of his successor, Clarke says the museum’s in great hands.

‘‘Jane will put her own mark on it — she’s really clever and well known in the community, and a good person.’’

Clarke says he and wife, Wendy, will do a bit of travel and put more work into an historic property they’re restoring at Ophir, while he also hopes to spend more time on the golf course and enjoying life.

‘‘With my friends getting sick, I’m seeing the runway getting shorter, so I need to go out on a high and enjoy a bit of time with Wendy.’’

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