A new home for the Hillary house

In which I rescue the government from its dilemma over what to do with the Hillary homestead and help rejuvenate the Auckland waterfront, all in one go

Showing that his political judgment hasn't gone completely to the dogs, John Key last week announced that the government is willing to pay some or all of the cost required to preserve Sir Edmund Hillary's family home in Remuera, Auckland.

Money doesn't seem to be the core issue in the uncertainty swirling around exactly what to do with the house Sir Ed built; new owner and Rich-Lister Terry Jarvis has already indicated publicly that he's willing to spend some money to find "an elegant solution". Very decent of him it is. But the Prime Minister's political will to save the historic home is welcome.

Jarvis, who owns the house behind Hillary's and wants to re-landscape the Hillary property into an extension of his garden, is talking with realtor Graham Wall and adventurer Graeme Dingle about just how much of the house to save and where it might go.

That the home should be saved is a no-brainer. Whatever we think now, future generations will curse us if we don't deliver them some momentos of these identity-forming years and the characters who embodied them. Those who continue to point out that the house is nothing to look at miss the point. Abraham Lincoln's log cabin wasn't much to look at either. Frank Sargeson's place on the North Shore's pretty skanky. It's what happened inside the walls, not the walls themselves, that merit a special place in the national memory.

So what do we do with the house, or part thereof?

It makes sense to rebuild it in a museum. The Met in New York has a room from a Frank Lloyd Wright house re-made in one of its galleries. The Auckland War Memorial Museum re-built a traditional Sherpa hut for a Hillary exhibition a few years back. Yet in what seems to be just one odd choice amongst several by the Museum in recent times, director Vanda Vitali has said 'no thanks' to the Hillary homestead. No space, it seems.

Which simply reinforces the logic that it's time to create more space. Auckland is in the market for a signature building; a grand waterfront landmark. Queens Wharf and Captain Cook Wharf are in line to be turned into public space in the next decade or so and either would be the perfect home for a new museum. Yes, there's endless talk about an art gallery, a cruise ship terminal, or an opera house. But we need something that defines us better.

Cities around the world have developed museums, attractions and galleries based on themes that say something about themselves and their place in the world. The buildings and their collections speak of what lies at the heart and in the soul of that city. For Auckland, and New Zealand, that something should be exploration.

Ours were the last major islands to be discovered and inhabited by wandering humankind; we are as described, the last, least and loveliest. We are the end point of humanity's exploration. This country is the ultimate destination for those who wondered what was over the horizon.

The people who finally found us, first the remarkable Polynesian sailors who made the longest sea journeys in pre-historic times, later the European seamen, headed into the unknown with a courage and curiosity I can but admire. They were truly heroic.

But what's just as remarkable is that the people who settled here have been explorers par excellence. Sir Ed in his mountaineering and polar expedition; Sir Peter Blake and others in their oceanic adventures; a multitude of pioneer explorers such as Charles Heaphy, Thomas Brunner and Julius von Haast; explorers of science such as Sir Ernest Rutherford and Richard Pearse; explorers of politics such as Kate Sheppard and Te Whiti...

Exploration is a theme that embraces most of our national heroes and would draw tourists by the busload. (I'm sure there's lots of museum politics that would come into play here; this museum could be independent, a subset of Auckland's museum in the domain, a partner to the Maritime Museum... that's a logistical debate for later). Sir Ed's house, as the best known New Zealand explorer, could be reconstructed at the heart of Auckland's new waterfront landmark.

I realise I'm getting ahead of myself here, but what might this exploration museum look like? Well, Princes Wharf is already modelled on the shape of a ship. What about a matching piece of architecture modelled on a waka prow; a delicate design on a grand scale. Like this, or this, or this. Imagine those shapes as buildings. And imagine the Waitemata Harbour framed by those symbols of our European and Polynesian maritime traditions.

This is an idea for the post-recession long-term. It may be too grand for some tastes, but I think Aucklanders need to be discussing exactly what they want to see on their waterfront, so humbly offer my tuppence worth... And heck, these are days when a $50m national cycle way can be built on a whim, so why not a Museum of Exploration?