By Rebecca O’Brien, Technical Advisor (Historic)
After 10 minutes of jolting down a gravel road, my expectations were at an all-time low. On a pleasant day in April, I was about to visit one of New Zealand’s top heritage sites. Rangihoua Heritage Park awaited – I knew it as the place where New Zealand’s first Christmas was celebrated and as the first place Maori allowed English missionaries to settle. Surely, all that would be left to see after 200 years would be grassy hills and perhaps a nice view? Yet rave reviews of the place on Trip Advisor had piqued my interest.
The visit was motivated by a mission – I was knee-deep in a project to find out what visitors value about New Zealand’s historic places. How could we encourage more tourists and local visitors to our exceptional heritage sites? Cutting-edge research tactics were part of a plan to find out what visitors think about our heritage sites today. The project team would analyse social media posts, use GPS units to create heat maps of the routes visitors took, and carry out traditional surveys and interviews of our web-users and visitors. But for now, I was a visitor myself – and for the first time – what would I uncover?
The sign in the carpark informed me that this place was both a Landmark – a place to learn about New Zealand’s stories – and ‘a place of accord’. I passed between two stately pou and was welcomed into the site through a smooth curve of a building.
The carefully-tended planting gave the entrance a commemorative feel that seemed respectful in this significant valley. I used my phone to access a digital tour that set off a rich deep voice describing the importance of the place to tangata whenua. It seemed extraordinary that, in this isolated place, I should be so carefully looked after.
Throughout the tour of the valley, I was accompanied by my digital guide and a series of helpful and well-designed signs explaining the landscape. I was particularly taken by the cut-out sign that framed a view of Rangihoua itself – the steep hill that was the preeminent pa in the area. The cut-out sign drew me in and showed me how to see the sites of the houses that had once occupied the sloping sides of the hill.
The path led me inexorably towards the beach and valley floor – towards the site where the first Christmas was celebrated. Best known for the Marsden Cross that has marked the site since 1907, the site was cleverly laid out to help visitors re-imagine the scene that played out there in December 1814 when Samuel Marsden led that first Christmas service.
I left with a much clearer understanding of how the place had shaped and been shaped by those first interactions between Māori and Pākehā – and why, despite the challenges – the place could be described as a place of accord.
After leaving the site, I discovered that the brilliant Rangihoua digital tour and its accompanying website has been nominated for an international ‘Webby’ award – I for one will be voting for it.
You can experience the digital tour for yourself on the Rangihoua Heritage Park website.
Have you visited Rangihoua Heritage Park? We would love to hear about your experience – take our survey and tell us your thoughts.
Rangihoua Heritage Park has been selected for an international Webby Award.
To increase the profile of this amazing place, and of course to help it win a Webby, please vote for the site using the button below.