The $20 million collection at New Zealand’s oldest museum is at risk unless its aging research facility is replaced soon.

While the Nelson Provincial Museum’s main building is in the centre of the city, the Isel Park facility in Stoke holds the vast majority of the collection and it’s falling apart.

The museum’s chief executive, Lucinda Jimson, said they are close to losing the collection if they don’t get out of the building.

“It’s significantly at risk and once history is gone, it’s gone, it’s irreplaceable. These things cannot be replaced. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to save this collection,” she said.

She said the building wasn’t even fit for purpose when it was made in the ’70s and as the years have gone by, the issues have worsened. There’s leaks, mould, asbestos and it’s earthquake prone.

Work has been underway for years to replace the facility but it’s getting to crunch time now. A new $15 million building has been designed with construction due to start this year.

Even with funding from local councils they’re millions of dollars short and it’s hoped the Ministry for Culture and Heritage will provide assistance.

“It will enable us to actually care for the collections properly,” Jimson said. “It will enable our staff to have decent working spaces and making the collection accessible to people.”

The museum’s collections leader Shae Trewin says the building’s issues keep her up at night.

“The building is very challenging. It’s exceeding its life expectancy at this point.”

There’s sandbags in flood prone parts of the building and buckets scattering the hallways under known leaks.

During the 2022 storm which devastated the top of the south, water was coming through the ceiling. Plastic tarpaulins put up to protect the collection has remained and the walls are scattered with date markings from each leak.

Trewin says the collection is of huge national and even international importance.

“We have over 300,000 objects. We have over 1.2 million photographs in the collection. We have a massive manuscript and archive collection and a really, really significant taonga collection,” she said.

In some parts of the building there’s no temperature control, which is a particular concern this summer.

“We have already preselected a lot of our vulnerable objects – mainly artworks – and we are just going to relocate them to a different space,” she said.

Staff at the museum hope the rest of the collection will find a new home too in the not too distant future.