Sheila Robinson: the historian who enriched the community

There was a time when if anyone had a question about Tairāwhiti’s history, the answer would be ‘ask Sheila’.

Sheila Robinson and Dame Anne Salmond laugh over a glass of wine.
Sheila Robinson left with great friend Dame Anne Salmond. Courtesy of Sheridan Gundryexpand/collapse

Sheila Robinson, that is – former history teacher, Gisborne (later Tairāwhiti) Museum curator of history, Historic Places Tairāwhiti Gisborne chair and veritable fount of all knowledge related to heritage. And if Sheila didn’t know the answer, she would find out.

Sheila Robinson, who passed away early in October at the age of 90, wore the Tairāwhiti heritage hat well. Her passion and dedication to local history greatly enriched the community.

Born in 1932 to Hubert and Jocelyn Ryburn, Sheila grew up in Dunedin and attended University of Otago, where she gained a BA in history, English and geography, and an MA in history.

She married math teacher Watkin (Robbie), who she met while teaching at Feilding Agricultural High School, and the couple taught in Matamata before moving in 1965 to Sarawak, North-West Borneo then Samoa.

They moved in 1970 to Gisborne, where Sheila worked as a teacher before gaining her dream job as the museum’s curator of history. The job was the best she could have wished for, Colin – the eldest of their four sons – said at her funeral at Selwyn Village, Auckland. Son Geoff said the role enhanced her life and deep interest in heritage.

“She was certainly no back-room historian, always out there engaging with the community, telling the stories, putting the world right on Cook – where he landed and what he would have been wearing.”

Heritage consumed her professional and -- as chair of the Gisborne branch committee of NZ Historic Places Trust – voluntary work. She helped bring historical precision to Cook’s landfall in Tūranganui-a-Kiwa/Gisborne and helped the original site become recognised as a National Historic Reserve. She also helped see the Crook Cook atop Titirangi Kaiti Hill named as such and a new Cook, wearing an authentic uniform, installed between Waikanae Stream and the beach.

She was made an Honorary Life Member of Historic Places Trust, now Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga, in 2004 for her long service to the committee, heritage in the region, and numerous heritage publications. And she received the Queen’s Service Medal for services to historic places in the 2010 Queen’s Birthday Honours.

Heritage Tairāwhiti (formerly Historic Places Tairāwhiti) chairman James Blackburne said Sheila was passionate about advocating for the protection of the region’s heritage and continually roped people on to the local branch committee. 

“When I joined in 1993, I think everyone else had also been brought on by Sheila. We were her handpicked team of heritage advocates. She continued finding new members right through until she left the committee in 2006.

“When I became chair in about 1999, she was there to assist and, although always very thoughtful in how she offered her guidance, you always knew that you did what she said. She was a true inspiration to all of us and will be sadly missed by the heritage fraternity in Tairāwhiti.”

Tairāwhiti Museum director Eloise Wallace said Sheila’s passion and dedication to local history greatly enriched the community.

She had a long association with the museum as an employee and volunteer. She became curator of history and archives in 1980 following the retirement of Sir Robert Hall who held the position on a part-time basis.

During her time at the museum, Sheila was involved in the staging of two large exhibitions of photographs from the Crawford collection, and later she compiled and co-edited with John Berry the book Gisborne Exposed – the photographs of William Crawford 1874 – 1913.

Her passion for local history is evident from the many articles she contributed to The Gisborne Herald and other publications.

She helped compile biographies for the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, for which she was the region’s project co-ordinator, and contributed ten biographies of her own. Sheila retired in 1992 but continued to contribute as a museum volunteer and maintain a keen interest in the Māori heritage of Tairāwhiti.

She was awarded Life Membership of Tairāwhiti Museum for her outstanding contribution to local history research.

Sheila had no regrets, after Robbie’s death, about moving to Auckland to be closer to family. She continued travelling the globe in her eighties until dementia took its toll in her final years.

Her sons acknowledged Sheila’s late-blooming career, her creativity and desire to engage with her community.

‘Always a feminist’ and an accomplished pianist, she loved history, words, art, music, travel and her family… but not cooking.

Sheridan Gundry