The importance of context

While walking through the city a month or so ago, I was stopped in my tracks by an unassuming sign: Shands Lane. For me, this small sign captured much of what is difficult about protecting, preserving and remembering our past in an urban environment. The sign refers to an early 1860s building popularly known as Shand’s, a name bestowed on it in the 1970s. The building was not named for an early occupant of the building, as might be assumed, but for the John Shand who owned the land when the building was constructed. John Shand was a farmer, racehorse breeder and hotelier. He neither built nor occupied the building and no other Shand is known to have done so (Christchurch City Council 1982). The building was moved to Manchester Street in 2015 (where it still stands), largely to make way for the access way now called Shands Lane.

Shands Lane, Hereford Street. Image: K. Watson.

Much was made of the need to incorporate lanes into central Christchurch following the earthquakes, with commentators frequently observing how laneways had revitalised central Melbourne. This discussion ignored that Christchurch had lanes prior to the earthquakes. Poplar Lane is one that people might remember, because it was used in the same way that the Melbourne lanes are, for shops and bars. Woolsack Lane (now the entrance to the Les Mills car park) is likely to be less familiar. These lanes are now gone, and there is no trace of them on current maps of the city. In 2017, the then head of Ōtākaro described the new lanes as “very much about giving character to Christchurch” (Small 2017), as though the city did not already have a character of its own, derived from multiple factors. More relevant might have been the point made by a local architect, that our city blocks are large, and constructing lanes through them provided more street-front commercial space within the city, particularly for retail outlets, cafes and bars (Dalman 2017). Shands Lane does indeed provide access to such premises, including a bar in a faux heritage-style building, which seemed to me to be the ultimate irony.

The heritage-esque building at the end of Shands Lane. Image: K. Watson.

In general, heritage practitioners regard moving a building to preserve it as a last resort: preservation in situ is much preferred. This is because part of the meaning a heritage site – or artefact – derives from its context, from its connections with the place and environment in which it was originally constructed and used, even when that landscape has changed dramatically. The Shand’s building was built on Hereford Street, a location that placed it near the commercial heart of the new city. The solicitor who constructed the building no doubt chose the location for this very reason.

Shand’s building in 1946. Image: Kete Christchurch.

There is nothing at Shands Lane today to indicate why the lane is named as such, and so the name, too, is devoid of any context, like the building the name derived from. It is simply one name among many and I imagine few stop to think about it. It is a lane named for an 1860s building that was only named as such in the 1970s, that had to be moved so that the lane itself could be built, with no interpretation to recognise that a nod to the past is being made. Some form of interpretation would make the remembrance of this name more meaningful, and helped to demonstrate some of the layers of history within the city.

For me, Shands Lane serves as a reminder about how history is constructed and reconstructed as time passes, of how knowledge is lost and of how there can be an element of myth-making to the presentation of the past. This is only one very small – and quite harmless – example of this process. As has been discussed much in the media recently, incredible injustices and harms can result through misrepresentations of the past. History is no one fact, it is a story about the past and, like all stories, it is constructed by people to serve their own ends.

For more about the Shand’s building, see the Christchurch City Libraries website:



Christchurch City Council, 1982. The Architectural Heritage of Christchurch No. 2: Shand’s Emporium. Town Planning Division, Christchurch City Council.

Dalaman, R., 2017. “Christchurch’s New Laneways.” Style, 1 June 2017. [online] Available at:

Small, J., 2017. “Christchurch’s south frame laneways will become an ‘inner city oasis’ – Wagner.” Press, 26 June 2017.