Olveston is a grand, formerly private family home set on the hill over downtown Dunedin, the sort of faux-baronial monstrosity so beloved by late Victorian nouveau riche types. I won't bang on about the resident Theomin family; interested parties can read about them on the official site.
Despite residing in Dunedin we had never previously visited the place, our taste for vintage shit notwithstanding. Rumours of expensive admission and overratedness warred with accounts of its superlative collection of period effects, perturbing our budget-conscious sensibilities.
The edifice itself is pretty much a pebbledash gingerbread bouncy castle whistled ode to middlebrow bad taste, neatly cataloguing most if not all of the flourishes insisted upon by wealthy attention-seekers of the era. It is silly, utterly unsuited to our climate and stuck sort of arse-about-face on inadequate grounds. That's not to say it's without charm, though, unlike so many similarly vainglorious follies.
The gift shop itself is a tacky nightmare heaving with random imported tat. That always sets an ominous tone as far as I'm concerned.
The house is in typically florid mixed late-Vic/Arts & Crafts/Liberty style, heavy on the medieval references and Orientalism. There are some cute features that we won't spoil for you and it was nice to see it all intact, particularly the service areas with their whacky dinosaur appliances and occult layout. If Olveston can lay claim to any particular virtue, it is surely context; the Theomins' acquisitive efforts have provided this invaluable resource in perpetuity.
All that compulsive Victorian materialism, stratified convention and thirst for prestige proves a bit confrontational after a while- far too much and somehow deficient, emblematic of an entire world despoiled in pursuit of curated surfeit. Deep breaths were sometimes needed. Curiously, though the family collected widely, we detected rather few astonishingly significant pieces amongst the standard upscale chinoiserie and colonial art etc, which made the ludicrously ubiquitous do not touch signs and no-photography shenanigans feel precious and unfriendly. There was the odd cool piece, to be sure, but there was very little solid information provided about any of it, which was disappointing.
Our guide was... well, he misidentified a number of objects, seemed unaware of the significance of others, took too much pleasure in ostentatiously scolding visitors for making physical contact with prohibited items (a wall, in one case) and excluded the Chinese contingent of our tour from his introductory banter. Awkward.
Our recommendations: keep this one up your sleeve for a rainy day. Tours involve about 45 minutes of standing around and a few flights of stairs, so if you're not 100% mobile I'd think twice. A more than passing interest in design, antiquities and olde-worlde business are probably prerequisites. Look up the tour times because there's fuck-all to do if you're heinously early. If you can swing it, opt for the more exclusive two-person tour because a large party (there were about 20 people on ours) makes for a suboptimal experience. The guides aren't miked (which is understandable given that tours sometimes happen simultaneously) and the interior rooms are both busily furnished and heavily roped off, resulting in crowded sightlines and sometimes unintelligible commentary.
The cover charge of $19.50 NZ per head for visitors and $15.50 for Dunedin residents (except us- as I said, we were stiffed) is too much to pay for amateur hosting and puts the experience beyond the reach of many locals, which bothers us. Olveston is interesting, well-presented and overpriced.