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Te Papa's culture shock

Natural history has traditionally been at the heart of the national museum, but scientists are feeling excluded under the new regime.

Te Papa Tongarewa, the Museum of New Zealand, has a bold new vision for the future. It’s expressed in the slogan “Changing Hearts. Changing Minds. Changing Lives”.

Alan Baker, who headed the old National Museum before it morphed into Te Papa, is not impressed. “I do not believe that people go to a museum to have their lives changed,” he says. “They go there to be entertained and to learn.”

Nothing new here, you might think: just Te Papa provoking controversy again, as it has done intermittently ever since it opened on its prime Wellington waterfront site in 1998.

Te Papa chief executive Michael Houlihan. Photo/David White

“Our Place” has upset people for a host of reasons. The arts lobby complained for years that Te Papa’s art collection was hidden away on the fifth floor, where only the most determined enthusiasts would find it.

Some people hate the building itself. Others have objected to some of Te Papa’s exhibitions – notably one featuring an art work entitled Virgin in a Condom, which provoked protest rallies by Christians and a fruitless attempt at prosecution by MP John Banks.

But most of all, Te Papa has generated argument about what museums are supposed to be. Some critics – among them the Listener’s former cultural curmudgeon, Hamish Keith – have dismissed it as a flashy theme park, more concerned with visitor numbers than with preserving, explaining and interpreting the national heritage. Former prime minister David Lange referred to it as an entertainment parlour.

Now the debate has taken a new turn. Te Papa has had what its chief executive, Englishman Michael Houlihan, describes as a root-and-branch review, the first since it opened. And the resulting restructuring, under which Te Papa is being split organisationally into a “museum of living cultures” and a “museum for the future”, has provoked an outcry from a group not normally noted for rebellious activism.


Natural history – the accumulation, identification and display of collections relating to New Zealand’s unique flora and fauna – has been at the heart of the national museum since its inception in 1865. But scientists associated with Te Papa say their role has steadily diminished under a succession of chief executives who have shown little interest in, or commitment to, the institution’s crucial work in the field of taxonomy – the collection, identification and description of animals and plants.

One critic, biologist and cartoonist Bob Brockie, wrote earlier this year in his Dominion Post science column: “I have the feeling that Te Papa’s managers think the natural history collections and its staff of scientists are an expensive liability and would happily sell the lot off to any Dubai or Macau potentate.”

Matters were brought to a head earlier this year when two long-serving Te Papa scientists, marine mammals collection manager Anton van Helden and curator of fishes Chris Paulin, were made redundant.

In 24 years at Te Papa, van Helden managed one of the world’s largest collections of marine mammals and added more than 1000 specimens to the museum’s holdings.

He was a key figure behind one of Te Papa’s most successful exhibitions, Whales: Giants of the Deep, which is drawing crowds at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. The exhibition has been touring the world since 2008 and had been seen by more than a million people at other North American museums before opening in New York.

Te Papa’s touring exhibition Whales: Giants of the Deep, which is drawing crowds at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

Paulin, a 37-year veteran at Te Papa, has published four books and 60 scientific papers on fish and marine fauna. He supervised the display of Te Papa’s famous colossal squid, captured in the Antarctic in 2007, which created world attention and is still attracting wide-eyed visitors after nearly five years.

The Listener has spoken to both men. Both are disillusioned but didn’t want to talk publicly. However, others have spoken out for them.

On TV3’s Campbell Live in May, expatriate David Pawson, an expert in echinoderms at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, denounced the redundancies as shocking. “These talents that have been let go are absolutely irreplaceable,” Pawson said.

Alan Baker, a marine mammals scientist who was Te Papa’s first director of natural environment and Maori, says the museum has lost experts with world reputations and decades of experience.

Van Helden and Paulin were both appointed by Baker. Such people, he says, can’t be recruited off the street or even from universities. “It takes years to acquire the right knowledge of how to collect, preserve and interpret specimens and tell the public what they are dealing with. It’s a crying shame they have been lost.”

Baker says he was bombarded with emails from scientists all around the world following news of the redundancies. “The international reputation of New Zealand’s national museum has suffered.”

Houlihan, he has concluded, doesn’t understand natural science – “I think that’s his big problem.”

Alan Baker, who headed the old National Museum. Photo/David White

Van Helden and Paulin are said to be simply the latest and most visible casualties of a process that has been going on for years. According to one former Te Papa scientist who didn’t want to be named, “there has been a war of attrition since we became Te Papa, when we inherited an art gallery administration that didn’t see what we were about”.

Sandy Bartle, former curator of birds at Te Papa, has compiled a list that shows 11 of the 20 natural history positions that existed at Te Papa in 1990 have been disestablished – a reduction of 55%.

Not only have key people been made redundant in the recent restructuring, but insiders say areas of highly developed specialist expertise have been subsumed into broader, more generic categories. Leading scientists have had restrictions placed on their ability to do taxonomic research, described by one insider as the fundamental role of a museum scientist.

One consequence, the Listener was told, is that there is no longer a specialist looking after the marine mammals collection. With van Helden’s departure, future whale strandings – which in the past have provided specimens of some of the world’s rarest species – will become the responsibility of Te Papa’s curator of birds.

Redundancies are not the only aspect of the restructuring that has aroused antagonism in the scientific community. Te Papa is looking at moving its natural history collections – most of which are housed in a building in Tory St, several blocks from the museum – to other cities where they might be safer from earthquakes. Whangarei was said to be one location under consideration.

Critics say the collections, which consist of millions of plant and animal specimens, underpin scientists’ understanding of New Zealand’s biodiversity. They vehemently oppose the plan to shift them, saying the collections need to be where curators and researchers have access to them. They also worry about the risks inherent in moving them.

On Campbell Live, moa expert Trevor Worthy, who has donated countless moa bones to Te Papa and now does postdoctoral research at South Australia’s Flinders University, said the collections would be better off at the Smithsonian.

Drawing on an analogy by Hamish Keith, Bartle says Te Papa is like an iceberg of which only the tip is visible to visitors. The vast bulk of the iceberg is represented by the collections, which are far too numerous to display but provide a wealth of knowledge not available anywhere else. “Museums are where the taxonomic buck stops,” he says.

Controversy has also been provoked by the relocation of Te Papa’s library, the repository of its written knowledge. The space it previously occupied has been used to create more room for art exhibitions, thus going some way towards answering long-standing complaints from art aficionados. It currently houses an exhibition of works by French and American Impressionists.


Underlying the angst over the restructuring is a much bigger debate about what Te Papa should be.

On one side are the traditionalists, including scientists, who take a view shaped by nearly 150 years of museum history. On the other are Te Papa’s board and management, which have a vision – although it’s not well articulated – of a brave new world far removed from displays of insects, whale bones and stuffed birds.

Part of the debate revolves around the tension between natural history, historically the main thrust of the museum, and Te Papa’s other areas of interest: art, Maori culture, history and the Pacific. Te Papa brought art and natural history together – an uncomfortable fit, according to some traditionalists – and adopted a bicultural model whose influence is all-pervasive.

A web page for Te Papa's hugely popular Lord of the Rings exhibition.

Popular culture is a crucial drawcard, too. Te Papa’s most successful exhibition so far was Lord of the Rings, which attracted more than 200,000 paying visitors.

The clash of priorities between science and popular culture was exemplified in January when, on the day one of Te Papa’s most experienced scientists was told he was losing his job, the museum invited the public to come and watch one of its chefs build a gingerbread house.

Critics say science has been marginalised, and point to the fact that no one on the Government-appointed Te Papa board has a scientific background. Until recently the chairman was Sir Wira Gardiner, husband of Education Minister Hekia Parata. Gardiner had an army background before becoming the founding director of the Waitangi Tribunal and later chief executive of the Ministry of Maori Development, Te Puni Kokiri.

His replacement as chairman is Auckland lawyer Evan Williams, who is described as having a background in commercial law and a long-standing involvement with iwi over cultural and land issues.

Scientists are equally conspicuous by their absence from the top tier of Te Papa’s management. Houlihan is a professional museologist with a particular interest in World War I history – the subject of a forthcoming major exhibition at Te Papa that will focus on Gallipoli.

In an unusual arrangement, he shares responsibility for “cultural leadership and strategic management” of Te Papa with a kaihautu, or Maori leader – a position held in an acting capacity by Rhonda Paku, who is also the senior curator of the museum’s Maori collection.

The person nominally responsible for ensuring science’s voice is heard is Claudia Orange, a historian best known for her work on the Treaty of Waitangi.

None of the senior managers has a scientific background. The last scientist to serve on the senior management team, Carol Diebel, left in an earlier restructuring and is now with the famous Bishop Museum in Honolulu.


All this is a far cry from the days of the former National Museum and its precursors, the Dominion Museum and the Colonial Museum, which were run by scientists: among them geologist James Hector, ornithologist Robert Falla and marine biologists Dick Dell and John Yaldwyn. Some were household names.

The emphasis changed radically when Te Papa’s first chief executive, Cheryll Sotheran, was appointed in 1993. Now Dame Cheryll and employed as strategic director, business solutions, for New Zealand Trade & Enterprise, she had a background in art history. Bartle says she was a strong leader with a clear vision, but “uncomprehending” when it came to science.

Another figure regarded as highly influential in the shaping of Te Papa is Ken Gorbey, who later went on to work as project director for the acclaimed Jewish Museum in Berlin.

In a keynote speech to an international museums conference in 2002, Gorbey challenged the traditional notion that museums are established to research, collect, conserve, educate and exhibit.

He said although they were likely to carry out those functions, successful museums needed a mission, a vision and inspirational thinking. Te Papa, he suggested, was able to be revolutionary because it was developed by a board that was independent of the old museum staff.

In other words, it was a clear and deliberate break from previous ways of doing things. According to Bartle, who retired in 2009 after 33 years as curator of birds, the prevailing view was that there was nothing to be learnt from the past. Te Papa’s scientists, he says, were dismissed as hobbyists and dinosaurs.

The tension between the old guard and the reformists is clearly still there, as the ructions over the recent restructuring demonstrate. One source caught up in the upheavals describes the atmosphere within Te Papa as toxic, and adds pithily: “The lunatics have taken over the asylum.”

As an example of the reduced importance attached to the natural history collections, the Listener was told that when an excited van Helden wanted to go to the Bay of Plenty in 2010 to retrieve a beached spade-tooth whale and its calf – rare examples of the world’s most elusive species – he was told by his superior: “I can see absolutely no value in collecting these.”

Statements outlining the museum’s philosophy read like an ideological manifesto. Te Papa’s “Vision for the Future”, for example, includes the statement: “The Museum’s role is to act as a forum for change in Aotearoa New Zealand. It is to help people form ideas about the world, through experiencing and sharing different perspectives, so that they can take action from an informed position.”

A similar theme is expressed in Te Papa’s most recent annual report. “We will be an agent for change, and present issues in ways that challenge and inspire people to learn and to take action in order to influence their future.”


Keith, one of the museum’s most trenchant critics, wrote in his Listener column earlier this year: “Instead of being driven by its collections and the nation’s need to connect to its history and cultural memory, [Te Papa] has dicked about with cutesy branding and wizard-wheeze family fun.”

But on one level at least, the approach seems to have worked. Te Papa attracts 1.3 million visitors a year and in 2012 passed the 20 million mark. Reported visitor satisfaction ratings have been consistently high: 97% in 2011/12.

What’s more, the Government seems happy with the direction Te Papa is taking. In a statement last month announcing the appointment of the new board chairman, Arts, Culture and Heritage Minister Christopher Finlayson noted Gardiner had “successfully led the museum through a period of significant change, including the setting of a new direction for Te Papa, and a restructuring of the institution that will secure its leading international position into the future”.

Houlihan took over the leadership of Te Papa in 2010 after seven years as director-general of the National Museum of Wales. He succeeded New Zealander Seddon Bennington, who died with a companion when they were caught in snow while tramping in the Tararua Range in 2009.

A small, neat, quietly spoken man, Houlihan explains in an interview that the recent review and restructuring were driven by several factors, including the rapid advance in digital technology.
This, he says, has created greater opportunities for museums – but in trying to clarify what this means, he often resorts to abstractions.

“Exciting possibilities” and “new ways of telling stories” are recurring phrases. Technology, according to Houlihan, enables the museum to capture and archive communities’ stories: “what Unesco calls intangible cultural heritage, the non-material aspects of culture [that] can now be captured through new technology and can reinforce stories about the collections and the objects and give them a human dimension”.

So it’s a radical change to the way museums have traditionally functioned? “I think what we are talking about are greater possibilities for museums. What’s really exciting about what has happened in the last 10 to 15 years is the richness and depth of the stories you can now tell, not only about the collections but about the environment and so on.”

It’s hard for the layperson to work out exactly what this means, but it’s clearly a very different approach to museology than that of the old days.

A key part of Houlihan’s thinking is that the divisions between the various subject areas of a multidisciplinary museum such as Te Papa should be broken down.

Museums, he says, should reflect the real world. “Real life isn’t about separation. Look out the window and you can see architecture, you can see the natural environment, you can see people having a coffee. You see culture, science and art interacting, and museums need to reflect what the real world is actually like.”

He observes that technology, lifestyles, forms of entertainment and definitions of culture are all changing. “How do we start to reflect that? What should we be recording today that might be resonant in 200 years’ time?”

Organisationally, Te Papa needed to change, he says. It needed to look at whether there were capability gaps and whether it had the necessary expertise to collect for the future. “An organisation can’t remain static. When I came here, I got a very strong message that Te Papa needed to change, both internally and externally.”

External stakeholders were asking whether more could be done with art and whether the museum could encompass a wider range of science than just the natural environment.

For example, Houlihan thinks Te Papa could devote more attention to technology and to the history of science in New Zealand. There is a great story to be told, he says, in how people have used technology to solve day-to-day problems in what he pronounces as “Atta-rower New Zealand”.

He is adamant that far from diminishing Te Papa’s science capability, the museum is looking at upgrading and expanding its commitment to science, although perhaps with more emphasis on technology as opposed to natural history.

A new position, head of science, is being created to provide “intellectual leadership” and an external research advisory panel has been appointed (led, the critics point out, not by a scientist but by University of Auckland professor Raewyn Dalziel, a historian).

Houlihan stands by the museum’s statement that no curators or scientists doing research were made redundant – a claim challenged by critics, who say research was an important part of the work done by van Helden and Paulin. Houlihan declines to discuss personal cases, but says under the new arrangements, curators will have an improved career path and be required to do less management work.

Questioned about the library, he says he has trouble understanding what the fuss is about. The library has been relocated in an attractive room (true – the Listener has seen it, though it looks a lot smaller than the previous space) that was previously virtually unused.

It’s not true books have been pulped or burnt, Houlihan says. Librarians worked hand in hand with curators in reviewing the library’s holdings – “standard practice” – but there was no loss of reference or research capability, nor of public access.


On the proposal to shift Te Papa’s collections to safer localities, Houlihan’s comments indicate the museum has pulled back somewhat from its original plan. He talks about a move being looked at “in principle” and says the museum has been getting advice. The logistical convenience of the collections will be taken into consideration, he says. But he firmly rules out Whangarei as a destination.

Asked whether the outcry from scientists – including former Te Papa staff – is simply a case of people being naturally resistant to change, Houlihan shrugs. “I really couldn’t say.”

Part of Te Papa, a building that some people hate. Photo/David White

But far from being taken aback by the level of controversy surrounding Te Papa, he indicates it’s par for the course. Museums arouse emotions, he says, whether they’re in London (where he began his career at the Imperial War Museum), Belfast (where he was chief executive of the National Museums of Northern Ireland) or Wales.

“A museum that’s alive should be generating debate,” he says. “The worst thing that could happen would be if people weren’t getting fired up.”

Mission accomplished, then – or that part of it, at least.