Hamish Keith on museums

by Hamish Keith / 05 December, 2011
A disclosure: I chair a working party of a bunch of museum professionals, with an eminent architect thrown in, who are making a case for exhibition space on the Auckland waterfront for the national collections.

Other than to note that there is ample precedent for that – Britain’s Tate has four branch offices and Russia’s Hermitage five – I won’t repeat the arguments here. What was fascinating was the fallout. Most frequently asked question: “Won’t this compete with the other Auckland museums and take away Auckland visitors to Te Papa?” That might seem an obvious fret, but as far as I am aware, not one museum on this planet has closed down because another opened.

New Zealanders have a taste for museums. Te Papa has annual attendances of over a million (and, yes, 100,000 or so of those are from Auckland). Christchurch must hold something of a record. The combined attendances at that city’s museum and gallery are around 1.2 million.

Auckland is a bit of a laggard – its War Memorial Museum used to boast attendances of over a million, but since it introduced a fee at the door they slumped and are slowly climbing back to around 800,000. Auckland Art Gallery’s earlier visitor figures would have taken the total to over the million, but the rebuilt gallery has done better than 100,000 in its first month.

Adding in the rest of the country, total visits must well exceed the total population. It would be pushing it to argue that the appetite for culture, as offered by museums, would suffer if compared with any sporting code – including the national religion. The real question is not “Do we need any more museums?” but “Do we have enough of them?”

Cultures will go on making and accumulating cultural stuff, and one generation’s rubber duck can turn out to be a precious treasure of the next. Short of wars and cataclysms to cull the things that comprise our ­cultural memory – and, sadly, there are many such disasters – these treasures just go on piling up.

There might come a time when building more museums will not be the answer, but that won’t be any time soon. The most pressing problem is access to what museums hold – digitisation can never provide more than a partial solution – but one simple step forward would be to not think of museums as monuments but instead as windows to their collections.

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