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Why Te Papa's latest shake-up is raising alarm among experts

The Te Taiao/Nature site. Photo/Jack Fisher/Te Papa/Supplied

Te Papa’s new nature zone is just one of the big shake-ups at the national museum. Another involves restructuring that some experts warn will endanger its collections. 

It will be immersive, noisy, fun and instructional. In the biggest shake-up since Te Papa opened 21 years ago, the new $12 million nature zone, Te Taiao/Nature will include bird song, an overhauled Earthquake House, a 70sq m nest, a 700-year-old moa egg and opportunities to weigh yourself against a giant moa or create your own tsunami.

“We try to include a range of experiences,” says Frith Williams, Te Papa’s head of experience design and content, “but the goal is to have people reflect on things, such as what makes our environment unique and why we need to look after it.”

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In 2015, Williams used a Fulbright scholarship to look at trends in 150 North American museums and related organisations. She saw increased use of bilingual text, digital technologies, smartphones, physical, or embodied, learning and more opportunities for social events.

“Many of Te Papa’s visitors come because they want to spend time with friends and family as much as learn something, so we have a big emphasis on how we can help connect people while they are also here for content.”

Te Taiao/Nature has it all. New digital technologies, more te reo and a plethora of interactive activities. And the relatively unexciting drawer of fossilised shells?

An artist’s impression of Te Kōhanga – The Nest. Image/Te Papa/Supplied

“We’ll still have that drawer. We still need that deep knowledge of the collection, and the collaboration between our creative staff and our experts is vital. We can do nothing without our experts.”

Following last year’s proposals to axe 20-25 Te Papa positions, including 10 in the collections team, that expertise appears precarious. The proposal has now been scaled back to replacing five science collection manager jobs with positions for two collection managers, two assistant curators and one technician.

These recent changes, says Te Papa, unlike museum cuts elsewhere in the world, are not about cost savings. Rather, they have been described as a response to changes in technology, modernising the curation structure and creating career paths for young scientists, as recommended by a 2015 Royal Society report on National Taxonomic Collections. Te Papa director of strategy and performance Dean Peterson says this does not equate to a loss of expertise.

“A curator is at a professorial level. An assistant curator is a mid- to high-end postdoctoral person and a collection manager is more in that super-technician type of scenario. But we do have collection managers doing professorial-type work and that has been something we’ve been trying to rectify with this restructure.

“What we have tried to do is look at the expertise we need, understand what we are looking at changing and look at what we don’t have right now and how we get there in the future. It has taken its toll, and maybe there was an easier way to get here, but where we have landed is really good.”

The museum isn’t undermining the importance of taxonomy (the collection, identification and description of animals and plants), he says.

Frith Williams. Photo/Te Papa/Supplied

“The difficulty with taxonomy is it isn’t really a sexy thing for the Government to fund on its own. You usually have to have a second stage of another researcher using your research to do something that might be more newsworthy. So, you are forever fighting that battle of what good is taxonomy on its own. This is not a New Zealand problem; it is worse in other countries.”

As with previous redundancy rounds – this is the third in five years – scientists have raised the alarm, claiming science will be marginalised, collections will not be looked after properly, specialised roles will be diffused into more generalist responsibilities and the vital science of taxonomy will be diminished.

Already, according to that same Royal Society report, the country has had a loss of national capability in specialised expertise in taxonomy and curation through redundancies, reduced hours and non-replacement of retiring staff. This, in turn, it says, has reduced the ability “to protect specimens and deliver services”.

In response to the proposed loss of mollusc expert Bruce Marshall and fish expert Andrew Stewart, both internationally regarded in their fields, 50 local and international fish experts signed a petition warning of an “unavoidable decline in curation standard”. Giant-squid researcher Steve O’Shea was so appalled by plans to remove Stewart that he asked Te Papa to remove any reference to him in its colossal-squid display. Stewart has since been offered an assistant curator position.

In a petition calling for an immediate halt to the restructuring and a moratorium on more changes, O’Shea wrote, “A problem exists if world-renowned researchers, people who have also built the collections, with decades of proven collection-management experience, are deemed surplus to requirements by persons with incomparable expertise and limited institutional and collection management knowledge.”

Dean Peterson, Te Papa director of strategy and performance. Image/Te Papa/Supplied

University of Otago palaeontologist Nic Rawlence put it more bluntly: “This further reduction is the equivalent of getting rid of most of the Fellowship in Lord of the Rings: without the dwarf, elf, a kickass Aragorn and Gandalf’s knowledge about the One Ring to rule them all, Middle-earth would be screwed.”

A letter signed by 81 scientists called for an “urgent review of national museum strategy and funding before it’s too late”. It suggested treating the country’s natural history taonga as a single national collection spread across a range of regional institutions.

Geologist Hamish Campbell, who worked at Te Papa as a GNS Science earth scientist, goes further. He says leave Te Papa to the job of display and curation and give the care and management of collections to existing scientific bodies: GNS Science, Niwa, Landcare Research, the Earthquake Commission and perhaps universities.

Given that Te Papa has long-standing relationships with such institutions, he asks: “Would it not be sensible to exploit similar clever relationships with major research institutes that may provide better outcomes for all concerned?

“Te Papa has become very different from a museum – it is a wonderful national showcase and is regarded as one of the most ‘interesting’ museums in the world, but, in a way, the collections and everyone associated with maintaining them are a dead weight. Why is our national fish collection with Te Papa? Why isn’t it with Niwa? It won’t solve all Te Papa’s problems, but smarter relationships might be the answer and Te Papa does not have to employ any other scientists. It can get all its expertise and objects on demand through clever sponsorship arrangements.”

Peterson says this would be a radical shake-up – and a dangerous one. After all, Te Papa is legally required to develop and care for collections and do research into related topics.

“If you don’t have people connected daily to the collections, they start to wither. You need that almost daily connection to the collections, otherwise they end up languishing.”

This article was first published in the May 11, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.