Te Papa taonga on the move north

02:44, Sep 06 2014

Te Papa plans to move up to half its treasures out of Wellington in the long term, according to documents obtained by The Dominion Post.

The national museum announced last September that it would move some collections north to reduce earthquake risk, as part of a plan to build a new South Auckland collections and exhibition centre.

Te Papa chairman Evan Williams said no decision had yet been made about which collections, or how many, would move. Consultation begins in the next few weeks.

However, documents obtained by The Dominion Post show the museum plans to move up to half its treasures out of Wellington, and has considered housing them in Christchurch and Hamilton, as well as Auckland.

"Substantial work has been carried out over the last year to better secure buildings and collections for seismic events, but in the longer term the board has determined that the safest course of action is to mitigate some of the risk by relocating up to half of the collections outside of Wellington," a July 2013 ministerial briefing says.

The documents also reveal further details about the South Auckland plans. Initial estimates put the capital cost at $30 million, with a $3m annual running cost. The new centre would provide 8000sqm of shared storage and a second venue for major international exhibitions. Visitor numbers are projected at 670,000 a year - about half Te Papa's declining Wellington visitor numbers.

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The planned collection and exhibition centre's South Auckland location means some of Te Papa's Maori and Pasifika taonga are likely to move north. But scientists are worried the fragile natural history collection will also be shifted, as it is housed in the less earthquake-safe Tory St complex.

That collection - which spans century-old insects to giant fish tanks - is used by scientists, university researchers and government agencies for everything from identifying biosecurity invaders to charting sea temperature changes before written records began.

Biologist Mike Rudge, who managed the collections from 1994-98, said moving or splitting the natural history collection and its scientists would "cut the guts out of the scientific base in Wellington".

Critics have also questioned the wisdom of Te Papa taking on a $30m new venture when visitor numbers are falling and the museum has just made an $8m loss.

It is also looking for a new chief executive after the premature departure of Englishman Michael Houlihan.

Former Te Papa birds curator Sandy Bartle said New Zealand already had too many "small, underfunded, understaffed, little parochial efforts", and no new museums should be built without a national review.

Williams conceded that the South Auckland project would draw some Te Papa staff north. However, he was adamant it would not weaken the Wellington museum. The board also planned a $12m redevelopment of Cable St and the planned 2015 Anzac Day centenary exhibition being developed with Weta would be a game-changer, he said.

The Dominion Post