Editorial: Te Papa isn't a television station

Last updated 05:00 11/11/2014
Rick Ellis, who was chief executive of TVNZ, will take over at Te Papa.

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Rick Ellis is an odd choice as the new chief executive of Te Papa. He has no experience in running museums.

OPINION: However, Te Papa says, he does have experience in "transforming" organisations. This assumes that it's a manager's skills that matter, not what they manage. A good manager can run a museum as well as a television station.

This theory is frankly dubious and only time will tell if it is true of Ellis.

It is certainly true that Ellis has proved he can run a publicly owned commercial television service. As chief executive of TVNZ, he returned some healthy dividends to the government, its owner. What he never pretended to do, and what he was not asked to do, was run a TV service with a serious public broadcasting mandate.

Ellis' most embarrassing moment came in 2007 when he was asked by the Maori Affairs select committee which TVNZ programmes showed its commitment to Maori. He replied with a list which included the police programme Police Ten 7. This was a truly amazing blunder and suggested a certain cultural blindness. He was widely and rightly criticised.

And this raises questions about how he will deal with his new job. At Te Papa, Ellis will have a dual mandate. One is the serious cultural bit, as guardian of the nation's treasures. The other is the populist or democratic bit, which is to reach out to the 14-year-olds of South Auckland - to expand the national museum's reach beyond the educated middle classes, its habitual clientele. Both of these duties are important.

Te Papa has always tried to do both and it has always been in hot water as a result. The highbrows accuse it of cultural treason, of hiding the country's treasures in the attic while doing Disneyland in the main part. But the democratic critics have pointed out that it hasn't done a great job of capturing the young proletarians either. Former Te Papa chairman Sir Wira Gardiner admitted as much in an interview. Hence the proposal to establish an Auckland branch of the museum, on the assumption that, if Te Papa is in Auckland, it will have more chance of capturing the youth of Otara.

Ellis can be expected to run a profitable organisation. He has shown that he can appeal to the masses. He got good ratings and he went the whole hog with the showbiz side of television. There were massive salaries for shock-jocks such as Paul Henry.

Ellis will be much less likely than his predecessor to lose a heap of money on unpopular exhibitions. He knows what rates and what makes money. Perhaps he will also be able to reach out to the youth market and get more of the masses coming through the door.

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Where there is a serious question is in his management of the museum's cultural and historical treasures, including the museum's Maori taonga. Ellis must know that his appointment will raise eyebrows, especially in Wellington. He must therefore know that he is on probation and his performance will be watched with a cool and sceptical eye.

It is up to Ellis to show that Te Papa has not made a big mistake.

- The Dominion Post

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