National museum will never be our place

ROSEMARY MCLEOD
Last updated 05:00 31/01/2013

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Rosemary McLeod

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OPINION: I've never been fond of Te Papa, and now it's going to be twins. After 25 years it will be transformed, we're told, though just how is so far unclear.

The fat volumes of mission statements and guiding philosophy from the time of its first chief executive will be buried under a new set of strategic plans and goal-setting, a term I especially loathe. In short, it will be different.

There will be a Museum of Living Cultures. That is bound to stress Maori and Pacific living cultures, because the rest of us have both an existence and a history of less importance. This may be true, but it's hardly welcome news.

And there will be a Museum of the Future or, to put it succinctly, a Museum of What Hasn't Happened. It will challenge people to imagine what could happen and be delighted with it, which seems like a cheesy idea for a stage show based on the Second Coming. Jolly good.

Something had to happen. Our Place (Pakeha speak for Te Papa) was never really our place. It has always been Their Space, an institution locked inside a building that looks like a frivolous version of a castle - impenetrable, but mixed up, its face turned towards the harbour, away from people.

Who can name the experts who lurk there? Who has caught sight of them lately? The chief executive recently opened a Dr Seuss shop opposite. Does that count?

I talked to former prime minister Bill Rowling, who steered the project through, 25 years ago. He was a nice chap. He explained that the great triumph had been having no public consultation to stuff things up and perhaps force compromise on his team.

And that's how you get a Their Place. We had no ownership of it other than through our pockets, but we would be made to like it by being told it was good for us. It was rather like having your parents choose your boyfriend.

Compare this with the story of the old Dominion Museum, a dinosaur, admittedly, but a dinosaur paid for by public subscription in a time of low incomes and raised up as a vision of who we then were and how pleased we were with ourselves for making a go of it. They were less cynical times.

The old museum had a strange smell and quaint old glass cases of stuffed things.

You still see museums like it overseas and they still instil in you a kind of churchy whispering and a sense of being inside an open tomb.

Not everybody likes that sort of thing and, goodness knows, lots of people like Te Papa, which is Wellington's only real tourist attraction. Hapless cruise-ship visitors battling our incessant wind can take shelter there and it's somewhere to take the kids.

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But what a horrible building it is inside and out, and how confusing it can be to find your way around. How strange it is that it's surrounded by magnificent views, but you can't easily enjoy them, and that its exhibitions lurk in dark places, nudging each other with no clear indication of how they are intended to flow, without written material to grasp that explains their intention.

My pet bugbear just now is a survey exhibition of our history that includes glass cases of odds and ends, the flotsam of our history flung together without labels or explanation, all bought on Trade Me. It's an odd touch for an institution with vast holdings of objects of significance. If there's some arch and clever reason for it, we should be told.

Don't start me on the art. Just think of the public art galleries of Auckland, Christchurch and Dunedin, all of which are more committed. The current chief executive promises improvement there.

Gareth Morgan could usefully channel some philanthropic cash and energy in that direction instead of droning on about other people's cats.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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