Challenging fork ahead for the keeper of our taonga

ANTHONY HUBBARD
Last updated 13:05 02/02/2013
Te Papa
CHRIS SKELTON/Fairfax NZ

SOCIAL SPACE: Te Papa wants to let many ideas clash within its space, rather than putting culture in a drawer that we close again, says chief executive Mike Houlihan.

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Our Place turns 15 this month - and faces the biggest transformation in its history. Jobs may be lost and this week The Dominion Post revealed plans to take the national museum in two separate directions. Anthony Hubbard reports.

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Te Papa has a knack of annoying people. "We've been quite successful at that," says the museum's boss, Mike Houlihan.

It's helped build a lot of business. The quarrels have never stopped, and the crowds have kept pouring through the door.

The looming changes at Our Place will annoy a good many more. The critics are already suspicious. They have heard that Te Papa is planning to split in two, with half becoming some sort of museum of the future.

"What's going on?" asked one culture leader last week. "Why aren't they telling us?"

Mr Houlihan is a slight and mild Englishman who has a short way with the critics - he tends to agree with them. Right now he is aghast at his own flamboyance in saying the museum has "succeeded" in annoying people. "Please don't use that line," he murmurs.

Te Papa's big changes are designed partly to meet the critics' charges. The museum will, for instance, in future display a lot more of its fine-art collection.

This might help soothe the high-brows, who accuse it of keeping the nation's taonga in the cupboard while going all dumb and Disney over everything else.

But Mr Houlihan also wants to go farther down the road of popular culture and the Now. Te Papa will collect video games as well as paintings, and modern furniture as well as McCahons.

There's a lot more argument to come.

So what's up at Te Papa?

BLOOD, MUD AND MYTH

One of the first big exhibitions of the future-facing museum will be a return to the trenches of World War I. Mr Houlihan, who used to work for the Imperial War Museum in London, plans a replica of an Anzac trench at Gallipoli.

New Zealand, he says, should be able to do one of the best trenches - or "one of the best immersive experiences - in the world". This is, after all, the country that spawned Weta.

Research showed that "what people wanted to see in terms of getting a greater understanding of World War I was a trench, and it was a Gallipoli trench", not one from the Western Front in Europe.

"And then they wanted to see stories. They wanted a touring exhibition that goes to local areas and tells them about things."

The community memory of WWI was "very strong", but whether it is accurate is another story. The research showed New Zealanders thought more Kiwis were killed at Gallipoli than on the Western Front, which is wrong. Yet in both New Zealand and in Australia it is Gallipoli that has had the strongest pull on our psyche. Why?

The job of the museum would be partly to challenge received views about the war, he says.

The usual view was that the war was terrible. "It was terrible! But actually if you look at some of the accounts of people who fought in it . . . there were also people who said it was the greatest time in their lives. And that's one of the ironies of war, I suppose. It's fought by young men. So you have quite a mix of things."

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Then there are bigger questions. Why were the Kiwis at Gallipoli? One reason was "Churchill's working hours", says Mr Houlihan, a specialist on World War I and author of a book on trench warfare.

The day the British War Cabinet made the decision, it started discussions in the afternoon and was still going late at night. Everyone was very tired.

"And in the morning - I can't remember precisely when it was - at 2am, when Churchill was really at his peak, he suddenly, deus ex machina, produced this plan, which was, ‘We'll send the Royal Navy, we'll go up to the Dardanelles, we'll shell a few of the forts, that'll open up the route through to Istanbul, and we'll shell Istanbul, the Turks will be out of the war and it will all be over by Christmas, sort of thing!'

"And everybody, sort of totally exhausted, said, ‘OK, we'll give it a try.' And what's forgotten was that the Dardanelles campaign was in fact a naval campaign. Unfortunately they hit a couple of mines going through and everybody panicked and then it was, ‘Where can we find some troops?'

"Oh, we've got some Australians and New Zealanders on a convoy coming over.

‘We'll divert them up there.' And so we had the Gallipoli campaign. Because, of course, the troops from Australia and New Zealand were expecting to end up on the Western Front . . ."

LEARNING AND THE FUTURE

So what is new and future-facing about doing a WWI exhibition? Part of it will be the way the stories are told. Many people still have a WWI story, even though all the survivors are dead. "Some of them will be really important and will provide a fund of knowledge for the future."

They might record their stories online or on an open website run at the time of the exhibition.

The museum would also reach out to the RSA clubs scattered across the country, which "quite often have small collections of objects which can be used in quite a dynamic way to tell a local story . . .

"I think museums generally are recognising the ownership of collections resides in the community. We just hold them in trust on behalf of people." Increasingly, it is communities themselves that will influence how exhibits are done.

So the WWI commemorations at Te Papa will use hi-tech means to challenge ideas and involve the people themselves, to record for the future contemporary stories about the influence of the war.

It would also explore the whole Anzac relationship, and "put the NZ back in Anzac". Here again there were rich possibilities for discussion and debate. It helped that part of the Kiwi-Ocker relationship "has a comic element".

Te Papa will also be taking its exhibits on tour. The critics have long complained that the museum hogged its treasures in Wellington and refused to share with the rest of the country.

The idea of a split between two museums in Te Papa, says Mr Houlihan, "is a misnomer". Essentially it was reorganising its structure to go in a new direction.

This in turn was built on "what sets Te Papa aside internationally from other museums. It is a museum of living cultures."

In other museums, if you wanted to look at a culture "you open a drawer labelled ‘culture' and in a very Victorian way you close the drawer and walk away.

"Whereas what Te Papa did, which was very new and different and which was sort of the envy of the museum world, was to say, ‘Well, we actually live in a cultural way.'

"The way in which people are greeted when they arrive at the museum is very typical. The sorts of programmes that we put on, the activities, the very existence of the marae. In the museum is a social space and a welcoming space. It just sets Te Papa apart."

DISNEYLAND AND PORIRUA

Te Papa was built to be the people's museum. It would not be the home of the usual museum-going crowd, the highly educated and affluent. It would reach out to the 14-year-old in Porirua as well.

In this, says Te Papa chairman Sir Wira Gardiner, it hasn't succeeded too well.

"The fact of the matter is many people from lower-decile schools don't come to Te Papa. South Auckland doesn't come to Te Papa.

"So what that tells us is if we sit in Wellington we can do much of the same and, yes, we can get 1.4 million people through our doors but we have to do better than that."

Critics such as art pundit Hamish Keith have called for a Te Papa North, where Aucklanders and others can see the national museum's treasures without having to fly to Wellington.

"I think he has a very good point," says Sir Wira. "We can either go and get people to come or we can go to them."

Besides, he says, there is the issue of the safety of the museum's collections. "If a major earthquake hits Wellington, while our building at Te Papa is pretty good, we've got storage up in other buildings around the capital, and we have to think, where's the safest place in New Zealand?"

Mr Houlihan says Te Papa will have to take its treasures to the people, though he is not sure that this will have to involve a new museum somewhere else. Its exhibitions, though, must travel more.

Te Papa also tried to reach out by being modern and relevant. There were games and gadgets. The critics sneered, "Disneyland!" Te Papa had run after the kids and neglected its Old Masters and fine arts generally, they said.

Especially, the museum's wonderful art collections were mostly left in storage, but brought out only to be put in the rarefied fifth-floor ghetto.

The museum management couldn't be blamed for the shortcomings of the building, Mr Keith says. "But what they actually need to do is find a better way of displaying the national collections."

Te Papa had become obsessed by the blockbuster visiting exhibitions and had neglected its own treasures.

What was needed was a calm, even staid, display of the art and science collections without flashy and patronising curatorial distractions. Great art could speak directly to everyone from nine to 90, if it was just allowed to do its work.

"There's no substitute for the moment when your hair stands on end and when you and the work engage. And you don't need to be treated as if that can't happen to you."

Wellington collector Jim Barr says, "They need to get the art off the 5th floor where no-one goes."

Art "is extremely cheap to exhibit" and could be changed quickly. "Look at most of the world's museums at the moment and the ones that are being the most successful - The Tate Modern [in London] and what have you - are featuring contemporary art."

Mr Houlihan replies, in effect: it's a fair cop. A new exhibition space will be opened soon on the fifth floor, and the museum is working hard to find other spaces to display its art.

"Over the past six years we've rotated something like 200 works of art in that space," he says. "In the next 18 months we are going to rotate 600."

DANGER AND TROUBLE

The rhetoric of Te Papa of the Future is bold, even shocking. A written proposal says it "will take risks and be more challenging". It will be "an agent of change". It will "change lives" and fire the imagination. It will "provide a safe place for unsafe ideas".

So, a revolutionary museum?

Not quite.

Te Papa does want to be challenging, says Mr Houlihan, but it won't be presenting "a museum view" of things. Rather, it will let many ideas clash and contend within its quiet halls.

He cites a charming case from his time in Northern Ireland. The museum in Belfast, he says, was one of the few places in that ghettoised city where the two communities could gather in peace.

"It was a safe place for ideas that half the community would feel uncomfortable with, and the other half feel very comfortable with."

The museum held a two-day conference on political banners. "Both sides of the community came in. What really struck me was the extent to which one community knew who the artists were in the other community, and could actually comment on the skills and the styles.

"Not the politics, but just looking at the banners as objects, from an aesthetic point of view."

Museum consultant Ken Gorbey, who was involved in planning Te Papa in the early 1990s, says it was designed at a time of great division and argument over the Treaty. But things have changed since then, he says, and the museum needs to reflect that.

Mr Houlihan agrees. He wants to change the "large and expensive" Treaty exhibit - huge glass images of the Treaty's three articles, and a mass of "speaking poles" broadcasting the warring Treaty thoughts of Kiwis of all stripes, from redneck to militant.

The thing has stood unaltered for 15 years. "We can't get locked into these monolithic expositions," says Mr Houlihan. Instead, the museum must change and respond quickly to events.

NEW BUT STILL ANNOYING

Te Papa has a big exhibition of computer games right now, a red rag to the art purist. There will be a lot more of this.

You can argue about whether the games are art, Mr Houlihan says, but "a huge amount of time is spent on these things, so culturally it's very significant".

New York's Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), he notes, now collects this stuff.

He also wants to see Te Papa widen its notion of what art is, and collect accordingly.

Why is painting art but furniture is not? Why is sculpture art but fashion isn't?

Te Papa has always had an urge to expand our ideas of art. In its opening exhibition it notoriously placed Colin McCahon's masterpiece, the Northland Panels, next to a fridge made at the same time (1958). The suggestion was that they somehow had something in common.

Opinion is divided about the success of that idea, but Mr Houlihan certainly wants to expand our horizons and soften our rigid ideas. If furniture is a kind of art, shouldn't Te Papa be collecting some of the finest contemporary specimens?

"Te Papa buys Sofas for Exhibition". Not everyone will be pleased.

Mr Houlihan also wants to see more photography exhibitions - the show featuring photographer Brian Brake was Te Papa's second-most popular show after the Lord of the Rings - and much more about film.

He wants performance art and "intangible" culture such as theatre. Plays and performances could be captured digitally. "It's about recording for the future."

Te Papa is "one of the most democratic museums in terms of its appeal", he says. It tries to cater for almost everybody.

But the fact is "we can't be everything to everybody . . . We can't tell every story. We can't say to everybody coming through the door, ‘You're going to see what you want to see displayed in a way you want to see it.'

"Some people who come here, they won't see anything they want to see. I think that's just a fact of life."

Some people, says the always affable CEO, will just get annoyed.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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