OPINION: The Southland Museum and Art Gallery is far too inert. Unhappily, plans to make it more dynamic have for many years themselves been suffering a sustained loss of traction.
A $24.6 million proposal was announced way back in late 2007, yet in spite of the sheer size of that budget, the ominous public silence that followed was less a case of the calm before the storm, than of the calm before the yawn.
It was not much of a target for public controversy, chiefly because it seemed to remain so nebulous.
It's tricky to determine in what exact order things didn't happen, but the plan failed to engage the public, or to attract attention-grabbing commitments from community funders, or to loom large in long-term council community planning documents, or to receive any substantial benediction from the keepers of Central Government coffers.
It now falls to museum expert Ken Gorbey to revisit the proposed upgrade. Among his credentials, which are considerable, he was a guiding hand in the early years of Te Papa when the punters were showing up in droves and academic critics were sniffing it was more an entertainment palace than a serious museum. Not a criticism he accepted, we should add.
Smag trust board chairman Darren Ludlow says Mr Gorbey is coming to help the board create a more relevant business plan, and that his findings may be that the board needs to peel the scale of its planning, or look at how it displays its material.
Look, Mr Gorbey's not all that likely to come up with an especially spartan approach. In a 2002 speech he made it one of his stakes in the ground that museums are labour intensive operations and, therefore, costly to operate.
It would be a real surprise were he to content himself with some sort of dinkering audit. He once said a museum is like a business in that it has to constantly reinvent itself.
No end of consultants talk like that, and this guy surely sounds like one when he says that a good museum needs a clearly enunciated mission. But then he gets disconcertingly specific about what that doesn't mean.
That mission, he argued, should not be confused with researching, collecting, conserving, educating and exhibiting.
These, he says, are functions that good museums are likely to carry out, and he acknowledges the best museums have always been based on scholarship (without the coded language). But crucially the good museum must meet a clearly identified, particular community need – defined in a written mission statement that cannot be just a catchcry set of words into which anyone can read anything.
It must be a "structured complex of inspired ideas and treasured values ... thick enough in meaning to give guidance to the actions of the corporate body and individuals within the corporation."
That's a distinction-seeking perspective he's unlikely to be shrugging off when he settles in to report on Southland's museum.
There will be limits to the brief Mr Gorbey is given. One thing he needn't trouble himself with, apparently, is a different site. Much as Vibrant Invercargill and others may be calling for the museum and gallery to move to the inner city, Cr Ludlow is emphatic: He wouldn't care if the information centre shifted, but other than that "we're staying at Queen's Park".
So reinvention is essential; relocation intolerable. There are still voices out there who disagree and the councillor's "for the third and final time" assertion isn't necessarily going to silence them.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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