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Museums Aotearoa & Ministry for Culture

Te Papa is opening to the public again after a snap closure caused by a positive Covid-19 case visiting the museum. 

Andre Chumko, Aotearoa’s cultural sector and its changing role in a Covid-19 world, 28 August 2021

In times of uncertainty, museums, galleries and libraries provide spaces of knowledge and refuge, offering sanctuaries filled with stories and art and literature and history.

Despite this, many continue to survive only because of the passion of their staff and volunteers, with little to no funding. And recently, the cultural sector has been dealing with another curveball: Covid-19.

From physical cultural spaces around New Zealand being shuttered until alert levels ease, to those same institutions increasingly shifting to digital/virtual environments, the entire

Aotearoa and director of public engagement at the National Library.

“Some institutions will absolutely be thinking about how to keep the lights on,” she says.

Back in April, the entire board of Museums Aotearoa quit. They were followed by their former executive director Phillipa Tocker, who left in June after 16 years in the role. As the professional association advocating for museums, art galleries and heritage properties across the country, the timing could not have been worse with Covid-19 lurking in the background.

Te Papa Tongarewa, the country’s national museum in Wellington, has seen a lot of change since the pandemic.

The crisis was resolved quickly when members of the sector stepped up to fill the vacancies urgently. Now, Te Hau and Eloise Wallace, director of Tairāwhiti Museum in Gisborne, are co-chairing the non-profit. They are joined by an entire new board made up of sector professionals, but are still looking for someone to helm the organisation.

“We are genuinely wanting to be of service to the sector. For myself, I wanted to safeguard and see the organisation through,” Te Hau says, adding that she and Wallace were heartened by the number of people who put their hand up to be on Museums Aotearoa’s interim board.

“The national network of museums is so important to me,” Wallace says. “I felt with going through Covid, we needed to have this collective voice.”

The organisation not only provides support for its members – which span the smallest of regional museums in far-flung corners of the motu to the largest metropolitan ones in urban centres – to thrive, but in many cases, it is helping them survive, Te Hau says.

“We’re in a new future with this pandemic world.”

Tui Te Hau, the co-chair of Museums Aotearoa. Maarten Holl/Stuff.

A lot is on the line. As well as unmeasurable social and cultural value which cannot be defined by any number, the Ministry for Culture and Heritage estimates the arts and creative sectors – which includes the cultural and heritage sector – contribute about $10.8 billion to the economy each year.

Aotearoa has about 476 public museums, art galleries, and heritage properties, and more than 12 million objects stored in collections. Museums Aotearoa estimates the GLAM sector employs 4000 paid workers, and another 10,000 volunteers and contract workers.

Evidence shows the cultural sector contributes positively to New Zealanders’ wellbeing and sense of identity, as well as a strong economy,” the ministry’s chief executive/tumu whakarae​, Bernadette Cavanagh, said in the ministry’s 2020 annual report.

The challenges the cultural sector is facing alongside Covid-19 are varied and include changing audience behaviours and expectations, increasing use of digital models of communication and access to equitable funding.

The ministry is working on developing a 20-year strategic framework, called Te Rautaki mō Manatū Taonga, to address the issues by setting out a strategic purpose and context for the ministry, as well as the outcomes it wants to achieve.

A look at Auckland Museum’s new sea monsters exhibit, featuring fossils and realistic casts. Click here to view the video.

Part of that includes the ministry delivering new funding over the coming years “efficiently and effectively” – a long-sought-after plea from the sector; expanding the reach of the cultural sector; ensuring job creation and sustainability; and encouraging collaborative approaches across government departments, as could be seen with the ministry’s Creatives in Schools partnership.

In particular, the cultural sector’s role in tourism, local government infrastructure, and mental health and wellbeing was being explored.

“Building relationships between our sector and potential partners in government will provide a critical means to embed cultural outcomes into government activity … What has been clear throughout the Covid-19 response is that New Zealanders are standing together with our cultural practitioners, recognising the value arts and culture provide to our sense of being who we are in times of crisis and recovery,” Cavanagh said​.

Sarah Hardy, the ministry’s deputy chief executive for organisational performance, says through collaboration and improved ways of working, the agency wants to develop, mature and improve the capability of the cultural system, so it’s “fit for purpose, adaptive and enduring”.

The framework is due to be finalised and communicated to key stakeholders and groups before the end of the year.

Te Papa in Wellington has been turned into a pop-up Covid-19 testing centre because of the pandemic. Kevin Stent/Stuff.

While the ministry is working at a central level to make a more sustainable future for the sector, grassroots work is also under way to improve the lot for those who work in GLAM.

For Museums Aotearoa, new leadership has meant a chance to reset and revisit values, expectations and the direction of the sector more generally. “We’re taking our time to get that right,” Te Hau says.

Wallace says while many cultural institutions have had to close due to Covid-19, the pandemic has allowed institutions to look inward and to their communities more.

“[Museums, galleries and libraries] are places people can be safe and together and are places for people to share stories. They are thinking about that, rather than [how many] visitors or tourists they’re getting.”

Wallace sees the shift away from target numbers as a positive. It would mean more nuanced, community-driven approaches being taken towards how exhibitions are curated, or what material may be collected. “We’ll see it over years, rather than the short term. It’s a real re-focusing on our communities, and their relationship with their stories and their places.”

The irony of a shift away from numbers is that, in some cases, cultural institutions are dealing with burgeoning visitors. Nelson Provincial Museum had its busiest-ever month in July, with double the usual number of visitors it gets during the shoulder period, Te Hau says. All those people are from the local community or domestic tourists, given border closures.

“New Zealanders are travelling around the country, finding places they haven’t been to before and connecting to and understanding those places. That’s evidence of the value of museums for New Zealanders,” Te Hau says.

Still, not all are having an easy ride. Te Papa Tongarewa, the national museum, is continuing to administer the $2m Museum Hardship Fund, which Te Hau describes as “pretty light”.

There are other funding streams available via the culture ministry, which was given $374m over four years by the Government in Budget 2020 to hand out to the sector to help with Covid-19 recovery. But that funding is spread across the entire arts and culture sectors, and much of the funding is contestable, meaning it’s still relatively slim pickings.

Jennifer Cauchi, paper conservator, examines René Magritte’s The Glass House, 1939, during the installation of the Surrealist Art: Masterpieces from the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen exhibition. DANIEL CRICHTON-ROUSE/TE PAPA.

As of August 19, $144.9m of the $374m has been given out through short-term support initiatives and larger cross-sector funds.

Gordon McKenzie, the culture ministry’s investment and outcomes lead, says the ministry has contacted many organisations and individuals it’s provided funding to, to assure them of continued funding during changing alert levels.

The support offer includes working with those funded to ensure they can deliver their projects safely, and figuring out alternative ways to deliver programmes if they can’t

Wallace says there needs to be more sustainable, aspirational funding models.

“Hardship funding grants offer very small amounts of money to smaller museums … How do we allow smaller/regional institutions to be empowered to shift and change? … That’s the tension with the way arts and culture is funded.

The Shanghai Astronomy Museum has been designed to reflect the geometry of the cosmos with no straight lines or right angles used throughout the structure.

“It’s centrally funded, so the funding priorities are set somewhere in Wellington. My perspective, at Tairāwhiti Museum, is that our community has its own priorities. What Wellington says [are priorities] … they don’t always match up.

James Gilberd and Mark Beehre are Wellington-based photographers looking for funding partners to help open a dedicated photography centre aimed to support and encourage photographers, in the capital. There is no centre for photography in the country after the former New Zealand Centre for Photography folded in 2010 due to financial issues.

Gilberd privately runs Photospace Gallery in Wellington off gallery sales and his own professional photographic work, and says the gallery is acting as the country’s “de facto” centre: it runs courses and workshops, and has darkrooms and a studio for hire.

Alongside fellow photographer John Williams, Gilberd and Beehre started Photography Aotearoa, a charitable trust, to help make their idea of a centre, where photographers of all disciplines could meet and showcase their work, a reality. They were later joined by fellow trustees Richard Toovey and Demi Heath.

“Most capitals have a publicly-funded and dedicated photography centre. We thought this would be a fantastic thing for Wellington … an exhibition space, gallery and museum. There’s the potential for talks, workshops, seminars, a whole variety of other activities,” Gilberd says.

The biggest challenge is finding funding. “The will is there. The money, we don’t know.”

Mark Beehre installing Photography Aotearoa’s show ‘Authors’ by Alan Knowles, which is on display at Waitohi Community Hub in Johnsonville, Wellington. John Williams/Supplied.

Another aim of the centre would be to make artworks by a diverse range of photographers widely accessible, “not just [to] pointy-headed photo enthusiasts”.

Part of the struggle is sheer exposure. “You’re lucky if you see one arts story a month [in mainstream media]. … There is little public discussion of the arts. Photography falls through the cracks,” Gilberd says.

Beehre adds that photography has always struggled for equal recognition alongside other art forms.

“The whole arts world is struggling,” Gilberd says. “That’s not news.”

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