Search for new Te Papa CEO

Nikki MacDonald, ‘Who will head up Our Place?’, The Dominion Post, 6 September 2014


Te Papa’s recent choice of a foreign chief executive could hardly be described as a conspicuous success. So if his successor has to be a Kiwi, who is in the running?

The last time the job of guardian of Our Place was up for grabs, there was only one point of consensus – the job should go to a New Zealander. Instead, the board appointed Englishman Michael Houlihan.

It was 2009, not long after Canadian import and Auckland War Memorial Museum director Vanda Vitali had alienated Kiwi World War II veterans and the family of New Zealand’s favourite son, Sir Ed Hillary.

“You have to know the DNA of the kind of material you are dealing with: the history and the national identity,” one commentator said.

So when asked if the appointment of a non-New Zealander had been successful, Te Papa board chairman Evan Williams squirms.

In May, Houlihan was shifted to a one-year World War I commemoration project with the Ministry of Culture and Heritage, after a disastrous year in which major exhibitions bombed. The move was described as a secondment, despite there being no intention of him returning to Te Papa. Houlihan left the “secondment”, and the country, last month.

“The board is conscious that the chief executive of Te Papa sits by definition at the centre of a number of the important parts of our culture,” Williams says carefully. “And we are going to make absolutely sure that we are satisfied that the chief executive we appoint can manage and understand that culture to a point of high reliability. We are not going to take risks on that.”

The board is looking “very closely” in New Zealand but also overseas, Williams says.

Otago and Auckland museums are headed by Brits, both relatively recent arrivals. After three years, Auckland Museum director Roy Clare has certainly mastered the lingo of cultural cred, discussing being “kaitiaki” rather than owners of the museum’s taonga. Sometimes, he reasons, an outsider’s perspective can be useful, free of the baggage of a personal historical connection.

On the other hand, says one industry insider, “the coach of the All Blacks is always a New Zealander. It would be nice to have somebody who understands the cultural landscape from day one.”

Even if the preference is for a New Zealand boss, the museum and gallery world presents few obvious contenders. Asked to name likely candidates, one insider exclaimed: “I absolutely cannot imagine and I think that’s a bit of a pity.”

Two of our most experienced directors – Jenny Harper and Anthony Wright – are both knee deep in major Christchurch recovery projects; others, while talented, might struggle to demonstrate the job advertisement’s required “experience in leading a complex organisation”.

One museum source said there were Kiwis who could do the job but “New Zealanders tend to be dazzled by foreign talent”. Another described the role as something of a poisoned chalice. “It’s not an easy ship to run.”

If it is a ship, it is a supertanker – unwieldy, slow to turn around, an easy target from all quarters. And if the navigation is just a few degrees off, it misses its destination by a long shot.

Faced with managing an $8 million loss, a $12m redevelopment of Cable St and a $30m expansion into Auckland, the new chief executive will need a head for business.

The job advertisement calls for candidates from universities, corporates or government, as well as the museum world.

It might not be as crazy as it sounds to have a business leader running a national museum, says Ken Gorbey, who helped establish Te Papa and developed the renowned Jewish Museum in Berlin.

As far back as 1975, a businessman took over and transformed the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry.

“He didn’t do that because he was a museologist, he did it because he just knew how to manage to a new vision.”

For Gorbey, skills and vision trump nationality. Sixteen years on from Te Papa’s opening day, he would like to see the museum reflect New Zealand society’s evolution.

“It has got to touch our experience. Sometimes it seems as though, with any big organisation of this sort, it’s just the next big temporary exhibition. But it’s got to be more than that.”

Eric Dorfman, former Te Papa science manager, now Whanganui Regional Museum director, says the new chief executive will need courage under fire.

“I would hope that whoever takes the helm is going to be a brave soul who will take on the hard questions and the edgy projects, and doesn’t play it safe. Because I think national and international expectation for Te Papa is that it doesn’t play it safe.”


Exactly a year ago Te Papa announced plans to build a South Auckland offshoot. We look at where the project is at, and what it will mean for Wellington.

A light rattle was probably all it took for the greenstone to scrape away at the brittle shaft of the feather it was stored with.

It might not have been a big deal, except that the old feather happened to be a tricky one to replace. Huia feathers are in short supply, since the bird with the arcing bill was last seen for sure in 1907.

But even if an unblemished replacement could be found, you could never replicate the scientific revelations bound up in the fibres of that particular feather.

The huia feather, which was damaged in 2010, was part of the trove of treasures in Te Papa’s storage vaults, and its fate illustrates the conundrum facing the national museum.

Te Papa argues that its vast collections are too fragile and too valuable to be housed all together in one earthquake-prone city. According to documents obtained by The Dominion Post under the Official Information Act, it plans to move up to half its collections outside Wellington.

But some scientists argue the opposite: the knowledge tucked under the body armour of a desiccated old beetle, or encoded in the chemical composition of a seashell, makes the collections far too valuable to risk moving.

A year ago, Arts, Culture and Heritage Minister Chris Finlayson announced plans for a national cultural centre at Hayman Park in South Auckland. The project would be a shared storage, education and exhibition space developed in collaboration with Auckland Art Gallery and Auckland War Memorial Museum, with Te Papa shouldering the building and running cost.

When The Dominion Post requested further information, Te Papa released 183 pages, of which 100 were completely blacked out. After an appeal to the Office of the Ombudsman, tranches of additional information were released.

The documents reveal that the South Auckland project – early plans forecast it to cost $30 million to establish and $3 million a year to run – is part of a “bold new strategic direction” reflecting “Te Papa’s change of focus away from mainly drawing visitors into the Wellington site”.

It also partly fulfils the minister’s mandate to make the national collections and exhibitions more available to audiences nationwide.

Board chairman Evan Williams is anxious to reassure Wellington that the South Auckland centre will not siphon off all Te Papa’s enthusiasm, staff and collections. It won’t even be called a museum, he says. What’s not disputed, however, is that at least some of all three of those will go north.

The most often cited reason for Te Papa’s South Auckland expansion is the need to reduce the earthquake risk to its collection, which spans biological specimens, art and taonga. The Cable St museum building is base-isolated, the gold standard in earthquake engineering, so it’s hard to argue that the material in its 4590 square metres of storage would be unsafe.

As then Te Papa chief executive Michael Houlihan put it last year: “Cable St is fine . . . Tory St meets the codes but . . . we might have to move our most at-risk items to ensure their safety.”

Tory St houses mostly the museum’s natural history collection. Think everything from ancient sandflies speared on pins to giant fish in tanks containing thousands of litres of industrial chemical preservatives. And any suggestion of moving it has alarmed scientists. Houlihan did little to allay their concerns, saying only that people should not assume that all the natural history collection would go north.

Te Papa was criticised last year for sidelining science, after it axed two respected experts, marine mammals manager Anton van Helden and fish curator Chris Paulin. It was a long way from the Dominion Museum days, when scientists were so revered they had a separate pay scale, while curators were considered clerks.

However, since Houlihan’s departure in May, the museum has appointed the prime minister’s chief science adviser, Sir Peter Gluckman, to its board and commissioned an independent science review. And Williams is adamant that no decision will be made about which collections will move, or how many, until after consultation.

That begins in the next few weeks.

But scientists remain worried. Professor Lionel Carter, of Victoria University’s Antarctic Research Centre, suspects museum bosses see natural history collections as “fusty, somewhat boring relics of the past”.

In fact, they are becoming increasingly valuable as technology enables scientists to glean information from minuscule samples. Take Niwa scientists’ research into rockhopper penguin decline, in which they measured the chemical composition of penguin feathers in museums around the world to find out whether their diet or food availability had changed.

Although that material would be only a plane ride away in Auckland, Carter argues that it makes no sense to take those collections out of Wellington, home to Niwa, GNS and Victoria University – the “environmental change hub of New Zealand”.

And with the collection items will go staff to look after them. Williams says all the project partners are likely to contribute staff, but he won’t put a number on it. “It will not drag 20 per cent, 30 per cent, maybe even 10 per cent.”

Carter is one of a group of scientists, headed by biologist Mike Rudge, campaigning to keep the natural history collections here. Rudge knows more than most what is lurking in those vaults – he looked after the museum’s collections from 1994 to 1998 and presided over their move to Te Papa.

He accepts there might be a good case for an exhibition centre in South Auckland to reach out to an under-represented Maori and Pacific audience. But moving the collections is a different story.

“It would cut the guts out of the scientific base in Wellington.”

Rudge is also sceptical that the earthquake risk is the primary motivation for the move north, given the Tory St building is one of the strongest in Wellington, having been built in 1987 by Wellington City Council as a post- quake base for heavy machinery.

Williams agrees that Tory St is safe, but says it’s precisely because it’s so stiff that it’s a risk to the riches inside, which are “rattled to death”. But he concedes nothing was damaged in last year’s major Seddon earthquakes.

Te Papa is unlikely to abandon Tory St altogether, given it has invested $11 million in the past decade in hi-tech new storage facilities. Which raises the prospect that the most fragile items will be moved.

Insect guru George Gibbs has both a professional and a personal interest in Te Papa’s bugs – his grandfather GV Hudson’s pioneering insect collection is still in its original wooden drawers in Tory St. Although he’d be a bit miffed at having to fly to Auckland to see them, it’s the moving itself that concerns him.

“These are ancient specimens. They’ve been sitting on pins since Captain Cook was sailing around New Zealand. If you put them on the back of a truck, and you put them on forklifts and you bang them around, you’re going to do them far more harm than 50 scientists inspecting them in the next 300 years.

“I think there are other agendas here. I would not like to see it moved for some kind of political advantage.”

Williams concedes that the items most at risk from earthquakes are also likely to be most at risk from being moved around the country. But he argues you can’t compare a planned move to a natural disaster.

Irrespective of the risks to Te Papa’s collections and Wellington’s science hub, critics argue it’s a crazy time for Te Papa to take on any major new investment. The museum is in flux, with no chief executive and an $8 million shortfall.

As former Te Papa birds curator Sandy Bartle puts it: “I can’t see the point of it really. I can see the point of having a Pacific museum in Auckland but why have it managed out of Wellington? Te Papa can’t even do what it is supposed to do properly, let alone something new. I can’t see why this is an absolute priority in front of everything else.”