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Te Papa Tongarewa – 25 years at Our Place

Te Papa co-leaders chief executive Courtney Johnston and Kaihautū Dr Arapata Hakiwai, ahead of 25th anniversary of the museum. JUAN ZARAMA PERINI/STUFF.

Bess Manson, Te Papa – 25 years at Our Place, Stuff, 11 February 2023

33,982,656 visitors have come to Our Place, Te Papa Tongarewa.

That’s more than six times the population of Aotearoa.

As the behemoth institution blows the candles out on its 25th birthday cake on Tuesday that number will be nudging 34 million.

It’s been a quite a ride – literally, at the beginning. That Time Warp theme-park ride generated many column inches as purists lambasted the museum’s audacity to modernise.

But modernise it did, unapologetically.

Kaihautū Māori co-leader Arapata Hakiwai​, who came to Te Papa from the old Buckle Street museum, remembers the jibes hurled at the museum: too dumbed down, too populist, “too Māori”.

“It was challenging what the old museum didn’t have.

“Te Papa was a real shake up in museum terms. Yes, there were theme rides. At the time I thought ‘this is good’ but on reflection I’m not quite sure about that. [But] I could understand it was breaking new ground.”

Te Papa’s relatively new Tumu Whakarae chief executive Courtney Johnston​ called it “radical disruption”.

Johnston and Hakiwai say they are proud of what Te Papa has achieved in its first 25 years. JUAN ZARAMA PERINI/STUFF.

For her, it was a living lesson.

One of her first jobs in Te Whanganui-a-Tara was as a visitor host at the new Te Papa, under founding CEO Dame Cheryll​ Sotheran, while studying art history at university.

“I was being taught about Te Papa as a study in museum transformation. When I look back on it now with the benefit of hindsight, what I really see is an exercise in radical disruption.

“What they did brilliantly is push really far. I don’t think they hedged their bets.

“It wasn’t just moving collections or moving buildings it was moving a culture … It certainly burnt off some of the existing audience … but at the same time it massively opened up to people who had felt excluded or insulted by their treatment before. It was the cusp of change.”

Change is central to any museum’s survival. And over the years Johnston says the museum has proven that it can tackle the “really big stuff”.

“Whether it’s climate change, decolonisation, identity – and we can do it in a way that’s welcoming and even fun. Our strategy is about using our unique position to foster healing and reconciliation, a healthy environment, and sense of belonging. They are lofty goals, but that’s the future we want to see for Aotearoa.”

A photo of the site where Te Papa Tongarewa was built, taken in 1993. STUFF.

If the museum wanted confirmation of its vision – to be a Tiriti-based museum where a commitment to Te Tiriti o Waitangi is fostered and Māori exercise tino rangatiratanga – it got it in a 2019 Guardian article on the Te Taiao Nature exhibition.

“At a time when museums around the world are struggling with how to become more diverse and inclusive, Te Papa is leading the way in its symbiotic relationship with New Zealand’s Indigenous people. Bi-culturalism isn’t an afterthought at Te Papa – it’s the institution’s life blood,” the article said.

Johnston says the challenges ahead include enabling communities to decide the future of their taonga that are in the museum’s care.

“It’s tricky, it’s complex and it’s absolutely the right thing to do. Being relevant and accessible to as many people as possible, especially those next generations. Creating space for those voices that haven’t been heard, and who aren’t well represented in our collections – investing in those unheard stories.

‘’We’ve done some great work in the trans community, and we have new research coming out this week on Asian mental health.”

Rethinking the story

Te Papa has already made changes following a deep dive into its collection in 2018 which revealed that too much of it told the story of Aotearoa through a white, male, eurocentric, middle upper class lens.

”We’ve updated our formal collecting priorities to ensure in future the collections will better represent women and many other groups traditionally not represented in museum collections.”

Rita Angus | Central Otago (1953-56/1969). Collection of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, gift of Douglas Lilburn, 1972 © Reproduced courtesy of the Estate of Rita Angus. TE PAPA/RITA ANGUS, NEW ZEALAND/STUFF .

Across all its collections the museum actively targets those voices and communities that aren’t well represented, she says, giving the example of its Covid collecting from Asian New Zealanders who had created T-shirts and masks responding to Covid-related racism.

In the last couple of years visitors could see a strong focus on women artists in the museum’s art collections, she says. Te Papa had staged major retrospectives of Rita Angus and Robin White and acquired important works by White and A. Lois White at the BNZ collection auction. The museum was currently featuring a large new commission by Mataaho – a collective of wāhine Māori artists.

The collection

Twenty-five years on there is still debate around how the museum operates – the display of the collection for one.

Dominion Post art critic and commentator Mark Amery says we don’t see enough of the collection exhibited. “There’s not enough energy in the quick turnaround of shows.”

It’s difficult, says Johnston, not least because the collection gets bigger each year.

When Te Papa opened the new $8.4m Toi Art gallery in 2018 it calculated that to show the entire art collection you would need 74km of wall – that’s a distance from Wellington to Wairarapa.

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