The Point of Museums

Michael Houlihan, ‘Museums – what’s the point?’, 24 December 2014

Originally published in The Dominion Post and reprinted at

The front page article on the 28 November edition of The Dominion Post written by Dave Burgess and published under the sensationalist headline of Te Papa lifts lid on ex-CEO is quite remarkable and makes a number of claims either expressly or by implication which are misleading or untrue. In the interests of presenting a slightly more balanced view of Te Papa, its recent history and the purpose of a museum of this nature, I offer these comments.

As the chief executive that The Dominion Post article derides as having had a “disastrous tenure” at Te Papa, I am obviously not a completely impartial commentator but someone needs to point out that there is an alternative view point to many of the article’s claims and assumptions.

The article proceeds on the basis that the only criterion by which an institution like Te Papa and its exhibitions can be measured is its financial performance.  This misses the point that museums are not just businesses, they are also about the education and cultural enrichment of the communities that they serve.

The purpose of our Whare Taonga is to protect our precious treasures and pass on knowledge about who we are, our achievements, and what will be important to us in the future. In today’s world no-one would deny that museums have to be business-like, but it’s about balance. For example, the article casually dismisses the Aztecs exhibition (five years in the making) and Colour & Light as “loss making”. On that simplistic basis, so is the national education system. The feedback from those many  New Zealanders who availed themselves of the opportunity to attend these exhibitions (which I suspect Mr Burgess did not) was overwhelmingly positive and appreciative. These shows were a unique opportunity for all Kiwis particularly those who might never get the opportunity to travel to Mexico or the United States, to discover the cultural treasures of Mexico and be inspired by masterpieces from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. His comments are also a discourtesy to the people of Mexico who lent those objects and received Te Papa’s E Tu Ake Standing Strong exhibition in exchange. The benefits of greater cross-cultural understanding that flow from exchanges of this nature have their own intangible but significant value.

Not content with judging Te Papa and, in particular my performance as CEO, solely on financial criteria, the article then immediately fudges the figures. It utilises the old trick of comparing worst case projections with actual figures and implies that if I had not resigned, the deficit would have been at the worst case projection rather than the figure that was actually achieved. In dismissing the restructuring processes that I initiated while chief executive as “ill-fated” and implying that actions taken by the board of Te Papa after my departure were the sole reason why the anticipated budget deficit was trimmed, the article loses sight of the fact that restructuring measures, particularly those involving reducing staff numbers and other overheads, take time to bear fruit, but, once implemented, achieve ongoing savings.

In implying that budget savings of $6m were achieved by staff not going to conferences, not using taxis and not having morning teas, the article strains credulity. Savings from those sources would have been only a tiny component of the overall savings achieved. Laying people off and reducing services and exhibitions would have been the primary factors in  reduction of the budget deficit. In lauding the current exhibition Tyrannosaurs: Meet the family and implying that its success is somehow due to actions taken by the board since my departure, the article  once again fudges the situation. That exhibition was almost 2 years in the planning under what the article describes as my “disastrous tenure”. It is fantastic that people are flocking to see it in numbers far greater than those who turned up to see the two exhibitions that immediately preceded it. But to the extent that credit for that is due to anyone, it belongs to the large number of people who worked on making that exhibition a reality over the last couple of years. Reference to that exhibition also brings up the overplayed myth of the blockbuster exhibition. Commercially successful shows with attendances of over 120,000 – like Lord of the Rings and Monet (also from Boston) are wonderful when they happen. But they are the exception. They are also notoriously difficult to predict. No museum can expect that every exhibition they stage will be equally as financially successful. The real story of special exhibitions at Te Papa, and at museums across the world, is that they are worthwhile investments in the public good and national reputation, rather than generators of profit.

In 2008, the Rita Angus show toured New Zealand and is still considered a success. Yet, its development and touring costs were never recovered. In a recession-hit world, Te Papa’s recent exhibition programme has demonstrably supported tourism and the Wellington economy. The article omits to mention that shows such as Unveiled; Game Masters; Warhol; Throne of Emperors and Shi Liu under my “disastrous tenure” hit their targets, drawing in traditional as well as new and younger audiences.

Tyrannosaurs, looks on course to exceed its targets.

Since 1998, Te Papa has consistently struggled with a challenging business model, posting a deficit on its accounts every year. This is because of the unavoidable, depreciating value of its assets, such as showcases, air conditioning and equipment, which appear as a cost on the balance sheet. Since day one, Te Papa has been criticised for not showing enough of its collections, especially art. Recently, more art has been shown more often, in more spaces and more places.  Proposals were also developed to share the collections more widely through the creation of an education and collections centre – not a storage facility – in Manukau. For any museum, putting the collections, collecting and research at the heart of their activity comes with a significant price tag, especially when the benchmark is to be world class.

Finally, world-class museums are powered by world-leading curators and practitioners. They find ways of structuring themselves to capitalise this energy and invest in expertise. But it takes time. For instance, the new structure empowered Dr Jonathan Mane-Wheoki to build the foundations of a world-class art team. Although his work was cut sadly short by his passing, he has left a magnificent legacy for the future. Any objective judgement about success or failure in museums in general and Te Papa in particular must account for their educational, social, economic and diplomatic benefits for their local communities and for the Nation. The museum balance sheet is about more than just the buck.

Public debate about the role of Te Papa, the type of exhibitions it should be mounting and its funding is a great thing. By thinly-veiled character assassination of the type that the article engages in (even stooping to describe me as an “Englishman” and a “foreigner”) is disappointing and your readers deserve a more balanced analysis of these important issues.

* The Dominion Post acknowledges that Mr Houlihan inappropriately became the focus of the article rather than the current financial position of Te Papa itself and apologises to him for any distress or embarrassment publication of the article may have caused. – Editor

The Dominion Post