Leading Museums, Museum Leaders

Tim White, Dir, Collns & Research, Peabody

Part of the seabirds collections area at Te Papa.

Tim White, Te Papa’s international reputation in good practice is richly deserved, Stuff, 30 October 2018

OPINION: In September, Te Papa brought together an international panel to look at how it cares for its science collections. I joined colleagues from some of the world’s most respected natural history museums.

Our role was to advise Te Papa’s leadership on how collections at the museum are managed.

We also brought a global perspective on current trends in collection management. This is a fast-changing field that has been revolutionised by new technology, from DNA analysis to digitising collections.

The panel reviewed Te Papa’s strategies, policies and standards. We found a coherent and comprehensive approach to collection care. The new detailed standards, drawn up in close consultation with specialist staff, will be particularly useful in guiding future practice.

Te Papa’s international reputation in good practice is richly deserved and can serve as an example for many other institutions. But there are a couple of areas where we encouraged the museum to do more.

The first is dealing with its backlog of items which have come to the museum but not yet been catalogued, from dried ferns to mollusc shells. We advised Te Papa to focus on cataloguing the backlog, even if that means pressing pause on new acquisitions.

We also said that Te Papa should also focus on digital access to its natural history collections. This can be done through digital images, and online databases of genetic materials. This is vital given that New Zealand’s collections are part of a global jigsaw, but a long plane ride away for most researchers.

A misconception about a collection like Te Papa’s is that there should be internal staff who are actively researching in every area of the collection, which is simply not possible in any museum. There are many types of collections within Te Papa to be covered by staff. The panel encouraged Te Papa to seek out and support external researchers to work in collections not being studied by staff.

Our role was to look at the frameworks that guide the museum’s work, not poke around in boxes and jars. However, I was in New Zealand for the annual meeting of the Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections and seeing Te Papa was a must!

I was able to see the Te Papa collections in person and to talk with some of their staff about the best practices and standards that they have developed. Seeing Te Papa’s collections first-hand reinforced what the panel had seen through documentation. The museum has modern, professional collection care. Its staff are dedicated and highly skilled. Its facilities are on a par with what you would expect to see worldwide, and in some cases, are world leading.

Te Papa’s spirit collection is world class. The name might suggest something supernatural, but this is a specialist store where an incredible collection of marine life is stored in liquids or spirits.

The facility includes a purpose-built preparation room, where huge specimens like colossal squid can be examined and processed. I can see why this facility is the envy of researchers and collection managers worldwide.

We applaud Te Papa’s work to keep developing its practice, and testing its thinking. No doubt the field of collection care, and Te Papa’s approach to it, will continue to evolve. We look forward to maintaining links with Te Papa, sharing our insights and learning from the museum’s many strengths.

New Zealanders can be assured that their collections are in good hands.

Tim White is director of collections & research at Yale University’s Peabody Museum of Natural History, and former president of the Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections. 

The Dominion Post


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