Leading Museums, Museum Leaders

Vale Dame Cheryll Sotheran, Te Papa

Cheryll Sotheran at Te Papa in December 1998.

Te Papa founding chief executive Dame Cheryll Sotheran dies after long illness, The Dominion Post, 31 December 2017

Te Papa founding chief executive Dame Cheryll Sotheran has died, aged 72, after a long illness.

“Dame Cheryll leaves an incredible legacy,” current Te Papa chief executive Geraint Martin said on Sunday.

Sotheran had a stroke in 2013 and had been battling health issues since. She died in Auckland on Saturday.

“Her spirit of innovation, of challenging the status quo, is part of Te Papa’s DNA,” Martin said.

“In creating this unique place for all New Zealanders, Dame Cheryll helped change the way we see ourselves, and our place in the world,” he said.

Sotheran’s daughters Lucy and Miranda Pritchard said on Sunday: “We are immensely proud of what our mother achieved in her lifetime. She was loved beyond measure by both of us and our families.”

In 1992, Sotheran was appointed as the founding chief executive of the planned museum, which was to be created from the merger of New Zealand’s National Museum and National Art Gallery.

Te Papa was said to be the world’s biggest museum construction project of the 1990s.

Working with kaihautū Cliff Whiting, who died earlier this year, Sotheran was the visionary who drove the huge and often controversial project forward.

Under the glare of national scrutiny, she led the complex project, from the intellectual frameworks that informed the innovative multi-disciplinary museum, to the elaborate earthworks and construction that saw a hotel moved off the waterfront site on wheels to accommodate the massive new structure, said Te Papa’s current kaiautū, Arapata Hakiwai, who worked alongside Sotheran during those formative years.

“The opening of Te Papa on 14 February 1998, on time and under budget, can be attributed to Dame Cheryll’s determination and vision,” Hakiwai said.

“Cheryl had an unwavering belief in a new kind of museum, and was determined to create an experience that was different – a bicultural space that was exciting and challenging and open to all.”

Her passing, after the loss of Whiting in July, was poignant as the museum approached its 20th anniversary, he said.

“This year we have lost the two true creators of Te Papa. As we approach our 20th anniversary, we take inspiration from the courage and creativity of those early years.”

After the opening of Te Papa, Sotheran played down any personal sense of accomplishment.

When asked if she felt “vindicated” by the positive response to the museum on opening, she told The Dominion: “Vindicated is not the word I would use, as I have always believed profoundly in the project.

“I am far more pleased for the team than anyone else that they are getting the approval ratings and that the experience is being recognised for what it is, which is a very interesting, exciting, challenging look at New Zealanders and their identity.”

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