Behind the scenes at Te Papa

Lionel Carter & Mike Rudge

The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, has been in the news over the past year for its proposals to restructure the number and roles of staff managing its collections. Scientists, both local and overseas, voiced their opposition, and one specialist demanded that his name be removed from one of the most celebrated and popular exhibits. Despite this, Te Papa management proceeded with their plans, although they did have second thoughts about the redundancies of two natural history staff who were collections managers for fish and molluscs.

Te Papa is a flagship institution of international repute. That reputation rests on the dual role of the museum as an exhibition centre and a repository of national and international treasures (the collections). It is highly significant that the Maori component of the name of our National Museum, translates as, ‘the place where treasured things are held.’

This paper asks whether the Board and managers have the necessary understanding of the importance of collections to make good long-term decisions for the Museum.


Statutory context

The national museum operates under the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa Act 1992 which says the Museum,

…shall provide a forum in which the nation may present, explore, and preserve both the heritage of its cultures and knowledge of the natural environment in order better—

(a)to understand and treasure the past; and

(b)to enrich the present; and

(c)to meet the challenges of the future.

While exhibitions are the public face of the museum, Section 7 of the Act lists twelve functions of the board, ten of which are to do with holding and managing collections. Those functions are fundamental to the operations of museums throughout the world, and depend on the professional skills of Collection Managers and Conservators. They encompass the important concept of guardianship (kaitiakitanga), which can also be expressed as the duty of care that serves the three purposes of the Act (as above).

In holding ‘treasures’, and meeting its obligations under the Act, the National Museum must recognise the distinction between passive custody and the active management needed for proper care, acquisition, research, and sharing of collections. These tasks presuppose a range of appropriate skills and high standards from experienced, professional staff. It follows that the Board bears an obligation to maintain the resources and the necessary discipline-specific skills. After all, its own Statement of Intent states the museum will “maintain collections to the highest possible standard.”

The Board of Te Papa comprises people mostly qualified in subjects such as law, finance and public affairs, not in science or, in particular, biology. (A temporary exception was the tenure of Sir Peter Gluckman, a paediatrician.) Significantly, no member of the board has worked in a museum. At the management level, the Chief Executive came from the health sector and none of the next tier of managers, except the Kaihautu, has a professional museum background. A Research Advisory Panel with external members was formed in June 2013 but disbanded in May 2016. In any organisation a Board of Governance is expected to bring wide perspectives. However, it seems legitimate to ask how people with skills and experience that are totally unrelated to the fundamental mandate of an organisation can be expected to make decisions for its strategic future.


Te Papa restructurings 2012-2018

The restructuring proposed in 2018 was the third in five years. A restructuring in 2012 reduced the number of staff managing the natural history collections by roughly 50% as indicated in the graph below. The proposals in 2018 cut a further 50%. These are not trivial figures. Even worse, people, with specialised expertise and institutional memory are being replaced by inexperienced generalists.



Former senior public sector manager, Kathy Spencer pointed out the many hidden costs of restructuring. These include uncertainty, loss of morale and trust and the loss of staff who “…can’t bear another restructuring or don’t want to work under the new regime.” This appears to summarise the current situation in Te Papa as additional staff have left of their own volition.

In responding to critics, Te Papa has insisted that this restructuring is not about saving costs, but the need to modernise. Many commentators have expressed doubts. Restructuring itself is always an activity that consumes large resources. As a prelude to the present one, Te Papa has not revealed any evaluation of the success or failure of restructurings dating back to 2012.

Te Papa claims that its restructuring is an operational matter, and their presiding minister has declined to get involved despite expressions of concern. In some organisations major upheavals can indeed be ‘operational’ and, when things settle down, services may return to normal in a better way. However, in the case of Te Papa, there is an inescapable risk of strategic consequences. For example, we already know that digital imaging, databasing, loans (in and out), condition monitoring for deterioration, status monitoring of preservatives, and remedial care have all suffered measurably during the past six years. More distant consequences are likely to materialise from this ‘operational’ neglect in the form of items that are lost from the records, or have physically deteriorated beyond recall. In the years that are yet to come, will people judge as ‘Operational’ or ‘Strategic’ what has been done today?

Te Papa has two distinct mandates. One is public exhibitions and displays; the other is that part called ‘back of house’. It is understandably seductive to perform well to a public audience because that is what contributes most to the museum’s reputation among visitors from this country and overseas. Exhibitions are relatively short-term enterprises. Even the large ‘permanent exhibitions’ (as distinct from topical displays or on tour) that were created only twenty years ago are now being replaced. That is their expected fate, and an expensive fate too. (The replacement natural history exhibition has cost twelve million dollars.

Exhibitions would be considered a success story in any public appraisal of Te Papa. But what of the back of house functions which are less overt, but have a public interest so high that the Parliament placed such priority on them? Put another way, when considering the confusion and outrage attending the recent restructuring, does the board of Te Papa have the collections at heart or even have the understanding to govern their existence and proper care?


Final thoughts

Collections are part of the nation’s heritage. This is a truism the world over. They underpin our sense of place, where we came from, what we have, what is special about this place and the scholarship that can describe and interpret what make us New Zealanders. That same collection-based scholarship also informs exhibitions that are the public front of any museum. Collections are a fundamental, strategic resource held on behalf of the nation and the international community. The museum has a strategic responsibility to care for them. The very definition of ‘Te Papa Tongarewa’ calls them ‘Treasures’ Under the Act. This implies a ‘Duty of Care’ for the past and for posterity, which encompasses facilities, staff, expertise and permanency. This is what the Board and Management of Te Papa have to answer to in the discharge of their several roles. The clients for great exhibitions are the people of today, but the clients of great collections are posterity. That future client has no voice but ours.


Categories: Public sector
About the author

Lionel Carter & Mike Rudge

Lionel Carter is Professor of Marine Geology at Victoria University, Wellington. Trained in geology and oceanography at the universities of Auckland and British Columbia, Canada, he has undertaken research in the North Atlantic, Pacific and Southern oceans. A strong focus has been on past ocean/climate change as a tool to aid projections of the ocean’s response to modern climate change. He led New Zealand contributions to major international geoscience projects including Ocean Drilling Program Leg 181 and the MARGINS "Source to Sink" initiative. Expertise gained from marine geology/oceanography research is applied to ocean engineering projects, in particular the protection of the global submarine telecommunication network that underpins the Internet and international communications. In 2003 he was made Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand followed by award of the Marsden Medal (2012) and Hutton Medal (2015) for services to science. Michael Rudge graduated in Botany and Zoology from the University of Exeter (UK) and obtained his PhD as a field ecologist. He joined the NZ Department of Scientific and Industrial Research in 1966 to study feral goats and sheep in mountain ranges and on distant islands. A range of cooperative studies led to managerial roles on topics as diverse as invasive insects and the control of horticultural pests. During the great changes that led to the formation of the Crown Research Institutes, he became familiar with strategic planning and large-scale restructuring. In 1993 he joined the emerging Te Papa and became Manager of Museum Resources, responsible for up to 25 staff across all of the collections. This provided insights into scientific, artistic, cultural and ethnic disciplines; the inter-relationships of museums around the world; and the realisation that posterity is their ultimate client.