Time for getting museums right

Artbeat column no 455 by Peter Entwisle
Published in the Otago Daily Times, 24.8. 2009

The Otago Museum Board is burying its head in the sand. It has just voted to endorse its beleaguered Director. (ODT 19/8/09) Its problems aren’t about to go away. It needs a better strategy.

The most recent difficulties arise from members of staff and their union complaining of bad treatment, poor morale and poor working conditions and an institution losing sight of its primary duty of collection care. Are the complaints well-founded? They are. They have been amplified by statements from former employees now no longer under the burden of silence. In Dunedin’s small museum world they have been common knowledge for more than ten years. How has the Board managed to remain ignorant of them?

Basically because its members are not themselves museum people and because they are shielded from reality by modern management structures. They feel a duty towards their employee Shimrath Paul, the museum Director, but they can’t look past him to subordinates who are in no position to declare their real views to people who can’t or won’t protect them. In the past all the staff were Board employees. Now it’s different. The same is true in other organisations. We can all blame the dysfunctional reorganisation of public administration along business lines which occurred in the 1980s. But the legislative legacy remains and the Otago Museum is just a recent, conspicuous casualty.

The museum is a world-class institution in a remote locality with a hopelessly inadequate funding base, struggling in a vacuum of nous or even interest. The bodies which should long have been focused on the question have managed to confine themselves only to shifting responsibility away from themselves, greedily trying to take over an attractive thing which is really too big for them to handle, or more often yawning and leaving the whole difficult question for resolution at some future dateApart from its problems of staff relations and collection care there’s also now a chronic problem in Otago’s relations with Te Papa Tongarewa, the Museum of New Zealand. On most of these, on the issues, I side with the Otago Museum. What is happening is that tax dollars for museum purposes are being distributed through one institution – Te Papa – which, as predicted, is using that role, consciously or otherwise, to place other institutions in its thrall. Nevertheless Mr Paul’s prickly handling of the matters has made a bad situation worse. Sadly Te Papa’s most recent Director, Seddon Bennington, was accidentally killed earlier this year. With a new director a line might be drawn under the unhappy past and a fresh start made. But the Otago Museum’s problems run a whole lot deeper and require a national effort at salvation, not just a local one.

I have said this before but will say it again. The Dunedin City Council, the Otago Museum’s biggest funder by a country mile, must remove its attention from other things long enough to get this one sorted out properly.

First up it must forget about ambitions to make this institution another amalgamated city department. Happily it has now separated the administration of the Otago Settlers Museum and the Dunedin Public Art Gallery, ending a more than decade-long failed experiment. Ultimately it needs to step back from the Otago Museum, not aim to take it over. What it does need to do is to get together with Christchurch and Auckland to prevail on this government to end or modify the failed one-site national museum funding model.

Tax dollars for museums with collections of national importance should not all be spent on the one site in Wellington, or through it. They should be spent through a national museum faucet. They would end up supporting the eight more or less plausibly internationally significant collections in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin. For the record they are those of the Auckland Museum, the Auckland Art Gallery, Te Papa’s general museum collections, its art collection, the Canterbury Museum, the Christchurch Art Gallery, the Otago Museum and the Dunedin Public Art Gallery. Although Te Papa’s and Christchurch’s art collections are less obviously in this league there is no doubt about the others. One could add to this equation for other important collections, notably those of the Alexander Turnbull Library and the Hocken. But that is a distraction. What is needed is a model like the Netherlands’ or Denmark’s instead of the United States’ or Australia’s.

There is a real constituency for this because it affects Auckland and Christchurch as much as Dunedin. Now is the time to do it because there is a new government and the one-site system is failing. But it won’t happen unless one body – why not the Dunedin City Council – takes the initiative to make this its business.

As for the immediate issue, the Otago Museum Board should draw its breath and try again.
© 2009, Otago Daily Times  http://www.otagodailytimes.co.nz