Te Papa’s 10th anniversary passed in a froth of self-congratulation. There were hints the national museum might not quite have been up to it, but generally all was fine and dandy with its first decade.
There was a smidgeon of criticism. Rob Cherry on Radio New Zealand National’s Nine to Noon described it as a mall, which was as close to the reality as anyone ventured. In the lead-in to her coverage on Afternoons, Lucy Orbell opened by noting that Te Papa had been described as a “theme park” and the “cultural equivalent to a fast-food outlet” – both my descriptions – but no more was heard about the institution’s continuing failures. There was an implication that any criticism came from only a tiny group of the disaffected cultural classes, who preferred museums for the elite.
In short, the coverage of Te Papa’s opening decade was as shallow as the museum itself. That was a pity. The problems and shortcomings that have plagued the national museum since its opening are still there and will not be resolved by pretending they are not. The most obvious is the building itself. It would be easy to blame the architects, but the fault lay in the brief and in the process that arrived at that particular design. The interim board of the museum did not select that design. Some strange sub-committee did.
There was an architectural competition intended to select an architect but not to select a building. The sub-committee lost the plot and went ahead and selected a building anyway. From that point on, it was clear there would be a battle between the building and the museum, and the building won.
In a reverse of what should happen, the museum’s functions were shaped by the building. Hence the mall experience – and, worse, the nature of the building bears little resemblance to the nature of the collections. The national art collections suffered the most and still. Despite some architectural paste-ons and a largely new administration, the problem remains. Te Papa is not even a de facto national gallery.
The 10th anniversary should have provided an opportunity to acknowledge the deficits and suggest some solutions. The only Wellington way out would be some radical architectural surgery. It is unlikely that most of the country’s taxpayers would be happy to spend another hundred or so million dollars on what their first $300 million got wrong.
So, why not do what other major national institutions do when their collections outgrow their buildings? Open a branch office. There is a spot in the middle of Auckland’s Tank Farm marked “iconic building”. Just rub that out and replace it with “Te Papa Auckland”, thus extending the national museum’s reach to a third of the country’s population. Simple really. The national collections get space to show and, for a breath¬taking change, something national happens outside Wellington.