Rattling bones at the museum

By Geoff Cumming

Fear stalks the catacombs where Auckland Museum staff labour unseen, safeguarding collections, doing research, preparing exhibitions.

Summoned to a meeting just over a week ago, the 150 staff were given details of an "organisational restructuring" affecting all areas of the museum's operations and management structure.

They were offered counselling and the right to be accompanied by a representative throughout the change process. Some were reportedly in tears as the implications sank in.

New director Vanda Vitali is bemused by the reaction from both inside and outside the neo-classical edifice.

But why? The museum may be an institution which Aucklanders take for granted, but mess with it at your peril. For the past 10 years, Aucklanders have taken pride in its traditionalism compared to that Wellington "theme park", Te Papa.

Vitali's predecessor, Rodney Wilson, ensured the venerable building had a much-needed refurbishment, earthquake-proofing it and developing the atrium wing in a transformation which enabled the museum to display much more from its collections.

Barely has Vitali had time to clear Wilson's bow ties from her desk, and she's fomenting revolution.

Top-tier management is to be "streamlined" from seven to four and departments reshuffled. About 27 senior and mid-level managers will have to re-apply for their jobs. Positions below them will then go through a similar review.

Four months into the job, Vitali has built a strong case for change. She says:

* The museum is seen as a traditional institution, and "the size, complexity and current branding inhibit cutting-edge characteristics".

* Visitor numbers, per head of population, are well below those of the Otago and Canterbury museums. Visitor and membership targets have become difficult to meet as the tour group market shrinks against overall museum numbers.

* "Insight into the changes to our demographics and the adoption of best practice examples of museums around the world ... have not been typically adopted by our museum over the last decade. We are using many of the same programming strategies, exhibition planning assumptions and communication vehicles as we were using over a decade ago, and because of this we are losing ground."

* The museum needs to increase its relevance to Auckland's increasingly diverse population and change the way it is seen.

"Unless we prepare the museum culture to live in a present we only now fully understand ... we run the greatest risk of all, becoming increasingly irrelevant."

The restructuring proposal, presented to staff nine days ago and later leaked to the Herald, prompted the Herald website to ask online readers: Should Auckland Museum stay traditional or be more like Te Papa?

Replies included the customary anti-Te Papa dogma, although defence of "traditionalism" was by no means universal.

Perhaps the management-speak led many to fear the worst - for restructuring, read redundancies; for revenue-generation, read user-pays; for cutting-edge characteristics, read gimmicks and gadgets.

Vitali, a Canadian lured from the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, says she would be aghast if the online reaction reflected wider public opinion.

"These are not informed views," she says.

But she is reluctant to go public about the restructuring, saying it is an internal matter and a time for "the institution to start talking about itself and how it ought to function".

"It's not a major restructuring at this point - I think it's a refocusing."

How many jobs will go?

"If the question is 'do we see this institution moving forward with the great majority of staff remaining?', the answer is 'yes, we do'.

"There will be opportunities for people to apply for other positions - to go from tier three to tier four or from tier three to tier two."

Nor is cost-cutting the object of the exercise, she says.

TO meet the diminutive Vitali is to be reassured. She can waffle like a corporate CEO, and clearly has a vision, but what impresses is her passion and dynamism.

A physicist whose research into the application of physics to archaeological objects drew her into museology, she says Auckland's collections are extraordinary.

Wandering the vastly-improved displays, she points to the "magnificent" Maori hall, the "world-renowned" Pacific collection and decorative arts which invite cross-cultural comparisons.

"All Aucklanders should be proud of the collections they have."

She says her mandate for change comes from the museum trust board and was made clear when she applied for the job. The board's goals include improving the museum's "connection' with the city, developing public programmes and enhancing research.

Achieving these goals requires organisational restructuring, and Vitali says many of the proposed changes were suggested by staff.

For instance, research would be separated from collections management, and gallery development and exhibition planning unified.

The new streamlined management structure is eyebrow-raising. Functions are grouped under four divisions - museum delivery, commercial, internal services and communications and new media. Vitali says this will create better communication and improve the focus on core activities.

The new commercial arm contains nothing new, she says. The emphasis on making money is confined to facilities such as the museum shops and cafe.

"The key things are the core activities. They are not under the commercial heading because they shouldn't be. But it's fair to say we will do our best to be accountable and responsible towards ratepayers."

Vitali says debate over the museum becoming like Te Papa is unfair to both institutions.

"I don't think we do justice to the museum world in New Zealand by mentioning Te Papa as the only response to museum circumstances."

She has challenged staff to think of new ways to display collections and told curatorial staff to come up with stories for items not on display.

"I received over 120 stories a week - it shows the enthusiasm and creativity around here."

"Significant iconic pieces" would continue to be displayed, "but display can be somewhat different - it can combine natural and cultural elements."

Before making too many changes to displays and exhibitions, she wants to hear what Aucklanders want - hence the creation of a visitor and market research department.

She wants to develop alliances with the city's creative industries, including music, theatre and film.

She says new media such as YouTube and MySpace can be used to connect with new audiences. The expansion of the cenotaph database is an example of taking the collection to wider audiences.

At LA County, she was credited with innovating without diminishing core museum displays. Among her successes was Sonic Scenery, in which visitors explored installations while listening to original works by mainly-Los Angeles composers. It won an ingenuity award from the American Association of Museums.

First Fridays brought students and young people into the museum on the first Friday of every month for debates and discussion on the arts, music and other issues.

Clearly, Vitali aims to connect in a similar way with Auckland audiences, including those who do not now go to the museum.

"With what we have in this museum to illuminate and explain, we can be relevant at almost any time with key issues. We want Aucklanders to be able to come here and see continuity between the past, present and future.

For instance, she says, natural history research "can contribute greatly to contemporary issues about sustainability and climate change".

But Vitali has a bit of a job to do first - bringing nervous and sceptical staff on board. She says the reaction at last week's announcement was overwhelmingly positive - but for some it was a bombshell. She thought she had outlined the process at an initial round of meetings in December; not everyone got the message. She is said to have started a witchhunt over the leaking of the proposal to the Herald and our attempts to gauge rank and file reaction drew a blank.

Only about one in eight staff belong to a union, and the Public Service Association is concerned that no redundancy deal exists.

Vitali has been through organisational upheavals before - twice at LA County - and says the change process is never easy.

The new management system is expected to be finalised next month, and general staff reviews will be completed by late May. Vitali says the public can expect to see evidence of the museum's new direction before then.

"It's a great museum - we owe it to Aucklanders and New Zealanders to put it out there as a world-class museum."

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