John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan: Museum must rediscover its mojo

Every Aucklander should attend an Anzac Day dawn service on the museum forecourt at least once. Photo / Dean Purcell
Every Aucklander should attend an Anzac Day dawn service on the museum forecourt at least once. Photo / Dean Purcell

Not many institutions in New Zealand are as grand as the Auckland War Memorial Museum.

It looks sublime from the harbour, white and classical on its hill in the Domain.

It is even more impressive up close with the columns at its entrance and the panorama below.

Every Aucklander should attend an Anzac Day dawn service on the forecourt at least once. There is nothing so moving as the veterans' march in the dark and the sunrise on the cenotaph.

But inside the museum these days it is a different story. It has lost direction. It called a public meeting last Tuesday night to invite views on what sort of museum it should be.

At least that was the stated purpose, the real aim was the repair of its public relations after the dissension around its recently departed director. But the issues that sparked that dissension probably bore some connection to the question put to us on Tuesday night.

The presentation and discussion left me with the impression the museum has been infected by a disease that is debilitating some other creative sectors. Call it the disease academic aspiration.

The art of presenting a museum has somehow acquired the language and philosophical uncertainty of an academic subject. Like other fine arts that succumb to that urge, it has lost sight of its essential skill.

Evidently it is no longer fashionable in museumology, or whatever it calls itself, for an institution to be restricted by its artefacts. If there is a "story" a museum wants to tell and it cannot be told by items in its collection, it should find other ways.

Even if its collection could tell the story it is inclined nowadays to prefer other ways. That is how museums have become theme parks like Te Papa.

It's fatal, I fear, for any medium to try to be what it is not. A museum is not a cinema, an auditorium, a classroom, a place for words and photographs or a website. It might use all of those but is not likely to be especially good at them.

I have walked into film displays at the Auckland Museum and walked out again angry at the amateur standard of production that left elementary information gaps.

A museum is good at the presentation of physical objects. Skilfully presented, the object can engage you in a way that connects you with the people and places it represents.

Who has not had the experience of gazing at something from the past or a distant place and marvelling that this very bit of wood or metal or whatever, was there? Its not a facsimile, this very thing was touched by real people long dead or living a different sort of life.

It existed in times or places you have read about but cannot experience. You look at the object, know it was there, and thrill at the connection. Museums are for authenticity, not reproductions.

It is the only medium that can display authentic objects and it is not a simple art. It is not easily defined and discussed in an academic way.

People with a flair for it may not be particularly articulate. They may not be academically respectable.

They may not even be running museums anymore. I hear Auckland Museum contracts out its displays. If so, no wonder it has lost its mojo.

The architecture of Auckland's graceful old lady in the Domain should prevent anything too crass being done with her. And she is certain to remain a war museum. Her directors learned a lasting lesson when one of them tried to drop the memorial from the title not so long ago.

But we heard on Tuesday night that the war collection could be corralled into some sort of theme intended to link everything in its walls.

The vaults must be vast. We heard that only 3 per cent of its treasures are on display. It has enough to be a museum of Auckland, of New Zealand, of Maori or the Pacific.

I thought the Pacific was its main claim to fame. Visitors to Auckland were always urged to see the museum for its Polynesian collection. But that received hardly a mention on Tuesday night.

Instead we were presented with a choice of different combinations of people, place and war. If the exercise interested any of the several hundred present they didn't address it.

Instead the organisers heard many childhood memories. If they reflect on the night they will note those memories were not of drawing things, banging things or playing on a screen.

Those children were absorbed in the wonder of an object far from their experience and well displayed. Children have a greater capacity for this than adults.

In their youth the museum was as quiet as a church. It knew itself, knew its audience, knew its skill. It didn't need a contrived theme and does not need one now. It needs to rediscover its art.

- NZ Herald

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John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald. A graduate of Canterbury University with a degree in history and a diploma in journalism, he started his career on the Auckland Star, travelled and worked on newspapers in Japan and Britain before returning to New Zealand where he joined the Herald in 1981. He was posted to the Parliamentary Press Gallery in 1983, took a keen interest in the economic reform programme and has been a full time commentator for the Herald since 1986. He became the paper's senior editorial writer in 1988 and has been writing a weekly column under his own name since 1996. His interests range from the economy, public policy and politics to the more serious issues of life.

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