Displaying a hunger for change

By Geoff Cumming

Vanda Vitali's vision for Auckland Museum extends well beyond the turmoil of the staff restructuring of the last six months. The first major exhibition under her watch, "Secrets" opens on July 12 and is billed as revealing "Auckland Museum's hidden mysteries".

It's an early chance for the new director to put her stamp on one of the pivotal institutions in Auckland's cultural fabric, an institution cherished by Aucklanders but taken for granted, one perennially challenged by limited funding and changing audience expectations.

Secrets - based around objects which have languished in storage for many years - is a taste of where Vitali would like to take the museum - a more theatrical experience with innovative use of lighting and sound. She is determined to bring new audiences into the museum. "People love the building but don't go inside," she says.

Vitali's critics - who extend beyond those jettisoned or demoted in the "reorganisation" - see much irony in the title.

They want more revealed than hidden objects - the reasons experienced staff and skilled technicians and designers who did not fit Vitali's vision, exactly what that vision is, and the secret plans for unprecedented redevelopment of exhibition areas on all three levels.

Plans leaked to the Weekend Herald are uncosted but look exciting. They would bring greater logic to visitor flows and coherence to displays.

There are theatres on every level, better shopping and cafes. On the ground floor, the Pacific and Maori galleries would expand along the east wing to form a pre-European "path of discovery."

Or visitors could take an alternative "path of discovery" to the west and follow the trail of European settlement from the 1800s to today. The Auckland 1866 exhibit would be relocated from the ground floor to form the starting point. The two paths converge at the back in a new contemporary Auckland area showcasing the modern city's arts and cultural diversity.

There may of course be casualties - the plan casts doubt on the future of the exhibition hall which came with the $65 million Atrium development completed in 2006. Intended to generate welcome revenue from touring exhibitions, the hall will host Secrets (which has no admission charge).

Some staff claim the exhibition hall could end up in the basement carpark, where there's limited ceiling height, but Vitali says the hall is staying for now.

But where will Rajah the elephant go? Perhaps to a new Windows on the World wing, including international decorative arts.

The reconfiguration planned for level two is almost as sweeping - the popular Weird and Wonderful children's learning area moved and linked to expanded education facilities in the southern half, a natural history trail from Gondwana to modern human impact on the environment, with a cinema in the natural history wing.

Enhancements to the war galleries on level three include a cinema, a between the wars exhibit and another on modern conflicts.

On each level, additional themes and displays would add to the visitor experience.

That's one interpretation of the blueprint by world-renowned Swiss designer Francois Confino and award-winning exhibition design specialists Event Communications, based in London. Confino's work includes several projects at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, Vitali's previous posting. The museum says the cost of the consultants' report is "commercially sensitive".

Museum staff have mixed feelings about the redevelopment plans - most agree that many exhibits are long overdue for modern display and multi-media techniques, but there's concern that many traditional exhibits could become casualties and that core visitors may be turned off by moves to attract new audiences. One critic accuses Vitali of "vandalism".

She is dismayed that what she calls preliminary plans produced for internal discussion have entered the public domain. The plans will come as news to many stakeholders, including Auckland councils which largely fund the museum and the Returned Services Association which is closely involved with the war galleries and war memorial.

The electoral college of council representatives which appoints the museum trust board has yet to see the plans.

Auckland district RSA president Gary Walker is unaware of plans for the level three galleries but is enthusiastic about a potential cinema. "Anything that enhances [the displays] would be real good."

The redevelopment plan is the second big surprise at the museum since Vitali took over from retiring director Rodney Wilson last September. The globe-trotting Canadian made her name in LA with innovative exhibitions using multi-media and by bringing student audiences in for Friday night debates, lectures and live music.

She has stressed the need to increase the museum's relevance to Auckland's diverse population, attract new audiences and connect with the city's wider cultural scene.

Discussion group feedback suggests Aucklanders want more contemporary displays, more action and more interpretation, she says.

"How do we speak about the past as though the people have disappeared? I'm worried that all tourists see is things produced decades and decades ago. My passion is to do something that relates with contemporary Auckland."

But the staff reorganisation, expected to cost about 30 staff their positions, has created an environment of uncertainty, resentment and rivalry.

When news of the restructuring leaked out in February, Vitali and the museum trust board described it as a refocusing or realignment, a logical flow-on from the major physical work - including earthquake proofing, structural changes and the new atrium development - completed in a two-stage redevelopment under Wilson.

But Vitali was appointed with a mandate for change and the reorganisation was always more radical than the spin, with seven departments reduced to four.

High-profile heads to roll include director of Maori, Paul Tapsell, manager of public programmes James Dexter and education services manager Peter Millward. Others including finance head John Cowan are on short-term contracts.

Board chairman David Hill has said no one has been made redundant but the Herald understands some senior managers have received payouts - conditional on signing confidentiality agreements which bar them from commenting on the changes.

Some second-tier appointments are still to be finalised and staff involved are understandably reluctant to comment. A raft of designers and display technicians have departed, either unhappy with the new structure or concerned at the directional change.

It's an understatement to say the restructuring has created friction and left noses out of joint. While the consultation process was thorough, some staff say the outcome was predetermined.

"She's getting rid of people who have a great deal of experience and replacing them with 'yes' people," says one ex-staffer.

There's concern that curators will be at arms length from collections management, affecting interpretation of objects on display. Technicians will work across departments rather than in their specialties.

There's also concern about a lopsided structure, with collections management, research, education, and other core functions covering two-thirds of staff all reporting to a new head of museum delivery.

"It will be a really vital position," says one ex-staffer.

Says another: "Division between research and collections has been tried in a number of museums in the past but has always been reversed. It's 10 to 15 years out of date."

Of course, such a backlash is expected with any major organisational upheaval. But in the small world of New Zealand museology, it's legitimate to wonder whether the departure of so many experienced staff will affect the museum's ability to deliver the improvements Vitali, and the board, clearly want.

"(The replacements) may have wonderful CVs but will they be able to do the work?" asks a union source.

The departure of Paul Tapsell (he is overseas but due to take up a new post at Otago University) has affected a link with Auckland University's graduate programme in museums and cultural heritage.

Associate Professor Harry Allen, who supervises the programme at the university end, says there's an international trend towards more centralised collection management.

Several of the directional changes - including more promotion and revenue generation - are also typical of museums internationally.

He says there is certainly scope to do more with Maori contemporary art rather than just document Maori history.

"There is potential for some excellent things to come out of this as well as angst from a period of change."

What surprises Allen is the apparent pace of change.

"Given that the museum director made a statement that she was here to listen, the changes have occurred very quickly and they cut a lot deeper than expected.

"The process has been unfortunate - it would have been nicer for us all to be involved."

Even those critical of the staff restructuring see positives in the redevelopment plan. "Where do you go to find out about a city? You go to the museum and that's something that's been missing in Auckland," says one. "If the focus comes back on that and our colonial history and recent migration, these stories are well and truly overdue."

But he fears a reliance on touring exhibitions and new media to attract new audiences.

"She mustn't risk losing the traditional audience which is Mum, Dad and the kids."

Riven with flu when we meet, Vitali is angry that the redevelopment plans were "illegally obtained" by the Herald.

She appears extremely worried about negative reaction to plans which promise to considerably enhance the visitor experience - at least on paper.

"It's a circulation report," she says of the blueprint (though an inside page uses the phrase Exhibition Design Report).

"The goal is how we obtain a cohesive content so that as people leave the Maori Court and turn right they don't run into Rajah - does that make sense?

"Instead they progressively walk through what are paths of discovery. The goal is not to tell you specifically what the content of places should be but how does one topic blend into another so visitors get some sense of place.

"But don't say 'this will happen' or 'that will happen' - these might happen."

She stresses repeatedly that the plans are very preliminary - a basis for the start of discussions, drawn up to give opportunity for internal feedback on potential constraints such as security issues.

She says many ideas respond to the construction of the atrium wing - "a building in the midst of a building" - and its impact on visitor flows. There is confusion about which is the main entrance and she cites the case of a repeat visitor to the Darwin exhibition who asked when the rest of the museum would open. The management of school visits, signage and retail areas can also be improved.

"This [shouldn't] get elevated to the level of the strategic goals of the institution. This is technical stuff."

Which seems at odds with the calibre (and cost) of the consultants involved, the detail and depth of thinking behind the plans, and the board's stated goal of increasing the value and appeal of the museum for all.

She qualifies: "It's museologically technical. We need to present a cohesive story."

Vitali says she's committed to open dialogue but "internal matters ought to be dialogued first internally". Planning is not yet advanced enough to go public or even discuss with stakeholders.

Yet this is an institution which most Aucklanders feel they have a stake in - not least because it is largely ratepayer-funded. The "circulation report" implies millions of dollars in expenditure over what may be a 10-year timeframe or longer; Vitali says there's no timeframe nor cost estimates.

Auckland local bodies were significant contributors to the two-stage, $112 million redevelopment undertaken by Wilson over 10 years, which included earthquake-proofing and structural changes and the atrium development. How will they greet a call for further significant investment?

Vitali says improving circulation is a logical next step from the atrium development which councils funded and approved. A gallery renewal programme is in the museum's 10-year plan.

"I don't get the panic or controversy over this."

There's an 'are you with us or against us' subtext to our interview. At one point she asks: "Is this constructive or destructive?" - which I take as referring to the leaking of the plans rather than my line of questioning.

But it reminds me of her critics' accusations that in the firing and hiring process, those who questioned the changes were culled. She says the leaking of the plan, following the "illegal" leaking of the staff restructuring plan, underscores the need for cultural change.

Clearly, the pain of restructuring has heightened sensitivities on all sides. Some critics portray developments at the museum as the product of a high-flier from overseas riding roughshod over local mores and customs.

But perhaps responsibility lies with the trust board which gave the mandate for change but appears to have disregarded the public interest in such significant changes at a beloved institution.

"Perhaps the PR could have been managed a bit better," says board chairman David Hill. He points out that the restructuring has affected the museum's communications capability, with the senior post not yet finalised.

But, unlike Vitali, he is "pretty relaxed" about the circulation plan reaching the public domain. "There's no intention to launch a completed scheme in front of people. I'm quite sure there's interest in the issue but from the board's point of view we don't feel we're far enough along to know what this means and go to a public stage.

"A constant refrain we get from the public is 'what the heck is the logic of this place - how do you know where you are and where to go next?'

"The report is very much a first cut but we like the logic of what's been presented and have said 'go away and start working the details through with staff, what the cost is going to be and how it may connect with the 10-year plan for gallery renewal'."

Vanessa Neeson, who chairs the electoral college of council representatives who appoint the board, has yet to see the circulation plan but is expecting a presentation at the college's next meeting.

"She's got some terrific ideas," says Neeson, a Waitakere city councillor. "When you look at the amount of exhibits there that have hardly ever seen the light of day it makes good sense to reorganise things."

But she says Auckland councils in general are "quite anxious" about rising costs and the impact of the Auckland Amenities Bill before Parliament, which would increase funding commitments for regional cultural and recreational agencies.

Hill says if additional funds are needed approaches would be made to councils, sponsors and other funding sources, possibly including the Government.

It's unfortunate if Vitali feels threatened by publicity about the preliminary plans given the enthusiasm of most Aucklanders for an enhanced visitor experience at the museum.

It's early days, but Secrets should provide a glimpse of that experience under Vitali. Her passion is undeniable.

"I just love museums. Collections are hugely important." Her eyes light up as she recalls the moment two weeks ago when all the hidden objects, stored in warehouses scattered around the city, were brought into the museum "without a single breakage".

"It's a time to celebrate the collections in situ. We want to signal that we are proud of the accomplishments related to collections and the care of collections, to give broad access to the back of house, to show people what we do with the objects. The key thing is the objects and their stories."

She makes no apologies for hauling in Quebec-based exhibition lighting specialists Lightemotion and others she worked with at LA County to help stage Secrets.

"There's three non-locals out of 60 people involved. The museum world is an international world and it's a cross-pollination, so we have international experts and our experts and out-of-museum experts working together.

"I really want to see the museum as a world player."

A NORMAL SORTING OF THINGS

One learning curve for the Auckland Museum director, Canadian Vanda Vitali, whose French is more fluent that her English, has been the relationship of iwi to the museum.

Last month, when the Public Service Association went public with claims that up to 66 staff could go, some iwi threatened to take their taonga out of the museum. This followed the departure of director of Maori Dr Paul Tapsell and claims that other Maori staff would follow.

That threat appears to have subsided, with the Vitali undertaking to brief the far-flung iwi on her plans.

Iwi are represented by an advisory group, the Taumata-a-iwi. Chairman Martin Mariassouce says there were plans to renovate the Maori galleries before Vitali's arrival and iwi were not disappointed when they were shelved. "The question was, why would you change it? The reasons for change need to be debated."

Mariassouce is unaware of plans for a Maori theatre and contemporary displays but says communication with Vitali has been good. "I would imagine there are a number of ideas on the table."

While concern remained about the impacts of staff restructuring on Maori staff and taonga, "what seems to be occurring now is the normal sorting of things".

"One of our drivers is to see the museum engaging more with key stakeholders such as Maori, not leaving it up to the Taumata or Maori staff. We know we can do better, we know the museum can do better. We have to keep that dialogue open."

The museum had acquired thousands of taonga, sometimes with circumstances unknown. The museum was working hard to create a taonga database.

Tapsell's departure is understood to be a combination of changes to his job description and his unhappiness with the new direction. His replacement has not been finalised.

- NZ Herald

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