Hamish Keith: Te Papa North a complementary addition to city

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Dr Rodney Wilson is absolutely right. Auckland does not need an invitation-only, pay-at-the-door events centre on a prime piece of waterfront land and nothing remotely resembling that is proposed.

The extension of the display spaces of the Museum of New Zealand, Te Papa Tongarewa, to the park at Wynyard Pt will broaden the reach of the national collections to an extra 1.3 million citizens - almost one third of the country's population. Short of the price of an air ticket they are out of reach of the majority of them now. The museum itself will remain in Wellington. The building on the point will provide another 24,000m of display space - almost doubling the space it presently has.

The whole point of museum collections is accessibility, a point that Dr Wilson himself stresses. Te Papa North will make the national collections accessible to the densest and most diverse population of the people whose collections they are. All of the collections, not just a selective slice of them, and not just the art collections either. A site like Wynyard Pt deserves a building with the broadest appeal and, like the Auckland Art Gallery, entrance to Te Papa North would be free.

The idea that in some way this would diminish the city's existing museums is a curious concept. Nowhere in the world has one museum closed because another opened. To the contrary, there is plenty of precedent for museums to open extensions elsewhere - the Tate, for example, has three.

Even The Hermitage, one of the world's oldest museums, has five branches outside St Petersburg.

Dr Wilson suggests that a museum of modern art might be a better choice. That would compete with the magnificently rebuilt Auckland Art Gallery, reconfigured to extend its ability to show exactly that kind of work - in Dr Wilson's words "current New Zealand art and ... the best of international art". There is no reason, of course, that such shows might not also be shown at Te Papa North, but there is no intention that they be shown there exclusively or that any show would be permanently installed. The galleries at Te Papa North would also be available to the Auckland Gallery or the Auckland Museum for major shows they could not accommodate.

The report of the Te Papa North working group paid particular attention to its relationships with Auckland's existing museums, emphasising the complementary rather than the competitive, and avoiding activities which might drain scarce resources from the local museums that rely on them. The report makes the point that Te Papa North is of national significance and, by implication, would be a national responsibility, not a regional one.

The group met with Auckland Museum directors and their senior staff. Generally the proposal was greeted with enthusiasm rather than hostility. Various ways by which Te Papa North could provide a focus for Auckland's museums were canvassed, one of them in providing public transport to link them all. Te Papa North, in line with the general plan for Wynyard Quarter, will be a car-free zone.

Dr Wilson dismisses the argument that museums are able to show only a small proportion of the collections they hold as a reason for expanding the exhibition space available to the National Museum. This is ingenuous to say the least. Expanding exhibition spaces drives museum extensions everywhere, including the museums of which Dr Wilson has been director.

The new Auckland Gallery doubled its exhibition capacity from some 400 works to more than 800 - still only a fraction of the thousands it holds. The current exhibition of the Bishop Monrad collection at Te Papa provides just one example. There are more than 500 pieces in this collection - one of the best in the country - the museum has space to show only 40. Such is the pressure on the exhibition spaces that it was proposed a second Te Papa should be built next door. Te Papa North provides that - just 650km further away.

Te Papa North offers opportunities far beyond the national collections. It is a fact that the nation's collections of significance are to be found in all of the country's museums and galleries large and small. Imagine, for example, an exhibition drawn from all over New Zealand, celebrating the cultures of the Pacific in the same way as the culture-changing Te Maori exhibition did for Maori. Auckland is, after all, home to the largest Polynesian population in the Pacific - the opening show at Te Papa North, perhaps.

Dr Wilson at least concludes that a museum is the right building for Wynyard Pt, but a museum must begin with a collection. The national collections provide the foundation on which we can build a great exhibiting museum for all, in an iconic building, on a marvellous park.

Online archive
Read Dr Rodney Wilson's opinion piece "We don't need a Te Papa North" at tinyurl.com/3bsrupj

Hamish Keith is chairman of the Te Papa North Planning Group.

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