The new head of the Auckland War Memorial Museum talks to Phil Taylor about leading the museum's ambitious transformation, the secret history of sex, and relocating his family across the world.

Professor David Gaimster is the 11th director of the Auckland War Memorial Museum, the fourth to take the helm in the past decade and the third foreigner.

It's been a time of constant change at the top considering that the museum, headquartered in its iconic building in the Domain, had just seven directors in the previous 155 years.

Recent times have been dramatic as museums around the world modernise. During her tenure, Dr Vanda Vitali drove a restructure that cut 46 jobs, had run-ins with the Hillary children over control of Sir Edmund's diaries, writings and family photographs, and with some World War II veterans when she overturned an agreement to place a Bomber Command memorial in the museum.

Sir Don McKinnon, a former Deputy Prime Minister and Commonwealth Secretary-General, acted as caretaker director for a year after Vitali resigned in 2010.

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Gaimster follows Londoner Roy Clare, who left in December. Clare, a rear admiral in the Royal Navy before holding cultural administration roles in England, ended a five-year stint marked by rising visitor numbers and the launch of the museum's 20-year strategy Future Museum.

It is that strategy that Gaimster says he is here to drive.

Gaimster comes from England, via Scotland, to one of the most important cultural jobs in New Zealand. He doesn't expect that not being a New Zealander will be a problem. Museums are museums after all.

"A few years ago we made a big move from London to Glasgow, which is 450 miles [but] in one way is quite a distance culturally and politically. This doesn't feel quite a stretch in many respects."

He has spent the past six years in charge of the University of Glasgow's Hunterian, a rich storehouse of objects and artefacts, Scotland's oldest museum and the biggest university museum.

This is a bigger job with the same core. "They are museums. They have multiple roles. One is caring for and developing knowledge about the collections and the other is about engaging people in the collections. One is a university setting, this is in a civic setting but the functions, the ambitions, the objectives are very very similar. There is a slightly different target audience."

Whereas The Hunterian aimed to drive student engagement, the Auckland Museum is setting its sights on all of the city's diverse communities.

Currently 850,000 people visit the Auckland Museum each year.

"We want more than a million people to come and we want people to come back and back."

David Gaimster has worked broadly in cultural heritage, in national museums, government, independent organisations and universities. Photo / Brett Phibbs
David Gaimster has worked broadly in cultural heritage, in national museums, government, independent organisations and universities. Photo / Brett Phibbs

The key is constantly to change the offering and the way the public can relate to it, he says.

"We are moving away from museums of big set-piece projects that you spend millions and millions of dollars on, and you build them for 25 years and people come once, to institutions that are constantly rotating, constantly evolving."

Turning permanent museum fixtures into dynamic places helped grow the audience in Glasgow by 48 per cent in four years, he says. The museum laboratory, the museum as a place of discovery and critical analysis is not just his vision but the trend.

Memorial is in the museum's title but is not a straitjacket.

"We can commemorate and memorialise the great sacrifice but we can also have a debate about conflict in the world and how institutions and governments should deal with that," Gaimster says.

"Those ambitions apply to museums around the world so I don't see [the job] as a very different proposition but perhaps a bigger platform."

The Met in New York lists 98 exhibitions. What it means, he says, is there are major interventions in every gallery all the time.

"That's what we are trying to create here, under Future Museum."

It will be a lot busier, a lot more resource intensive but, Gaimster predicts, a lot more successful by attracting a much broader spectrum of the population.

It is not just about getting people through the doors. The museum will send its exhibitions out - the Kiwi music project, Volume, for example will later go to Manukau Institute of Technology, tweaked to celebrate the Polynesian influence.

Volume: Making Music in Aoteroa. Photo / Auckland War Memorial Museum
Volume: Making Music in Aoteroa. Photo / Auckland War Memorial Museum

And Auckland Museum has an impressive and rapidly-expanding catalogue online available to download. Half-a dozen photographers are working to digitise exhibits. One million objects are online out of a total of 3.5 million, a ratio Gaimster thinks is one of the highest in the world.

That serves as a shop window but also acknowledges that the collection belongs to the public and it lets people interact who otherwise may not. "The museum today is not only about the building. Although that is the anchorage, we mustn't get too hung up on that."

When he sat down with the Herald this week, Gaimster had been in the city he now calls home for 11 days, during which he and his wife had found somewhere to live in Remuera and enrolled their daughters, 10 and 8, and son, 6, in the local school. He had previously been to the country twice - a family wedding in Queenstown, and late last year for discussions that led to this job.

"I'd always wanted to work overseas ... so this was an opportunity I couldn't resist." The city - "a growing diverse metropolitan, cosmopolitan place with an important cultural anchorage" appealed.

"It felt like the next progression, and a natural one."

Gaimster has worked broadly in cultural heritage, in national museums, government, independent organisations and universities. In person he comes across as both serious and passionate, the latter revealed as he spoke about helping shape British reforms to clamp down on the illicit trade in cultural objects.

Most familiar to Kiwis will be the campaign to repatriate hundreds of mokomokai, preserved Maori heads, from museums and private collections.

As a senior adviser to Britain's Ministry of culture, Gaimster helped shape the 2003 law criminalising the trade in stolen cultural objects and providing a maximum penalty of seven years in jail.

"I remember growing up in Cambridge and seeing those objects in the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and being absolutely thrilled as a child. They dragged us back many times but you won't see those objects today. They are in reserve and many have been repatriated."

The decision to display sensitive items required extensive consultation with source communities but could be legitimate. "What were simply interesting curiosities in a display case could be in the future be a platform for discussing cultural sensitivity and understanding cultures more effectively."

Night at the Museum. Photo / Auckland War Memorial Museum
Night at the Museum. Photo / Auckland War Memorial Museum

Britain had to do something to curb the illicit trade after its involvement in the 2002-2003 Gulf War under then-Prime Minister Tony Blair, during which the Iraq Museum was looted. "That stimulated a wave of concern around western governments and a push to tighten regulations around trafficking cultural goods as a disincentive to looting cultural sites."

It helped. He says there has since been few if any recorded instances of stolen cultural items coming into the UK.

Early in his career, Gaimster worked as a field archaeologist - a young person's game, hard on the knees - but his most unusual job was a spell as caretaker of the secret sanctum of the British Museum, the Secretum, a storehouse for material deemed so obscene it might, if revealed, destroy the very fabric of moral society.

Or so the Victorians thought.

Gaimster is an expert on changing social and religious attitudes towards sex and has written articles and given interviews on the subject, including for a documentary made by Terry Jones, of Monty Python fame, titled The Surprising History of Sex and Love.

Jones is passionate about the Middle Ages, castles, knights, Crusades, Gaimster notes.

"There were several medieval pieces in the collection including a wonderful Victorian Gothic chastity belt that he was very interested in."

Secret collections were a product of the Victorian era. Objects were taken out of their cultural context and put in this separate reserve to which only curators and other approved people had access.

The British Museum maintained the Secretum collection through to the 1950s. The last object added, notes Gaimster, "was an 18th-century animal membrane condom, in its original packaging and [bound with] beautiful silk ties."

Even in the era of internet porn, museum displays can still be contentious, particularly the depiction of children.

There is debate, for example, about various 19th-century artists' works that are today viewed as "potentially paedophilic".

Gaimster says he can be rated on how well he implements the Future Museum model, "one of the most expansive, ambitious, innovative investment plans I have seen developed by a museum in the world".

"We are in year four. We are just about to press the button on a seven-year programme of gallery development. We are going to spend a lot of money. We are going to renew 33 per cent of the galleries and create 20 per cent new gallery space. We are going to invest in online and off-site.

"This will be the first step in creating that new business model, the participatory museum, the museum laboratory, where the public have a stake in it. It is a trend. We want to be ahead of the trend, certainly the leader in Australasia.

Gaimster's Guide - what the new boss recommends you see this year

Volume: Making Music in Aotearoa, is the first major exhibition dedicated to popular music made here. Mix a song, try an instrument, download your own anthology of Kiwi classics. Until May 21.

Wildlife Photographer of the Year, opens July 7, an exclusive showing of 100 new photographs.

101st Anzac Day: This year the theme is youth. The commemoration features young musicians, school choirs and a screening of John Psathas' film No Man's Land. Dawn Service from 6am.

Appo Hocton, the first Chinese settler in New Zealand. Photo / Auckland War Memorial Museum
Appo Hocton, the first Chinese settler in New Zealand. Photo / Auckland War Memorial Museum

Being Chinese in Aotearoa: Explores 175 years of Chinese settlement. Follow the story from the first settler, Appo Hocton, to migrants in the 2000s. On now.

• The new War Memorial Gallery opens in October with Pou Kanohi: New Zealand At War, which promises to open an unimaginable world.

• Visit the Weird and Wonderful Discovery Centre, a hands-on space for discovering the wonders of the natural world.

• And bring the kids to Night at Auckland Museum, our sell-out family event, which returns for four nights in the July school holidays.