Editorial: Museum can learn from Vitali's exit

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Vanda Vitali. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Vanda Vitali. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Few punches were pulled when Vanda Vitali became the director of the Auckland War Memorial Museum.

She was to be a change agent, charged with attracting more people through the doors. Duly she obliged, with exhibitions and programming that were often fresh and innovative.

But now, after just two-and-a-half years, she has resigned, saying the museum trust board's vision and hers were diverging. There is fault to be found on all sides in this unfortunate affair.

Dr Vitali came to Auckland with outstanding credentials, including a senior role at the Los Angeles Museum of Natural History.

She was clear in her determination to bring liveliness and a strong element of entertainment to the museum, thus enhancing its connection with Aucklanders.

To do this, she would have to ring the changes at what she believed was a traditional institution inhibited from a cutting-edge approach by its size, complexity and branding.

The trust board was also keen to see the museum throw off austerity and become part of an international trend typified by Te Papa. Part of this was a restructuring that left 46 personnel, many of them senior staff, without jobs.

Amid accusations that this meant core museum displays were being downgraded, the board backed Dr Vitali to the hilt for most of her tenure. Its support began to waver late last year, however, after a series of public relations disasters.

It is questionable who should bear the responsibility for these. Did the board, having appointed Dr Vitali and provided a mandate, fail to give sufficient direction and guidance?

Did it not recognise sufficiently that, as a Canadian, she was operating in an unfamiliar cultural context? Or did the director, like many set on instituting change, not see finesse and heedfulness as part of her job description?

Whatever the case, controversies began to mount up. These included the director getting offside with World War II Bomber Command veterans over a memorial, the resignation of the museum's deputy director after six months following a falling out with Dr Vitali, and, most damagingly, a dispute with Sir Edmund Hillary's children over the control of their father's writings, which had been bequeathed to the museum.

In the latter episode, the director, supported by the board, adopted an uncompromising approach. It took the mediation of the Prime Minister and his office to reach a settlement.

The other incidents also highlighted the tension between what Dr Vitali was trying to achieve and the museum's traditional role and strengths and its importance as a war memorial. Concerned about the institution's reputation, board members began to have second thoughts.

"It's the frequency of them [the controversies] that gets to us," said the board chairman, William Randall, last December. His comment was prompted by a performance dispute between the director and the board, which highlighted the extent of the schism.

It would be a shame if Dr Vitali's departure was the catalyst for a dramatic change of course. She made the museum a "cool" destination.

It must not become fusty and tradition-bound. Dr Vitali's achievement can be measured by comments lamenting her resignation.

One of the more notable came from Naida Glavish, of the Ngati Whatua Runanga, who said she had brought the museum "back to life". An initial reservation about Dr Vitali was her sensitivity to the Maori and Pacific exhibitions.

Museums are always seeking a balance. In Auckland's case, that involves using flair and imagination to attract local people, while also catering for overseas tourists' major interest, the Polynesian treasures.

Dr Vitali wrought major change in a short time. With a little finesse, the correct balance can be struck.

- NZ Herald

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