Editorial: Waterfront better than Manukau for Te Papa

Te Papa Tongarewa, the Museum of New Zealand.
Te Papa Tongarewa, the Museum of New Zealand.

Offered a prime location on the Auckland waterfront, who would turn it down? Answer: Te Papa Tongarewa, the national museum.

It might not have received a formal offer of a waterfront site for its Auckland plans but it had only to ask. The city is looking for a worthy use of the Wynyard headland when the tank farm finally is removed. A distinctive modern museum would be ideal.

But Te Papa has another site in mind for its northern expansion. Heritage Minister Chris Finlayson and Mayor Len Brown announced at the weekend the building is to be at Hayman Park, Manukau. Not many Aucklanders know where that is. Not many might ever bother to find it.

They might be none the wiser when it is identified as the site of Manukau Institute of Technology's new campus being built above a railway station on a new branch line. It sounds like another slab of concrete in the vicinity of the civic centre that was built on a greenfield site 40 years ago and remains detached from South Auckland communities.

Te Papa needs a place to store some of the national collection well away from earthquake-prone Wellington, and to make the collection more accessible to the population in the north.

While it will have exhibition space, the building at Hayman Park will be as much a base for educational services and touring displays.

The minister and the mayor say they want to "create an innovative cultural hub at the heart of New Zealand's most culturally diverse and fastest growing region".

The minister says it will "improve the accessibility of our national treasures", and the mayor expects it to "attract visitors from across New Zealand and around the world."

If that was truly their aim, they would have chosen a central Auckland site. Manukau is 20km away from the city's prime hotels, cruise ship wharves and maritime attractions. Not many visitors, from across New Zealand or the world, will go all that way to see a museum - not when the Auckland War Memorial Museum, the new Art Gallery and the Maritime Museum are in or near the city centre.

Oddly, the Auckland Museum and the art gallery participated in the decision to put Te Papa Auckland so far out of town. It must be hoped that territorial protection did not enter consideration. Museums, like specialist retailers, gain from proximity. The more of them that can be easily reached, the more visitors each will receive.

A museum in the new Wynyard Quarter, particularly on the tank farm site, would be within pleasant walking distance of downtown Auckland. But perhaps it would pose too big an architectural challenge for Te Papa, and an unwelcome comparison with its Wellington waterfront headquarters. It is telling that the weekend announcement contained no architectural ambitions for the Auckland facility.

It is also interesting that the announcement came the same day that Team New Zealand were starting their races for the America's Cup. Did Te Papa want to ensure its plans were not caught up in any excitement about what a win would mean for further development of Auckland's public waterfront?

Fortunately, the decision is not final. Te Papa, with the Auckland Council and its subsidiaries, has yet to make a business case to the Government for the South Auckland proposal. By the time that case comes to be made, we may have reason to make bigger plans for the Auckland waterfront. As a dealer in popular culture, Te Papa will be caught up in the enthusiasm. It should not take its eye off the waterfront yet.

- NZ Herald

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