Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: About time Te Papa's treasures are shaken out

After the Christchurch quake in February 2011, the Te Papa board started contemplating new storage facilities outside earthquake-prone Wellington. Photo / Mark Mitchell
After the Christchurch quake in February 2011, the Te Papa board started contemplating new storage facilities outside earthquake-prone Wellington. Photo / Mark Mitchell

The September 2010 Christchurch earthquake moved the earth 3m upwards. It also jolted the custodians of Te Papa, the national museum, into seriously considering the safety of its treasures.

If only to protect the national patrimony in the event of a natural calamity by spreading it around a bit, the search for an additional storage site began. Three years on, and the museum chiefs have decided the first fruits of the change of policy will fall in South Auckland's Hayman Park.

On the eve of the local elections, museum bosses and the Minister of Culture, Chris Finlayson, joined Mayor Len Brown in his old stamping ground to announce a Te Papa branch office will be erected there. It will include educational and display facilities, as well as plenty of storage to ensure at least some of the nation's art and cultural treasures are safe when the Big One eventually strikes Wellington. (Whether moving your valuables from an earthquake zone into the centre of an active field of volcanoes is the smartest of moves, let's leave for another day.)

Destroying the old centralist belief that anything labelled "national" has to be based in the capital, despite most taxpayers and potential visitors living in Auckland and Christchurch, has been a long, and as yet, largely unwon battle. In 2000, the then Associate Minister of Arts, Culture and Heritage, Judith Tizard, began a review which did lead to more central funding of regional cultural infrastructure.

At the time she mused about the possibility of the Government funding "collections of national importance" regardless of which museum or gallery they were held in, with local communities left to support the rest. She suggested this could include Te Papa given that "the economics that flow from Te Papa are almost all of benefit to Wellington".

Unsurprisingly, no more was heard of that suggestion, but Auckland did pick up sizeable government contributions for the upgrading of both the War Memorial Museum and the art gallery as a result of the new policy. The proposal to rebuild the Auckland art gallery also began a debate about starting afresh as the "iconic" landmark pencilled in on plans for the redevelopment of the waterside Tank Farm at Wynyard Quarter.

Nothing came of that, but after the Christchurch quake in February 2011, the Te Papa board started contemplating new storage facilities outside earthquake-prone Wellington. Later that year, art consultant Hamish Keith, with Waterfront Auckland chairman Bob Harvey, revisited the Tank Farm idea, setting up the Te Papa North Planning Group, inviting Michael Houlihan, Te Papa's chief executive, and representatives from Christchurch and Dunedin museums to take part. The Te Papa North vision was for a grand exhibition space at the Tank Farm, where the national museum could share its treasures with the third of New Zealanders who live in Auckland.

It would also be a venue capable of displaying world touring exhibitions. Mr Keith said it would double Te Papa's display area, making its collections more accessible to a wider public.

In December that year, Te Papa's post-election ministerial briefing paper highlighted the urgency of the storage problem. After the Christchurch earthquakes "the cost of insurance has risen dramatically ... Physical and financial risks need to be reassessed ... as will options for mitigating the risk of holding all collections in Wellington."

The paper revealed that Te Papa's existing 10,500sq m of storage facilities was 3000sq m short of providing "fully safe and accessible conditions" for the existing collection and by 2030, $33 million of extra storage would be needed.

Te Papa listed its "most pressured collections" as photography, textiles and art on paper, Pacific objects, rolled tapa and mats, flat textiles, small and large sculpture, history, large furniture and large technology.

Also announced was "a change in Te Papa's focus: from being a destination, to becoming a truly national museum operating across Aotearoa New Zealand".

Urgent or not, it was not until less than a month ago that the Te Papa board resolved to "prioritise" the need "to reduce seismic risk to the national collections by seeking an additional location" for some of them.

Mr Houlihan issued a statement saying: "Ensuring the safety of the national collections is a high priority for Te Papa. The importance of this has been highlighted by the recent earthquakes in Wellington. GNS Science has been commissioned to scope locations that offer reduced risk from natural hazards."

He added that no decision had been made as to location.

Suddenly, just a few weeks later, Hayman Park, Manukau City was announced as the chosen spot.

The mayor's office is coy about where the idea came from, but Te Papa says the proposal came from Mayor Len Brown.

Auckland provides the land, and central government - Government willing - provides the rest.

Which seems a good deal to me. And long overdue. National institutions should serve the whole nation, not just the minority who live in the capital city.

My regret is it took two earthquakes in Christchurch and another reminder shake in Wellington to jolt Te Papa into action - and that their highest priority is safe storage.

- NZ Herald

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Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman's first news story was for Auckland University student paper Outspoke, exposing an SIS spy on campus during the heady days of the Vietnam War. It resulted in a Commission of Inquiry and an award for student journalist of the year. A stint editing the Labour Party's start-up Auckland newspaper NZ Statesman followed. Rudman decided journalism was the career for him, but the NZ Herald and Auckland Star thought otherwise when he came job-hunting. After a year on the "hippy trail" overland to London, he spent four years on Fleet St with various British provincial papers. He then joined the Auckland Star, winning the Dulux Journalist of the Year award for coverage of the 1976 Dawn Raids against Polynesian overstayers. He has also worked on the NZ Listener, Auckland Sun, and since 1996, for the NZ Herald as feature writer and columnist. He has a BA in History and Politics.

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