What is a museum? Big concrete building, vast collection of old stuff, authoritarian staff making sure you behave yourself ...

It's the pervasive image many conjure when they hear "museum" but a leading museologist says if that's what Tauranga creates the project will be stuck in the past - and not in a good way.

Wellington-based heritage expert Ken Gorbey, one of the minds behind Te Papa and Berlin's renowned Jewish Museum, spoke in Tauranga this morning.

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Gorbey told a Taonga Tauranga meeting of people interested in the museum project that Tauranga had a "wonderful opportunity" to do something unique that truly reflected the city, its "strong history" and its people - not just the elites.

He pitched the idea of museums as "magical theatre" - fun, animated, enriching environments that did not need to be constrained by a building or one location, or centred around objects and artefacts.

"Buildings can freeze a 19th century model of a museum into bricks and mortar.

"Think beyond a museum as a building and form a vision that is somehow uniquely of Tauranga."

Before architects, the museum needed "visionary champions" who could articulate what was special about Tauranga that a museum should express, he said.

"Let the entrepreneurs thrive."

Gorbey said building a small museum was the worst pitfall the city could fall into.

"The small ones are the most likely to close. Try and get a critical mass."

For Tauranga he estimated that would mean about 2000sq m and a staff of 10.

Gorbey, who in 2006 was an adviser to the council that considered - and ultimately-scrapped - a so-called "museum-on-a-pier" idea for Tauranga's waterfront, said courage was needed to make a museum happen.

"It's going to be bloody hard to get your building off the ground. Te Papa moved rapidly - it was 13 years from go to whoa. The Australian National Museum in Canberra was 25 years - though I understand you may be threatening that record.

"You've got to have the courage to keep fighting. Museums that lack courage are the most likely to fail."

'We need activists' - councillor

A city councillor says Tauranga needs a wave of museum "activists" to get the project off the ground and inspire a vision.

Councillor Max Mason told a breakfast meeting of people interested in the museum project that the council was not alone responsible for making decisions about a future museum.

With a citywide referendum around the corner it was more important than ever for people to get involved, he said.

"It's up to you to become activists to make this happen."