Auckland Museum director Vanda Vitali, and the museum trust board are embroiled in a performance dispute, and both sides have hired top lawyers.

Auckland mayors have also become involved to "save" the director from the board, although Auckland City Mayor John Banks said the dispute appeared to be the "beginning of the end for Vanda Vitali at the Auckland War Memorial Museum".

Dr Vitali, who has been at the centre of several controversies since being appointed museum director in September 2007, refused to discuss the dispute. She has hired John Haigh, QC.

Board chairman Dr William Randall said the board was conducting a performance review with Dr Vitali that involved a fair amount of rigorous debate over matters of concern to the board.

"It's the frequency of them that gets to us," he said.

"We started with the restructure - that got a lot of negative publicity - we then went on to the Bomber Command issue, then there was Passchendaele, then we had the Hillary issue and subsequent to that was the PSA issue on unions."

He said the board's primary function was to manage the reputation and well-being of the museum, which involved the performance of the director.

Dr Randall said the board had sought the advice of Kit Toogood, QC, but at this stage it was not sitting across the table with lawyers.

He said the board needed to be prepared for the worst but hoped it would not get to an untenable position with Dr Vitali.

"I don't want this to be another knock to the museum. At the end of the day we all want to see what is best for both parties and we are working to achieve that end, not one that is litigious and legal."

The performance review was raised last Friday at a mayoral forum meeting attended by five Auckland mayors, Dr Randall and his deputy, Dale Bailey.

Waitakere councillor Vanessa Neeson, who heads the electoral college that appoints the board, also attended.

Last night, Mr Harvey said there appeared to be a "drastically serious" breakdown between Dr Vitali and the board that was grossly unfair and unwarranted.

"The mayors felt she had been employed to be a change merchant and she came highly recommended," he said. "She would be a loss to the Auckland region and to New Zealand. She is world-class. We hope it can be resolved.

"If she goes the board should be dismissed."

Mr Banks said he was hugely disappointed that the governance breakdown had come when the museum was celebrating the 80th birthday of its building.

"I can't for the life of me see a way forward at this stage."

The Canadian director, who came from a senior role at the Los Angeles Museum of Natural History, has been hit by one controversy after another.

There was the dispute between the museum and Sir Edmund Hillary's children over their access and publishing rights to his diaries and family papers, bequeathed to the museum in his will.

Prime Minister John Key and his office stepped in to mediate when the parties were headed to the courts. After an 18 month fight, an agreement between Peter and Sarah Hillary was reached in July.

Dr Vitali also got offside with World War II Bomber Command veterans for refusing to allocate space for a memorial inside the museum. The matter was resolved.

Last year, Dr Vitali set up a restructuring that left 46 personnel, many of them long-serving and senior staff, without jobs.

In January this year, deputy director Tim Walker resigned because of a falling out with his boss.

Anyone who has left the museum has been required to sign a confidentiality agreement, effectively preventing them from speaking publicly.

Dr Vitali, whose aim has been to widen the appeal of the museum with interactive displays and suchlike, has had success with a programme of after-hours events at the museum featuring discussions followed by food, drinks and music.

She has also shown a restored Gallipoli film projected on to the front of the museum building and installed a permanent external light show as part of the building's 80th birthday celebrations.

North Shore Mayor Andrew Williams said the museum was an important part of Auckland's history and culture, and a satisfactory conclusion to the dispute was in the interests of the city.

* Vanda Vitali's controversies

• February 08
Five months after her appointment, Dr Vitali announces a restructuring of museum jobs, with some losses. She tells staff that "unless we
prepare the museum culture tolive in a 'present' we only now fully understand ... we run the greatest risk of all, becoming increasingly irrelevant".

A total of 46 staff eventually lose their jobs.

• October 08
World War II Bomber Command veterans are upset at being refused space for a bronze memorial sculpture for which they had raised $100,000.
The veterans accuse Dr Vitali of having little understanding of Anzac tradition.

After meetings the stand-off is resolved.

• May 09
The children of Sir Edmund Hillary say they are going to court to keep control of their father's writings, old diaries and thousands of family photographs bequeathed to the Auckland Museum in his will. The dispute centres on who owns the material and prompts PM John Key to mediate.

An agreement is reached after lengthy talks.

• June 09
Deputy director Tim Walker resigns six months into his job
after falling out with Dr Vitali. Neither side comment on the matter, but the Herald understands the falling out is over the future direction of the museum.

* The lawyers
John Haigh QC (Dr Vitali)
Senior litigation barrister and the first Queen's Counsel to specialise in employment law.

Extensive experience includes four appearances at the Privy Council in London.

Acted for numerous unions in the 1980s and has appeared in various Royal Commissions of Enquiry, including the Parnell Fumes affair and the Marsden Point industrial disputes.

Kit Toogood QC (The board)
One of the country's leading employment lawyers.

Originally practised in the criminal law field as a prosecutor but since 1985 has specialised in employment, sports and criminal law, civil and commercial litigation, arbitration and mediation.

Deputy Chairman of the New Zealand Sports Disputes Tribunal and a former Vice-President of the New Zealand Bar Association.