An extension of Te Papa in Manukau seems to offer little of the plan put forward for Auckland's waterfront

The Te Papa North heading our way is an entirely different beast to the one proposed in September 2011 for Wynyard Point on the Auckland Waterfront. Not only will it stop short of the Auckland CBD, 20km down the Auckland Southern Motorway, it will be a complex institution with very complex things to do - not always an encouraging start for any new museum.

Wynyard Point Te Papa North was a simple concept. It provided 18,000sq m of flexible exhibition space - 2000sq m more than available to the existing Te Papa on the Wellington waterfront. It had 6000sq m of basement preparation and administration spaces. It did not provide any collection storage or any other museum functions. Te Papa, the museum, stayed at home in Wellington.

The sole purpose of Te Papa North was to provide regularly changing exhibitions of the 90 per cent or so of the national collections that remain almost permanently in storage.

More importantly it would provide access to those collections and to major touring exhibitions to one third of New Zealand's population whose collections they also are.


Eventually it was intended that Te Papa North would be a venue for the nation's collections. Through co-operation with other museums it would mount shows beyond the reach of any single institution. In Auckland it was seen as an active part of the existing museum network co-operating in transport, marketing and all the other things that could be done more efficiently together.

Te Papa Almost North promises little of that. It has some vaguely stated ambitions: collection storage, education, exhibitions and a centre for touring.

Rather than an exhibition adjunct for its collections, it will be a mini museum.

There are, of course, some big pluses in that for South Auckland, including co-operation with the new campus of the Manukau Institute of Technology, particularly if the collection to be stored there are the science collections. It could encourage the building there of Kiwa, a proposed Polynesian and Maori cultural centre. It will provide an attractive destination for those who live at the northern end of the southern rail corridor.

In the cultural infrastructure map briefly revealed by the Ministry of Arts, Culture and Heritage a couple of years ago, this part of the isthmus was a cultural desert. Te Papa Almost North will have a positive impact on that. What it will not do, despite claims by the board and the minister, will make much if any of the national collections more accessible.

The Government has mentioned a figure of $30 million - about the same amount given to the America's Cup, The Hobbit, and to bail out the NZ Rugby Union after the RWC.

Compare that with the $100 million plus each for the refurbishments of the Auckland Art Gallery and the Auckland Museum, and $30 million will come nowhere close to the cost of a fully functioning natural history, science, history and art museum. There are nearly 3 million objects in the national collections - 16,000 in the art collections alone.

On that scale, $30 million will pay for an exhibiting space something rather less than a cupboard. Most museums calculate they need, at a minimum, two thirds operating space to one third public space. Given Manukau's aspirations for Hayman Park, its railway hub, Manukau campus and its city centre, it is unlikely they would settle for a shed, however elegant that shed might be.

We will have to wait for the promised business plan to see how the museum and the ministry intend to solve these problems. It is an accepted rule of thumb internationally that no museum can ever display more than single digit amounts of their collections.

Many great museums solve that problem by opening exhibiting branches - the Tate has four - Te Papa Almost North is not that solution - it might well turn out to be just another problem.

Of course, Auckland now has another difficulty. What will be built on Wynyard Park when the tanks are gone? Te Papa North was the perfect fit. A properly briefed cultural building of national significance which could inspire an architectural outcome to match - unlike the original Te Papa where the building came first and a national museum was shoehorned in to it. Auckland will have to do some serious thinking, and it should begin by getting its collective political mind around the truth that iconic is not an order of architecture and not even an appropriate architectural aspiration. That word must be barred from this discussion.

We must also do everything we can - Mayor Len Brown included - to make sure that Te Papa Almost North becomes something greater and more relevant to the whole region, than the cheap, shoddy, political expediency it currently seems determined to be. Auckland and Manukau deserve better.

Hamish Keith is chairman of the TePapa North Planning Group.