One of the largest donors to Te Papa's natural history collections has taken his worries about a restructure at the national museum to the prime minister.

Since news broke that proposed staffing changes could see up to 25 jobs lost, scientists have come forward to voice their anger and concern.

Under the restructure, which affects about 50 roles and is still under consideration, the 15 collection managers would be reduced to 10.

Of the current 15, five collection managers are in science and the others manage art, Māori, history and Pacific collections.


Associate Professor Trevor Worthy, a renowned Kiwi research scientist once dubbed "Mr Moa" for his influential work in fossil vertebrates, has protested to Jacinda Ardern in her capacity as Minister of Arts, Culture and Heritage.

Worthy has donated nearly 10,000 registered lots of specimens to the museum and published more than 200 peer-reviewed papers he said had been underpinned by such collections - most of them kept at Te Papa.

Worthy argued the proposed shake-up, coming just a few years after another controversial restructure, risked not enough managers being on hand to respond to researchers' inquiries.

He said a further erosion of collection management capacity was "untenable - and highly undesirable".

He was dismayed there would be no outside consultation around the changes - something he called "astounding" given the collections' significance to the country.

"There should be a call for widespread outside consultation in decisions affecting the collections."

Worthy also argued that collections kept by all of New Zealand's scientific entities should be amalgamated into a new national entity.

Associate Professor Trevor Worthy has donated nearly 10,000 registered lots of specimens to Te Papa's natural history collections. Photo / File
Associate Professor Trevor Worthy has donated nearly 10,000 registered lots of specimens to Te Papa's natural history collections. Photo / File

Also critical of the proposal was Sandy Bartle, who served as the museum's curator of birds from 1979 to 2009.


Visitor surveys consistently showed natural history exhibitions were more popular than any other, Bartle said in a letter to the Herald, and by backing away from the space Te Papa was "risking irrelevance".

"Instead of 'investing' in layers of expensive managers, Te Papa needs to concentrate salary resources on increasing the number of natural history curators, collection managers and conservators who can uniquely deliver such exhibitions," Bartle said.

"Outsourcing exhibitions is a high-risk short-term goal which jeopardises the showcasing of Te Papa research, which has been so far a disaster area for the museum since its opening."

Another leading scientist, Otago Palaeogenetics Laboratory director Dr Nic Rawlence, has echoed Bartle's calls in a lengthy blog post.

"Rather than being overstaffed," Rawlence said, "the stark reality is Te Papa's collections team is horribly understaffed and desperately needs specialised collections managers and curators."

Te Papa chief executive Geraint Martin said the proposed changes were "about responding to changes to society and technology, and being in the right shape for the future".

"No decisions have been made, we are working through feedback from our team and making decisions based on that."

Martin argued science was "vitally important" to Te Papa, across research, collections and exhibitions, and the new Taiao Nature exhibition opening next year was an $11 million investment in science education.

Te Papa had a "clear focus" on collection care in legislation, and standards for collection care which the museum reported on annually, and were audited, he said.

"We will never jeopardise the collections, but we need to be able to modernise and change with the times."

Responding to Worthy's criticisms over consultation, Martin said Te Papa was still "focused on the process with our staff and understanding and analysing their feedback".

He disagreed with his call for a new centralised entity.

"New Zealand's natural history collections are spread throughout the country and there are advantages to that."

Associate Arts, Culture and Heritage Minister Grant Robertson said the restructure was an "operational matter", but had asked for an update from his officials.