I remember going to Te Papa as a teenager when it first opened in 1998. As a 16-year-old self-confessed natural history buff I was fascinated and inspired. Now, 20 years later, that inspiration for future generations of Kiwis is in jeopardy.

Museums are in danger worldwide, part of a worrying trend of undervaluing collections and the people that dedicate their lives to them. Te Papa is the latest example.

When CEO Geraint Martin arrived, he promised there would be no restructures under his watch. Turns out this promise wasn't watertight. This Christmas senior management, in Scrooge-like fashion, is delivering Te Papa's third restructure in as many years.


These are collectively gutting the natural history team, all under the guise of "modernisation".

But why should another restructure matter to the average New Zealander?

Museum collections are more important than ever. They help us understand the natural world around us – what was, what is and what may be. Think of them as a Tardis that lets you visit and interact with our biological heritage through all of time and space.

Rather than dusty Victorian curiosity cabinets, museum collections are a living, breathing entity. Te Papa employs a suite of internationally recognised curators and collections managers to conserve our natural taonga, and conduct and facilitate research.

These people include Bruce Marshall, who has just been given a lifetime achievement award by an international scientific society, and Andrew Stewart, who trains MPI fisheries observers.

Te Papa's scientists are answering some of the big questions facing us Kiwis: what will be the impact of humans and climate change on our biodiversity, how do we conserve what is left, where should marine reserves be situated and mining licences granted, how do we conserve our fisheries stocks and how do we respond to biosecurity incursions? It is these people whose jobs are on the line.

On Radio NZ last week, Te Papa's Dean Peterson claimed to have listened to and taken into account feedback from staff and concerned external scientists. The reality is far different, with staff and external stakeholders livid, and several staff on stress leave, having just been given a lump of coal for Christmas by management.

If a vote was taken by Te Papa's science staff for or against the restructure, my understanding is that the vote would be overwhelmingly against it. So what is Te Papa proposing?


In "modernising" our national museum, the restructure has disestablished the positions of all five natural history collections managers who are specialists in their field, to be replaced by two assistant curators, two generalist collection managers, and a technician.

Sadly, at the expense of collections management and Te Papa's statutory obligations, these primarily research-orientated "career progression" assistant curator positions are just rejigged job titles with less pay.

The two surviving collections managers will now be very overburdened employees whose role is to look after all animals or all plants, well outside their areas of expertise.

Nevertheless, three lead curators, hired from within Te Papa's ranks, will be appointed to oversee the collections teams. Peterson has guaranteed Te Papa will fill any curatorial positions that become vacant. I'm sure the scientific community will hold Te Papa to account on this.

In any case, months of uncertainty are left with staff having to reapply for their jobs and go through a formal interview process, with the concern that will not be done properly.

The touted great leap forward to a new modern age by Te Papa may in fact be a giant leap backwards for science.

Peterson highlighted the new DNA labs at Te Papa (not part of this restructure) as one such example of modernisation. One good deed does not a good management make.

Genetic research is supplementing rather than replacing traditional taxonomy, the science of naming biodiversity. As Christopher Kemp in The Lost Species writes, "By itself a [DNA] bar code is as meaningless as a single musical note in isolation: nothing can be inferred from it."

Te Papa's restructure is in serious danger of removing the expertise that can turn this musical note into a symphony.

A truly modern approach would be to take heed of numerous reviews, including from the Royal Society of New Zealand and the latest international review panel.

If as Geraint Martin stated, the restructure is not about money, this would be a fantastic opportunity then to increase scientific staff and expertise.

Dr Nic Rawlence is a lecturer in ancient DNA at the Department of Zoology, University of Otago.