Te Papa Press looks to go the way of the dinosaurs and most baffling of all is why it should be doomed.

A couple of years ago, Chris Finlayson, then culture minister, tooted his bugle and heralded "a golden age for the arts in New Zealand". It doesn't feel very golden today.

The withdrawal of sponsors from the Book Awards, and the Katherine Mansfield Short Story Awards, too. The debacle around the Fairfax photographic archive, as detailed in these pages by Brian Rudman. And the revelation that Te Papa Press is on death row.

The closure of the press - there's to be a review, but it's hard to see that as anything but a fig-leaf shaped guillotine - is mystifying.

By any measure, the press has performed well, diffusing the culture of the museum beyond its walls, winning acclaim and awards, earning the admiration of publishing peers in New Zealand and internationally.

Te Papa Press, which published this award-winning book on Peter McLeavey, seems set for extinction.
Te Papa Press, which published this award-winning book on Peter McLeavey, seems set for extinction.

Jill Trevelyan, whose Te Papa Press book Peter McLeavey: the life and times of a New Zealand art dealer won the supreme New Zealand book prize in 2013 ("brilliant in every respect," said judges), wrote this week that "the dismantling of Te Papa Press would mean such a loss to the museum - in terms of outreach, nationally and internationally; credibility as a research institution; and brand excellence". It doesn't register a profit - it isn't designed to - but its cost is a tiny drop in the Te Papa soup.

According to Trevelyan, the move has been described internally as part of a shift to "core museum work". Given the emphasis placed by the new chief executive, former TVNZ head Rick Ellis, on reaching out beyond the Wellington waterfront building, a successful press would seem an important asset. But the greater problem seems to be that no one really knows what the museum's core work is any longer.

The truth is Te Papa has lost its way. Staff are still reeling from an overhaul which saw the institution cleaved into two separate museums, with employees and collections reassigned into one of two new parts that might have been christened by the Ministry of Silly Names: the "Museum of Living Cultures" and the "Museum for the Future".

That split entailed a massive and exhausting organisational restructure. Staff, among whom morale was already low, were left scratching their heads at the sight of functions being duplicated and a newly established "office of the Chief Executive" swelling with personnel. All of it was in the service of the newly defined "vision", which "underpins all of Te Papa's activities and provides the framework for all our activities and decision making", in the words of the briefing to incoming minister Maggie Barry.

The vision statement - or slogan, really - is "Changing Hearts, Changing Minds, Changing Lives", six words which manage at the same time to mean both everything and nothing.

It was expensive, too. "The original budgeted costs did not reflect the costs of the new organisation structure," according to the 2013-14 annual report. It seems that failures in budgeting and oversight were contributing factors in a $9 million blowout. The same report notes with sober understatement that steps are being taken to gain "an accurate picture of Te Papa's finances".

Suddenly and unexpectedly, in April last year, chief executive Mike Houlihan left the role, with no successor in place. At the same time 3 News reported that independent accountants had been "brought in to look at the national museum's books and investigate if it is properly managing its finances".

Te Papa was without a permanent CEO for more than six months before Ellis began - reinforcing the impression of rudderlessness. Probably it suited some museum and ministry officials that the media focus was on ambitions to open a Manukau outpost - an important debate in itself - while management at HQ was largely unscrutinised.


It seems that Te Papa has gone a long way to getting its books back in order. Whether it is doing the same with its internal culture is another matter. Among its strategic priorities, Te Papa lists "Staying in touch". That means, it elaborates, recognising that "communication is two-way, and built on trust and transparency".

That neither Ellis nor anyone from Te Papa has been willing to explain the reasons behind the plan to scrap the press, let alone invite public consultation, does nothing for trust and nothing for transparency. It suggests that on this, at least, they're way out of touch.

John Key the go-to-guy

Prime Minister John Key. Photo / Michael Craig
Prime Minister John Key. Photo / Michael Craig

In her column for the Sydney Sunday Telegraph last weekend, Miranda Devine hymned the virtues of the New Zealand Prime Minister.

Part of his "tactically cunning" approach is commenting on just about anything, she said. "Often the TV nightly news features him in four or five stories, espousing common sense opinions on everything from spanking children to the performance of the All Blacks."

She's right. If TV3's polarising breakfast host is Paul Henry Everywhere, the PM is John Key Everything. He may only do soundbites - as in refusing to discuss the details of the Dirty Politics material - but almost never a "no comment".

On Tuesday, he was asked by Newstalk ZB Canterbury's Chris Lynch whether the demise of TV3's Campbell Live programme would be bad for democracy, given it would mean "fewer programmes on commercial television holding the Government to account".

Another PM in another country might have said they weren't about to pronounce on what should be on television. Not our guy. "No," he began. "I mean, you know, firstly, its role in life isn't to hold the Government to account. It's, you know, to entertain its viewers and to, you know, basically to follow news stories, but, you know, a great many of those don't actually involve the Government."

Some thought this was an outrageous thing to say. I just thought it was bloody strange. On he went, making the obligatory mention of the role of social media, some scheduling suggestions ("people want lighter entertainment at that time of night"), and so on. All in a day's work for this many-hatted prime minister. The work-rate of the ABs' front-row, 50 Shades of Grey, potato harvesting in Galway: he has an opinion on everything. He's probably using a pseudonym to post an online comment beneath this article at this very moment.