by Lindsay Shelton
Te Papa is working unusually hard to promote its new art displays, which opened to the public on Good Friday. The displays are advertised on two banners at the front of the building, and there’ve been full page advertisements in the papers.
The new displays are advertised in the windows of the Te Papa Store.
And you can’t miss them on the sliding doors as you enter the national museum.
There’s unmissably bold new signage on the fifth floor as you approach the entrance to the redesigned art space, with a glimpse of Michael Parekowhai’s red piano which the curators like so much that they’ve given it a repeat showing.
At first it’s disconcerting to discover that the central feature of the new art space seems to be a children’s play area where copies of art works can be traced on paper. It’s also disconcerting to discover that photography is not allowed – Te Papa staff can be quite fierce when they speak to people who hadn’t noticed the tiny “no photography” icons. So, if we aren’t allowed to show any of the galleries …
we can show the floor plan of the eleven new art spaces, and …
… the museum’s description of what’s in each of them. The new show contains many pleasures, and some disappointments. Whether or not your reaction is “wow,” as Te Papa’s chief executive Mike Houlihan is hoping, depends on your tastes and expectations. One of the most prominent positions is given to five Goldies from the national collection, while Colin McCahon is relegated to a corner of one of the smallest rooms where five small religious works from the 1940s are hung – leaving me frustrated that there’s nothing to represent the next three amazing decades of his life and work. Proper attention is however paid to Ralph Hotere, with two groups of his works in two different sections, including five black paintings in the same room as the red piano.
There’s also a collaboration between Hotere and Bill Culbert, involving a row of fluorescent tubes (with paua shells and cables on either side) running down the centre of the longest gallery. Te Papa hasn’t however worked out how to display it. Visitors were jumping across it when I was watching, and two of the tubes were out of order after being kicked by passersby.
As you leave the new art show, there’s a reminder that the fifth floor was developed for art after Prime Minister Helen Clark said she was unhappy that Te Papa wasn’t doing enough to showcase the national collection. Such criticism has continued, and the new art displays won’t be enough to silence the critics. In the DomPost on Saturday, Diana Dekker describes the exhibition accurately as “an orchestrated grab bag” of Te Papa treasures, with ‘mini-shows” from the collection. She quotes Mike Houlihan as saying that in the next year or two a lot more space for art is to be created on the fourth floor – which will no doubt allow Te Papa to aim for something more than just a grab bag and mini-shows. “In many ways I’d like more space but I have to settle for what can be realistically achieved,” says the new chief executive, sounding glum.
As you leave the building, the prime position in the entrance lobby is given to some characters from The Hobbit. They’re not part of the national art collection. But they’re a pointer to the priorities of the national museum.