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Spending more, spending less

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The issue of a shortage of money for Te Papa has been confused by the opening of the two new exhibitions about the First World War. There’s been plenty of money for them – a spend of $18million has been reported. Yet Te Papa is facing a deficit of almost $6million.

As part of plans to curb costs, new exhibitions are to be “integrated with new digital museum experiences” and staff have been told of moves towards “increasing its digital presence.” A promise which raises a core issue – what should you expect from a national museum? The answer was given accurately in the DomPost last week:

The digital talk …needs caution. Of course Te Papa should embrace the web to highlight and share its collections; of course there is a place for bells and whistles in presenting exhibitions. But a museum is fundamentally about its objects, which are eloquent in their own right and deserve careful treatment. Technology that will be outmoded in a couple of years can just as easily detract from them as enhance them.

Up the hill, the former Great Hall of the old Dominion Museum has been transformed (by Peter Jackson and his colleagues) into a $10million Great War Exhibition, with a difference. The difference was made clear by Lieutenant General Rhys Jones, who is the exhibition’s executive director. He says the exhibition is “about telling a story rather than displaying artefacts”. No criticism there, as the show isn’t part of a museum. And the fact that its models and replicas are part of something described by the Lieutenant General as “much in the vein of a movie trilogy” will no doubt help it to be enormously popular.

Back at Te Papa, there were long queues at the weekend to see the new Gallipoli exhibition (created by Richard Taylor and his colleagues at a cost of $8million). It’s to be hoped the museum has ensured that there are actual objects to be seen among the impressive creations of Weta Workshop.

And what of books? Te Papa has announced the strange decision that it no longer wants to publish them. And the DomPost has, again accurately, pointed out why this decision is a bad one.

The worst proposal so far is the closure of the publisher, and it casts all of them in a worrying light. Te Papa Press is only a small part of the museum and of New Zealand publishing … yet its record is still impressive. Its catalogue includes a string of award winners, biographies of wonderful New Zealand artists like Rita Angus and Toss Woollaston, surveys of Te Papa’s unique treasures, and a strong line in science and natural history publishing… Doing away with them is the kind of penny-pinching that could make for a hollowed-out, second-rate national museum.

No one wants Te Papa to become a penny-pinching second-rate establishment. Least of all the Wellington City Council, which gives a generous annual donation of $2million to help the national museum stay afloat. The city may well be disappointed, however, that Te Papa has decided to have fewer temporary exhibitions, and to close some of the old favourites – including Awesome Forces and the ever-popular Earthquake House – though they’ll be replaced by something new. Something real, one hopes, making visible use of Te Papa’s enormous and largely unseen collections.

PostScript. In the same week that Te Papa said it wanted to stop publishing books, a new publishing house was announced. Massey University is to establish a university press, and is advertising for an inaugural publisher. The university intends that this new activity will enhance its reputation. A reminder that for Te Papa its reputation will be diminished when it’s no longer publishing books.