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Governance at the museum

Aug 27 2018

BoardRoom August/September 2018 issue

Boardroom coverAs the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa celebrates its 20th anniversary, Kate Geenty talks to its chair Evan Williams about the challenges and rewards of governing the national museum, which included blurring some governance lines to guide the institution through tough times.

When Evan Williams first became the chair of Te Papa’s board in 2013, he admits he was much more hands-on than is usual for a governance role. It was a tough time for the museum, which was facing an annual deficit of up to $14 million after two loss-making exhibitions and a turbulent time. Te Papa’s chief executive resigned, and Williams was effectively in the hot seat until a replacement was found.

“I got brought on originally because there was a clear set of signals that there was an issue, and I sorted that issue out,” Williams says. “But in order to do that I had to dive very deeply, roll my sleeves up and actually get personally involved. This walked past all the normal governance/executive distinctions, but it had to happen at that point.”

Williams describes this first phase of his term as a time of reconstruction, reorganisation and financial discipline, as the board clawed back the deficit to $8.7 million, and stabilised the museum.

One of the projects which Williams was deeply involved with during this period was the Gallipoli: The scale of our war exhibition, a collaboration with Weta Workshops. The project took just nine months to complete – a mammoth effort considering exhibitions of that size would typically take years.

“[Weta Workshops founder] Richard [Taylor] and I sat and looked at each other across a room in July 2013 and knew that we had to open on Anzac Day in 2014. We didn’t have any designs, we had a concept only. Essentially we made a schoolboy pact. We said, ‘We are going to honour the memories of the men who died and their families, in a manner that they would be really proud of’. We walked a really fine line of not glorifying war, not shying away from the horrors and reality of war, not making it into some romanticised love story, and helping people to understand what it was like to be there. That’s what those big figures were designed to do. They were designed to produce an emotional connection.”

The Gallipoli exhibition went on to become Te Papa’s most popular ever, with more than two million visitors. More than 90 per cent of people who visited it said their view of war had fundamentally changed as a result of seeing the exhibition.

Challenges and rewards of museum governance

While the Gallipoli exhibition was a triumph, it isn’t always straightforward to define success in a museum environment. As well as weighing up the commercial considerations needed to ensure Te Papa remains financially viable, its directors also have to take into account cultural, scientific and public service concerns. “They don’t always sit in the same box and they don’t always point in the same direction,” Williams says.

In business terms, Te Papa is no minnow, with nearly $2 billion in assets. Economic studies show it drives a large proportion of Wellington’s tourism, contributing around $100 million a year net GDP to the capital. Te Papa has an operating business of around $64 million and has to earn around half of that itself, through things like ticketing, events and conferences, retail merchandising and exhibitions.

From a cultural standpoint, Williams describes Te Papa as a bicultural institution with a multi-cultural mandate, which makes it unique in terms of global museum practice. He says it also combines a number of museums in one – a national art gallery, a natural history and science museum, an ethnographic museum, and a history museum.

“It’s a very rich and rewarding environment, but you do find you get into these multi-faceted issues where you can’t simply say ‘well, we’re going to sell x number of that product which will bring in so many dollars, and it costs z to make, and the result is this.’ All businesses have complex pieces around them, but this one happens to have some very, very intangible values that are very hard to measure but are actually almost the strongest drivers to the value that the museum delivers.”

Board composition

Museum governance requires a diverse skill set to be able to balance the mix of commerce and culture. In his time as Te Papa chair, Williams has worked with three different government ministers to build what he calls a portfolio board. Te Papa’s board has an even gender split, something Williams says he has actively driven, and there’s also a diversity of skills and experience. “If you think about governance, it represents a multiplicity of people, multiple people from multiple backgrounds, who have different experiences to offer, and in this job, people who can bring experiences of different cultures.”

Williams says Te Papa’s board members need to be able to have a view on national issues over many subjects, deal with complex specialist areas in a real way, and make choices. “Creating an effective governance culture and holding the organisation to account requires bold choices, often within conflicting strategies. What is not done is usually harder to define than what is done. The debate and discussions within the board, senior management and specialist staff is rich, complex and value-laden. With such questions on the table governance is exciting and demanding. From my perspective the single biggest contribution to the future of Te Papa at a governance level has been the quality, diversity and reach of the board members with whom I have been privileged to serve.”

Williams likes working with directors who aren’t afraid to ask questions and push boundaries. “As a chair my briefing to incoming board members starts with exactly the same statement, which is: ‘My favourite questions start with the words ‘this might sound like a dumb question, but…’. When I chair I really encourage people to venture out of their comfort zone and not stay safe. You have to be able to say ‘I’m sorry but I don’t understand this, could you run that one by me again?’ Invariably those kinds
of questions uncover an issue.”

Controversy and criticism

Te Papa has occasionally attracted controversy in the 20 years it has been around, copping criticism about issues ranging from the shape and size of its building, through to accusations of dumbing down exhibition and content choices.

Williams says while some of that criticism has been valid, some hasn’t. “Te Papa has mis-stepped here and there, but it’s always been in sensitive areas. In the arts it’s very unusual for people to agree, especially if you are at the forefront of things.”

Te Papa isn’t shying away from potential controversy in the future, and is currently working on a project that Williams says will provide a safe place for difficult conversations. “That concept is in itself highly controversial. It will be conversations, and not debates, and not with politicians. People will talk about difficult issues, the ones we don’t talk about calmly as a country.”

Williams can’t go into details about the content or timeline for these discussions, but says planning is well underway.

Providing a forum for ideas and discussions is just one of the ways Te Papa is meeting its mandate of “understanding the past, enriching the present, and meeting the challenges of the future”, which is outlined in the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa Act 1992 (see box on previous page). Education is another. Hīnātore is an education project that the museum is rolling out in schools throughout the country, in conjunction with the Ministry of Education. Drawing on Te Papa’s digital and traditional resources, Hīnātore uses culture to turbo-charge learning, says Williams. “The way I put it, as a non-specialist, is if you have someone, say a young teenage Māori boy who is not interested in maths, and you expose him to the learnings of his ancestors with navigation and waka, and he can see digital footage of some carefully curated things from travelling waka from the day, as well as some actual taonga, the chances of that teenager scoring 60 or 70 per cent in maths instead of 20 are quite high. What we’ve found is these cultural approaches to education motivate people really, really strongly.”

Expanding the reach

The national museum is looking to extend its physical footprint beyond the initially somewhat controversial edifice that has graced Wellington’s waterfront for the past 20 years. Planning is well underway to open new premises in Manukau, Auckland.

Williams says this project will take the interactivity that is a hallmark of its Wellington base and build on it. “It’s what we call the platform for participation. The audience, the community, curates or co-curates what we do.” Te Papa is looking to put a funding case to the Government for the Auckland project within the next year.

Williams’s term as chair will end next year. He expects Te Papa to continue to innovate and develop, keeping an eye on the future, as much as the past. “One of the things that has been fantastic to watch is just the pace at which the organisation is moving. People associate museums with slow and steady; it’s not true at all, not at this place. These guys move with lightning speed.”

He says the most exciting opportunities for the future of Te Papa lie in continued research within the natural history collections, contributing to new developments in science, pushing further into community and formal education at a national level, and standing out as a guardian of cultural and religious tolerance in New Zealand. “I think the next period of Te Papa’s development will be even more exciting than the last.”


Te Papa was established by the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa Act in July 1992. Under the act Te Papa is mandated to provide a forum in which the nation may present, explore, and preserve both the heritage of its cultures and knowledge of the natural environment in order to better:

understand and treasure the past
enrich the present, and
meet the challenges of the future.

Source: Te Papa’s Statement of Intent, 2017–2022

Fact box
Te Papa opened on
14 February, 1998
Its busiest day was opening day,
with 35,000 visitors
There have been more than
28 million visitors to the museum over the past 20 years
Te Papa receives around $30 million a year in Crown funding, and earns about the same again from non-Crown sources including commercial enterprises (corporate functions, food and retail outlets, car parking, museum tours); exhibition revenue, grants, and investments; and donations and sponsors.

20 years of Te Papa

by the numbers
170 exhibitions have opened
1,580 works of art have been treated by conservators
700 scientific expeditions
1.3 million shakes of the earthquake house
3,500 children have been lost (and found) at the museum

Te Papa’s most popular paid exhibitions

Lord of the Rings
Monet and the Impressionists
Whales Tohora
Bug Lab

19 Dec 2002–21 Apr 2003
14 Feb 2009–17 May 2009
1 Dec 2007–10 May 2008
10 Dec 2016–17 Apr 2017
12 Dec 2015–28 March 2016

Visitor numbers

Source: Te Papa. NB: Gallipoli: The scale of our war is the most popular exhibition
in Te Papa’s history but is free to visit.

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