My advice to Vanda Vitali
After watching a long series of controversies inundate the Auckland War Memorial museum, the institution's Trust Board has finally asked the Director it hired in 2007 a few questions about her performance. True to form, Vanda Vitali has reacted rather badly to the Board's enquiries, and the two parties are now communicating through their lawyers. Auckland mayor John Banks, who has always previously backed Vitali, says that he can't 'see a way forward' from the latest imbroglio.
For a significant number of New Zealanders - former employees of the museum who were sacked for incomprehensible reasons, Maori angered by the weakening of their representation at the institution, admirers of Edmund Hillary saddened by attempts to appropriate parts of the great man's papers, retired servicemen treated with contempt by the Director and her bureaucrats, and museum visitors annoyed by gimmicky, once-over-lightly exhibitions - the puzzle is not that the Board has fallen out with Vitali, but that the confrontation has taken so long to develop.
I worked at the museum in 2007 and 2008, and thus witnessed first-hand the impact Vitali had on the institution. When Vitali climbed aboard late in 2007, the museum was a fairly positive, well-functioning workplace. By the winter of 2008 the museum was in crisis, as Vitali's scorched earth 'restructuring process' folded up whole sections of the institution and robbed more than ninety staff of their old jobs.
Vitali added insult to injury by couching her 'reforms' in a mixture of corporate doublespeak and New Age goobledygook, and by patronising the staff she was throwing out of their jobs. At one mass meeting, she solemnly informed us that she was moving the museum from 'a linear model of organisation to a new, exciting, matrix model', and assured those of us who were having to apply for new, externally-advertised positions that we were 'facing an exciting opportunity, not a threat'. When the latter remarks prompted several barely muffled groans, Vitali insisted that staff who had lost their jobs should be 'thankful' to her for 'believing' in them enough to give them the 'test' they faced.
As a union delegate, I had the honour of meeting face to face with Vitali on a few occasions. At one meeting, which our Public Services Association organiser had hoped might help to educate her in such arcane matters as collective contracts and workers' rights, Vanda announced that when she had been a boss at the Los Angeles Museum of Natural History trade unionists had been thin on the ground, and a system of 'instant dismissal' had existed. 'The staff liked it as much as me', she said. 'It was best for everyone'.
As workers with decades of experience disappeared and others either waited for the results of their reapplications or struggled to get to grips with new, oddly constructed job descriptions, core museum services began to suffer from the 'test' Vitali had so kindly devised for her staff. Vitali's response was not to reverse track, but to redefine the tasks of the museum. When curators were so scarce that no one could be found to assess gifts to the museum, the Director announced a 'moratorium' on new acquisitions. Visitors who turned up with beautiful prehistoric artefacts they had dug up on the farm or fragile war diaries their ancestors had preserved were told to take their taonga someplace else.
Vitali didn't have a great deal of reverence for the objects that the museum actually held. When she was told that a shortage of conservators caused by her restructuring meant that artefacts on display were in danger of deteriorating, she replied by pointing out that the museum had lots more 'old stuff' in storage. Couldn't staff just get some of that out and display it instead?
There are many more stories I could tell about Vitali, but there is a risk of blaming her entirely for the recent disasters at the museum, and forgetting that she was hired by the Trust Board, which enthusiastically endorsed her attempts at 'restructuring'. Perhaps we should actually be thankful for Vitali's appalling people skills, encyclopedic ignorance of New Zealand society and history, and inability to think clearly: without the controversies these deficits have created, she might be in a much more secure position, and the damage to the museum might be less reversible.
It can be argued that Auckland museum is one of the sites where two different visions of the role of museums in contemporary society are doing battle. According to the first vision, which has been put forward most forcefully in New Zealand by Hamish Keith, a museum should primarily be a place where the heritage of a community or set of communities is preserved, studied, and communicated. While it is desirable for a museum to be a popular place to visit, the desire for popularity should not trump the need to preserve, study, and educate. Curators, conservators, and ethnologists are more important than publicists, flashing lights, and interactive games.
Keith has been a ferocious critic of Te Papa, which despite its status as New Zealand's National Museum employs only a relatively small number of people to study and maintain its permanent collection. Te Papa displays only a tiny amount of the huge number of artefacts it owns, and seems to aim the texts on its walls at ten year-olds with short attention spans.
Defenders of Te Papa say that museums must make an effort to be more 'contemporary' and 'relevant'. They argue that the public enjoys the look of Te Papa, which with its garish carpets, noisy games, and flashing lights resembles a casino rather than a 'traditional' museum. They say that museums have to compete with movies, computer games, and amusement parks for the 'entertainment dollars' of the public.
Keith and others have argued that the Auckland and the Trust Board hired Vitali because they wanted to 'Te Papaise' Auckland's museum. Vitali's downgrading of the museum's research role, her lack of respect for its permanent collection, her experiments with technological gimmicks like light shows, and her lightweight exhibitions all make the inspiration of Te Papa clear. The criticism Vitali has received from sections of the community and the stagnating attendance figures during her reign suggest that her populism has not been as popular as she might imagine.
Back in 2006, before Vitali had set foot in Auckland, I argued that the very 'traditionalism' of the city's museum - its classical architecture, its quiet, sometimes dimly-lit rooms and corridors, its solemn memorials to the dead, its carefully but unpretentiously presented artefacts from cultures distant in time and, often, space - made it a special place for many Kiwis. In a world of e mail, cellphones and facebook, a world of twenty-four hour news cycles and fashions that last a week, 'traditional' museums can seem 'relevant' precisely because they are so out of tune with the present. They and their staff can remind us of other ways of living and thinking than our own. We may go to museums, not to be 'entertained' or to have our own prejudices confirmed, but to learn something new from artefacts and from the experts who interpret these artefacts.
The following document, which I sent to Vitali when staff were invited to offer 'feedback' on her 'restructuring process', tries to make some of the same points as my 2006 post in less romantic language, and with references to my experiences on the job. I should emphasise that the document, which prompted a rather curt reply from Vanda, was written by me alone, and doesn't necessarily reflect the views of other workers at the museum.
WHY TEACHING HAS TO COME BEFORE 'INSPIRING'
In her 'Proposal for Organisational Structure Change at Auckland Museum', Vanda Vitali argues that the museum's goal should be 'to inspire more than to teach'.
An interview that Vanda did with Metro magazine last year helps us to understand more clearly what she means by 'inspire'. In the interview, Vanda said that she was 'not very keen' on 'didactic' museums. She said potential museum visitors in the twenty-first century are 'bombarded with information' from new technologies like the internet. According to Vanda, people today are able to 'get their own view on things'. Rather than teaching visitors, museums should be 'inspiring' them, by involving them in debates where they test their 'interpretations' against those of others.
In her proposal for Auckland museum, Vanda echoes some of the points she made in her interview with Metro. She argues that Aucklanders are increasingly well-educated and increasingly technologically savvy, citing statistics that show two-thirds of us have an internet connection and two-fifths of us have tertiary education of some sort. Because of these changes, museums must relate to visitors in a different way. Teaching them facts is less important than it used to be; inspiring them by getting to develop and express their interpretations of the facts is more important.
The necessity of teaching
I agree wholeheartedly that museums should 'inspire' their visitors, and avoid 'talking down' to them in a patronising manner. I also agree with Vanda when she argues that museums should be centres of debate, where visitors as well as staff discuss their interpretations of the past and consider what the past can teach us about important contemporary issues.
I think Vanda is mistaken, though, when she counterposes 'teaching' to 'inspiring'. I don't think that teaching and inspiring are two opposing approaches to dealing with museum visitors, and I don't think we should have to choose or emphasise one at the expense of the other. I think that teaching is a prerequisite for inspiring.
Museum visitors can only be inspired to interpret and discuss a subject if they are well-informed about the facts surrounding that subject. Without a good grasp of the facts, they will not be able to create useful interpretations and engage in debates in an intelligent and constructive manner. I therefore think that the museum has to be careful to teach visitors about a subject, before it tries to 'inspire' them and include them in debates.
How well informed?
But how much teaching do museum visitors really need these days? Perhaps they’re well-informed enough, when they step through our doors? In her proposal for Auckland museum and in her interview with Metro, Vanda seems to suggest that, because of advances in technology and wider access to tertiary education, the public is better informed than ever before, and more able to be inspired and join in debates at museums. Vanda suggests that people today are 'bombarded' with facts, and that museums need to help them interpret these facts, rather than to teach them more facts. I want to dispute this argument by discussing the time I have spent working at our museum's Te Kakano Information Centre.
Over the last eight months I have had the pleasure of working for two days a week at Te Kakano. Te Kakano and the other Information Centres are key points of contact between the museum and the public. Staff in the Centres answer questions and help visitors use museum resources like our library and our databases.
During my time at Te Kakano Information Centre I have learned a great deal not only from my wonderful co-workers, but also from some of the fascinating visitors our museum attracts. Te Kakano was set up partly to attract more people from the Maori and Pasifika communities to the museum, and over the past eight months I have been privileged to hear the stories of members of those communities who have stopped by the Centre to use our resources and chat.
But there has been another, less satisfactory side to working at Te Kakano Information Centre. Time and time again, I have noted the lack of knowledge of some of the most basic facts about Maori history and culture displayed by many non-Polynesian visitors to the museum. To give you an idea of what I'm talking about, I'm going to quote some of the questions that visitors to Te Kakano have asked me in the last couple of weeks:
Is the design of the waka based on Viking principles?
Why did the Maoris kill all the dodos?
Is it true that the Celts were here before the Maori?
Are there any 'Mo-aris' left?
How did the Aborigines get to New Zealand from Australia?
To be fair, I should say that the fourth question was asked by an American visitor. The other questions, though, all came from Kiwis. Te Kakano staff keep an 'Enquiries Register', and it is full of questions just as absurd as the ones I have quoted (my favourite is 'Can you really make bacon out of Kiwis?').
An example of the problem
Some of the biggest misunderstandings surround the status of Maori as the tangata whenua of this country. While there are still vigorous debates about the whens and hows, not one serious scholar doubts that the ancestors of Maori were the first people to settle these islands. The concept of tangata whenua is central to Maori culture and identity, and the fact of Maori indigenity is a fundamental part of New Zealand history and part of the bedrock of the Treaty of Waitangi. Yet I firmly believe that a poll would find that most non-Polynesian visitors to the museum do not believe that Maori are the tangata whenua of this country.
I have heard visitors nominate the Celts, the Phoenicians, the Vikings, the Australian Aboriginals, and American Indians as the first Kiwis. Perhaps the biggest misunderstanding of all, though, has surrounded the Moriori people. So many visitors still believe in the myth that the Moriori were pre-Maori inhabitants of the North and South Islands that I had to create a set of answers to Frequently Asked Questions to hand out to those enquiring about the subject. This document is unavoidably didactic: using the work of experts in the subject, it discusses and tries to dispel some of the main myths about Moriori history and culture.
I’m not discussing all these misunderstandings in order to ridicule the people who suffer from them. It’s important to remember that many of the people who believe false ideas about Maori history were taught these ideas in schools. I myself can remember being taught the Moriori myth at a state primary school in the 1980s.
Nor do I think I am being pedantic or nerdy by talking about misconceptions about Maori history. I think that, far from being of merely academic importance, these misunderstandings seriously affect the quality of public debate about some of the most important issues in this country. It is notable that the myth of a pre-Maori people, for instance, is often dragged into debates about issues like the Treaty of Waitangi, Maori land rights, and tino rangatiratanga.
Vanda has suggested that fruits of technological advance like the internet have helped to make Aucklanders more ‘sophisticated’ and better-informed. Sadly, though, a lot of the myths about Maori history and pre-Maori settlement are being perpetuated by the internet. For every good, scholarly website about New Zealand history, there seem to be half a dozen run by amateurs peddling myths.
I think that Te Kakano Information Centre, the rest of the museum library, and the museum’s Maori education team play an important role in countering the sort of mistaken ideas about Maori history that I have been discussing. By teaching people about the real history of this country, and showing them resources with which they can further their own understanding, we help them get to a point where they will be able to form useful interpretations of that history, and participate in public debates in a constructive manner.
Of course, it would be much better if people never adopted mistaken ideas in the first place. If children are taught the facts about Maori history and culture, then they will not be susceptible to pseudo-history later on. This is one of the reasons why I think that Maori education team does such an important job at our museum. I have watched the team guide groups of schoolchildren through the Maori Court, informing and entertaining them at the same time. The young people who have had the privilege of being taught for an hour or two by the team will be well on the road to developing a good understanding of the real history of our country. They will be able to develop their own interpretations of that history, and participate properly in public debates about our history and its relevance to our future. They won’t fall victim to the sort of myths that are still believed by too many Kiwis.
I have agreed with Vanda Vitali’s goal of inspiring visitors to the museum, and getting them involved in exciting debates about different interpretations of the past which our museum preserves.
But worthwhile interpretations and debates have to be grounded in historical fact. Sadly, many visitors to our museum are still struggling to develop a command of the basic facts of Maori history and culture. For this reason, the pedagogical work done by Te Kakano Information Centre, the museum library as a whole, and the Maori education team is vital. This work must be maintained and extended.