Last days of the dictator
For anyone interested in the study and preservation of New Zealand's natural and cultural history, the last couple of weeks have been worrying times. The National government's decision to yoke together the Turnbull Library and the National Archive, shedding jobs and possibly documents in the process, has alarmed scholars, and Gerry Brownlee's undisguised hunger for the gold and silver that lies below our national parks has had veteran environmentalists reaching for their banners and their megaphones.
Now, though, New Zealand's heritage sector has something to celebrate - the imminent departure of Vanda Vitali from the Auckland War Memorial Museum she has ruled as a private fiefdom since late 2007. In a new statement circulated by her lawyers, who have been fighting attempts by the Museum Board to unseat her, Vitali has pledged to leave her office on or before April the 9th. She will lose her powers as Director tomorrow.
Vitali arrived at Auckland's museum in the aftermath of a building programme which had given the institution new assets like a huge atrium and a euphonious lecture hall; her own tastes, though, ran more to deconstruction, and within a few months of her inauguration as Director scores of long-time workers had been dismissed, whole departments had been mothballed, and core services like the acquisition of valuable artefacts had been suspended.
These changes were rendered all the more traumatic by Vanda's failure to justify them with anything resembling rational argument. The 'strategy statements' and 'vision documents' which filtered out of her office were a curious mixture of corporate doublespeak and New Age gobbledygook, and quite as impenetrable as the sayings of Kim Jong-il or the Green Book of Muammar Gaddaffi.
Like all dictators, Vanda became increasingly isolated during her time in power. Her Vulcan-like contempt for the niceties of everyday conversation and her complete innocence of employment law quickly helped build a large and dynamic union branch at the museum. Her references to the Polynesian artefacts held by the museum as 'old stuff' and her proposal to create more office space by moving this 'stuff' to the museum's underground carpark soon had many Maori involved with the institution recalling the depredations nineteenth century imperialists had visited on their taonga. Vanda's public stoush with the children of Sir Edmund Hillary, who had the temerity to try to enforce the rights their father's will had given them over some of his personal effects, earned her the opprobrium of the public at large.
Vanda's falling out with the Museum Board that had bravely or blindly backed her though multiple crises and publication relations disasters made her departure from the museum inevitable. The falling-out was precipitated by former Vanda loyalists making devastating secret representations to the Board about their boss' incompetence and uncontrollable spite. With a certain reluctance, the Board's members were forced to see that their former favourite had become a threat to the very future of the institution they were entrusted to run.
Vanda is not going gently. The Board wanted her gone in the New Year but, with the help of a very expensive legal team - paid for, of course, out of the public purse - she has managed to eke out a last few miserable months as Director. Despised by most museum staff, avoided by the middle management that is supposed to be attentive to her whims, and increasingly distrusted even by the carpetbaggers she flew south from her old fiefdom at the Los Angeles Natural History Museum, Vanda has spent much of this year in her bunker-like office, devising increasingly bizarre plans to secure her 'legacy' and punish her critics.
In January Vanda took a knife to the museum's acclaimed Discovery Centre by announcing plans to sack of most of its permanent staff. The Discovery Centre was set up to give small children a place to visit and learn without disrupting the rest of the museum; it is filled with toys and games that are at once fun and educational, and it has traditionally been staffed by men and women with some experience in early childhood education. Without citing any research, and without so much as consulting the Museum Board, Vanda decided that Discovery Centre staff were superfluous, and that some of the customer hosts who man tills at the entrances to the museum could be drafted in to supervise the hundreds of children who fill the Centre every day. It is perhaps not a coincidence that some of the strongest critics of Vanda's policies have worked at the Discovery Centre.
Aware of her unpopularity with the the Auckland public and with key museum stakeholder groups, Vanda has this year used public money to hire a private public relations firm to attempt to repair her image. A 'charm offensive' has been planned, and key figures in the Auckland media have had the dubious privilege of supping with Vanda. Last Friday, for instance, Vanda and her handlers met with Tim Murphy, the editor of the New Zealand Herald, and his senior reporter John Roughan. It is not clear, though, whether any newspaper editor or radio host is prepared to put their head on the block by defending a figure so discredited and disliked as Vanda Vitali. Certainly, media coverage of her travails has continued to be unsympathetic.
Frustrated by the media's failure to sing her praises, Vanda has attempted to engineer her own electronic PR campaign from the fastness of her bunker. Russell Briggs, the head of Communications and IT at the museum, was compelled to use the museum computers to set up a very complicated system of RSS feeds in an effort to make positive references to Vanda more prominent on the internet. The system ensured that, every time someone clicked on a positive story about Vanda from a museum computer, that story rose up google's rankings, and became more likely to find a prominent place amidst the results of a google search. For days on end, the unhappy Briggs was forced by Vanda to sit in his office at his computer, wield his mouse, and click again and again on museum press releases and other texts containing positive references to Vanda.
Despite the Herculean efforts of Briggs, Vanda found to her horror that the most popular online story about her hailed not from her propaganda office but from an obscure blog called Reading the Maps. Briggs' recent farcical attempts to create a wikipedia paean to Vanda were motivated, it seems, by a desire to stop the Reading the Maps article being the first piece of information a google search using Vanda's name conjured up.
All dictators are ultimately ridiculous, and it is easy to chuckle at some of the antics of Vanda. We should not forget, though, the very profound damage she has done, in a mere two and a half years, to an institution which has a special place in the lives of so many Aucklanders and New Zealanders. In an e mail to me last week, a museum employee reflected on the legacy Vanda will leave:
Vanda is mad...It is incredible how much damage she has done to the museum. Countless staff are simply unable to do their jobs because of time-consuming processes that then inevitably lead to her making every single decision, often at a whim without explanation. I'm sure you know what a terrible need to control everything she has.
Hamish Keith, who spotted the danger that Vanda Vitali posed early on, has called for the Board that appointed her to be dismissed, and for an official inquiry to be held into the mess she has created. Keith's call should be supported by everyone who wants to make sure that the blunders and insults of the Vitali era are never repeated.