Refuting the fantasists
John McDonald, the editor of the weekly Dargaville Online newsletter, recently had a lesson in the dangers of false information. At the beginning of this month Noel Hilliam, a controversial amateur historian and occasional grave-robber who lives near Dargaville, approached McDonald and claimed to have won the prestigious 2010 Senior New Zealander of the Year Award. Hilliam produced an apparently-genuine certificate to back up his claim, and Dargaville Online was soon celebrating the local boy's feat on its front page.
After this blog pointed out that Hilliam had not, in fact, won the Senior New Zealand Award - the honour had gone to South Island philanthropist Sir Eion Edgar - New Zealand Awards co-ordinator Grant McCabe contacted McDonald and asked him to withdraw his claims. To his credit, McDonald has placed a retraction in the latest issue of Dargaville Online.
Tim Murphy, the editor of the venerable New Zealand Herald, might smirk at the notion that that the recent experiences of the humble Dargaville Online could hold any lessons for him. The fact is, though, that the Herald's Thursday editorial in defence of outgoing Auckland War Memorial Museum Director Vanda Vitali was just as just as much the product of misinformation as John McDonald's recent celebration of Noel Hilliam. Murphy and his senior reporter John Roughan had a private audience with the embattled Vitali during one of her last days in power, and the editorial that ran last Thursday is full of the unctuous rhetoric and fact-free assertions that have long typified Vitali's self-defences.
Without offering up a skerrick of evidence, the Herald claimed that Vitali captured the imagination of the public and 'made the museum a 'cool' destination', and warned that her departure might lead to the institution becoming a 'fusty' and unpopular place. The Herald did accept that Vitali had been involved in a series of disputes with the Museum Board that appointed her, with staff, and with museum patrons, but it suggested that these might not have been her fault. Vitali's legacy is, the Herald asserted, largely positive, and any problems she has left behind can be resolved 'with a little finesse'.
Luckily for readers of the Herald, Thursday's editorial has been speedily discredited by one of the paper's own investigative journalists. In a feature article in today's Herald, Geoff Cumming draws together some of the data and history that were ignored by last Thursday's editorial, and makes some bleak observations about Vitali's record and her legacy.
Cumming's article opens with the opinion of Bob Harvey, who echoes the facetious line of the Herald's editorial, but Cumming quickly exposes the Waitakere mayor's talk of 'extraordinarily fine exhibitions' and 'crowds around the block' for the nonsense that it is. Cumming shows that the numbers of visitors to the museum grew rapidly in the years before Vitali's arrival, and then dropped during her reign. The decline appears to be continuing: visitor numbers for this January were down a quarter on last year's figures. Cumming notes Vitali's failure to bring a single major interational exhibition to the museum during her reign, and points out that several of the exhibitions that she rejected became hits at other New Zealand venues. Cumming produces a series of eyewitnesses, including the author of this blog and many much more distinguished people, to testify to Vitali's appalling people skills, sublime ignorance of New Zealand culture and history, and contempt for such 'fusty' museum practices as the acquisition and conservation of artefacts.
Geoff Cumming's article should ring alarm bells for Vitali's remaining apologists, including the author of last Thursday's editorial. Now that one of his own reporters has shown up his editorial line, shouldn't Tim Murphy learn a lesson from John McDonald, realise he was the victim of a con job, and retract his words?
[My earlier posts on Vanda Vitali and the Auckland War Memorial Museum can be found here, here and here.]