Q&A: Chief Executive Mike Houlihan

Q&A: Chief Executive Mike Houlihan

For those members who voiced concerns following the screening of the item on Campbell Live, thank you for your feedback. Your support of Te Papa is valued and your concerns are important.

Mike Houlihan answers your questions in the interview below.

Where are you at with the implementation of the restructuring?

I’m pleased to report that the new structure is basically in place. We created 125 new positions and to date we have filled 91 of those, the vast majority with existing staff.
We’re advertising for nine new positions at the moment and I expect to have finished the recruitment process for all the new jobs by the end of the year.

How does the structure fit with Te Papa’s new vision ‘Changing Minds, Changing Hearts, Changing Lives’?

The new positions we have created are needed so that we can strengthen our capability to meet our objectives. We must remain relevant, and maintain and enhance our reputation as a first-class national museum and gallery.
We need to broaden our science brief to include the physical and earth sciences and technology. We need to do more to collect contemporary culture and we need to strengthen our art programme.
We hope to be able to announce the appointment of one of the new positions, Head of Science, within the next month or so. Highly qualified senior advisors are also being appointed. And as you will be aware we have already appointed Jonathan Mane-Wheoki as Head of Art and Culture.
As the national museum, we want to have impact at local, national and international levels. ‘Changing Minds, Changing Hearts, Changing Lives’ is about connecting with our audiences wherever they may be, and creating a range of experiences that are relevant, engaging and meaningful.

Talking of broadening the science brief, the comment was the natural history staff were ‘slashed’ in the restructure?

Specialised collection management positions were disestablished and replaced with six new collection management positions, each with the responsibility for a broader cross-section of the natural environment collection. A Collection Manager is responsible for the storing and appropriate handling of the collection and the rationale is we can no longer justify Collection Managers devoted to a single species. In terms of staff numbers, point four of a collection manager position was disestablished. Of the four redundancies from the natural history area, none were curators or practising scientists undertaking research.

As well as establishing a new position of Head of Science what other steps are being taken to strengthen Te Papa’s commitment to science and research?

Two new Science Advisors will establish new portfolios in physical and earth sciences, and three new Assistant Science Curators are being recruited to support the collection management and curatorial resource. We have also created senior post-doctoral research positions which will be added to as the research programme expands.

Was the restructuring overdue?

Te Papa is now 15 years old and this is the first comprehensive review to be conducted during that time so it was probably long overdue. I know from staff that there was appetite for change when I arrived so it’s satisfying to now be at the point where we have a clear direction for the next 15 years.

How will the changes being made affect the experience of our visitor?

Visitors will see more of our collection on show in Wellington. I also want to make our collection available to more New Zealanders through an energised national touring programme.
There will be more art on display. We have opened the new art gallery, Te Ihomatua, on level 4 with Colour & Light: Impressionism from France & America.
We’re refreshing Mountains to Sea and Awesome Forces and are planning two major science programmes, ‘Understanding Biodiversity’ and ‘New Directions in Sciences’.
And expect to see Te Papa facilitating more debate about contemporary issues.

You’ve mentioned the Impressionism exhibition. What else is coming up?

I’m very excited about the exhibition Aztecs: Conquest and glory which opens in October. We have been working closely with the Ethnographic Institute Mexico and the Mexican Embassy to develop this exhibition, which will travel to Australia after Te Papa.
The centrepiece is a walk-in temple, a replica of Templo Mayor, one of the main Aztec temples in Tenochtitlan, which is now Mexico City. The exhibition will include more than 200 treasured artefacts.
We will also have a World of WearableArt™ exhibition,The WOW factor:25 years in the making, open in August as part of their 25-year celebrations.
Mandate of Heaven an exhibition from National Museum of China is scheduled for early 2014. So you can see the team have been working hard to ensure we have an exciting and dynamic programme.

There has been build-up in the media about World War One commemoration programmes? How are Te Papa’s plans going?

We are making good progress on the programme including the signature project, the recreation of the Quinn’s Post trench. The team is thoroughly enjoying working closely with Peter Jackson and Richard Taylor. It’s a great opportunity for them. Peter and Richard tell me they are also enjoying working on such a meaningful story-line. I hope to be able to share more details of the conceptual design in the not too distant future.
The theme for the programme is ‘Conflict’ and its impact on people and societies, in particular, how conflict has shaped our nationhood and identity over the past thousand years.
The outreach programme, Kiwi Faces of World War I, to identify soldiers photographed just before they went to war is well underway. We are contributing to the Life 100 Years Ago ‘real time’ diary project and putting together an illustrated book by Te Papa Press based on original research highlighting the impact of war on the Home Front.

Talking of books, have things in Library Services settled down following the inaccurate media coverage of the changes?

The Te Aka Matua Reading Room is now open in its new location on Te Papa’s Level 4 mezzanine and is open to the public by appointment.

What many people didn’t release is that for several years now the library at Cable Street has operated on an appointment basis.  Material is still available on request but in line with current practice it sits with the departments and curators who use it.

So despite what you might have heard there has been no reduction in the existing service and no changes to the Sciences Library.  The Hector Room, the reading room at our Tory Street site, contains most of our natural environment books and journals and is also open to the public by appointment.

And to put the record straight, a very small proportion of duplicates and out-of-scope library material were recycled.

I am aware that there have been questions asked about the safety of the collections – is the collection safe at the Tory Street site?

We’ve done heaps of work since the Christchurch earthquake to rack and restrain the collection at Tory Street.  We’ve also conducted a seismic assessment on both sites.  Cable Street is fine and is on base isolators.  Tory Street meets the codes but there’s much more to consider than the movement of a quake, for example the affect of post-seismic events like fire and temperature and humidity changes.

We might have to move our most at risk items to ensure their safety. We’re getting advice on this from geological experts to help us identify which other areas present options for providing low risk storage. As you can imagine this would be a very complex operation. No decisions have been made yet but the Board is considering a number of options.

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