On 18 March Ken Gorbey  delivered a stimulating and thought-provoking address on  museums –what is their role, and what are our expectations of a museum, both locally and nationally.

Ken’s talk drew upon his experiences as Director of Waikato  Museum(1970-1983), his various roles at Te Papa ( 1985-1999) culminating as Director of Museum projects,  as Chief Executive of the Jewish Museum of Berlin(1999-2002), and as an independent museum consultant.

When Te Papa was opened in 1998, ‘Our Place’ became  a reflection of how New Zealanders saw themselves – an expression of our history, life experience and our vision – a museum that is a work in progress, not something static and unchangeable.  It quickly gained an international reputation, and in its first year became the most visited museum in Australasia, exceeding predictions, with over 2 million visitors. Its identity is defined by process and constant activity; our cohesion as a nation comes from our ability to negotiate among  different points of view and cultural positions.

But where to now?  In considering this question Ken described his experience at Berlin’s Jewish Museum. There he drew on his experience at Te Papa, ‘Our Place’ to bring a new conceptual framework to the Jewish museum  This was a shift from German Jewish history to society interrelationships among diverse peoples –that is, the Jews as part of a multi-cultural German society.

Ken explained that part of the role of a  national cultural institution is to reflect the nature of its owner society and to present intelligent assessments of possible futures.  Ken’s challenges to Te Papa were to:

  1. Examine the prevailing paradigm- what is the idea of New Zealand we are currently projecting?
  2. What do the current trends tell us of the nature of our nation into the future?   Climate change, and also future equity and equality, are two important issues to be considered in the future of  ‘Our Place’.

Is a museum a traditional walled structure that houses many treasures or ‘stuff’, or is it an activist element of change? I’m still thinking about it!!

Diana Halsted