The Expensive Box
When I first visit a building I always like to see where it leads me. When I first visited Te Papa Tongarewa, the Museum of New Zealand which is ten years old today, it led me straight back out the door again.
The "lowbrow theme park" sits there on Wellington's waterfront like a Soviet submarine pen, and is just about as welcoming. It's original name was Te Papa Tongarewa, which a friend versed in Maori scholarship loosely translates as 'Expensive Box.' It's an accurate description.
It's an ugly and unattractive box -- unsympathetic to its wonderful site, and completely without the capacity to display the treasures its curators likes to keep in storage. And it is expensive -- a box for which each and every taxpayer paid over $300 to build, and we've kept paying for it every year since.
That first visit there led me through the front door, up the stairs to the top and then straight back out the front door again. It took two minutes. Subsequent visits haven't shown me I've missed anything. As a museum it fails in the very first point of a museum: exhibiting its wares. There are too few real exhibits, and those that are there are displayed just too randomly and unsympathetically to be attractive. It's not just the 'gee-whiz' approach taken by the curators -- who all too evidently fear that anything other than flashing lights and dumbed-down displays will scare off the peasants -- the very building itself is designed to support this.
The building barely even performs the most basic role of a museum. Most of the stuff for which the museum is responsible is not displayed, it's in storage, and when it is displayed it's very poorly supported - the previous home of the Wellington museum had more better display space, as does the far superior Auckland museum, and most city art galleries are able to display their wares better, and more cheaply.
As a 'national' museum' it's no more than a symbol, and neither a good looking nor a cheap one.
As just one example of how it fails, have a look at the museum's Treaty of Waitangi section. The museum was intended to symbolise New Zealand's "bicultural heritage"; in the design that was finally built the responsibility for conveying that notion falls almost entirely on this exhibit, hence its location at the atrium centre and the size of the display itself. By the standards of the building this is intended to be the centre-piece, yet just note how little the exhibit itself really explains, and how much space is taken up not to say it. It's a symbol, and it's a very empty one.
Curiously, when I've heard Te Papa's primary design architect Pete Bossley discuss his biggest project, he's always seemed rather apologetic about how the thing turned out. And he should be.