Monday, 25 February 2013

Some thoughts on Te Papa

Last week I was at Te Papa (the Museum of New Zealand) for the SAS Users of New Zealand conference, and I did manage to get a bit of time to check out some of Te Papa's exhibits.  Having a conference in a museum is the best idea ever; well done SAS.

Te Papa has come a long way in the last ten years.  In 2000 it was very accurately described as "an amusement arcade masquerading as a museum", but these days they've smartened their act up and even have dead things in jars on display.  And a colossal squid!  The wall of preserved creatures dredged up from the Antarctic ocean on level 3 is not to be missed.  This bristle worm is a fine example:


It's a surreal conference venue.  Every time you go to a workshop you have to navigate exhibits and tourists.  The internal architecture appears to be inspired by Kubrik's use of spatial anomalies in the Overlook Hotel; rooms and corridors open out in ways that seem to defy logic.   On the way to lunch I found myself in what I mentally labelled the Bad Taxidermy Hall of Shame, containing a selection of native and introduced species immortalised by atrociously unskilled taxidermists. 

Now, I'm a huge fan of taxidermy.  In my mind a museum is barely worthy of the name if it doesn't have at least a couple of stuffed beasties, but even so I question the educational value of some of these exhibits. Everybody knows what a rabbit looks like, or a pigeon, or a housecat. Why display stuffed ones? Because they didn't have enough critters to fill the display cabinet and had to make an emergency trip to the motorway with a paint scraper?  But some of the mounts are worth seeing.  This is a kuri - a breed of dog brought to New Zealand by the Maori.  It is a crappy mount, but that's not Te Papa's fault.  This is an old mount and the kuri is now extinct, so Te Papa has to work with what it's got. 

 
There are also some beautiful pieces of Maori art, like this carved ship's prow:



And there's an exhibition on 20th century New Zealand culture, to enlighten anyone who wasn't already aware that "20th century New Zealand culture" is largely an oxymoron. Seriously, where does Te Papa get some of this shit?  Do they have some kind of auto-bid on TradeMe's $1 reserve section?*

Up on level 4 there's an exhibition of military uniforms and civilian clothes inspired by military uniforms.  It culminates in a display of modern t-shirts with images and slogans on them, showing how modern people express their identity and their politics through clothes.  I didn't take any photos because I ran out of time, but in any case I don't need to.  You see people wearing shirts like these in the street every day.  I'm conflicted about this display.  I get the point Te Papa is trying to make.  It's a valid concept and as a concept I actually like it a lot, but at the same time I don't go to a museum to see a bunch of the kind of shirts I've got in my own drawers at home.

Conclusion: ten out of ten for the surreal architecture, and there are definitely some cool things to see.  There are also some things that would be more at home in a garage sale than a museum, but overall the ratio of crap to coolness is trending in the right direction.  Oh, and like all museums, they light their exhibits in such a way as to make photography difficult.



* For my readers outside NZ, TradeMe is equivalent to Ebay.