Te Papa at ten

Photographs by Patrick Reynolds
In 2008 it was a decade since Te Papa opened its doors. Architecture NZ asked Dorita Hannah to discuss the design and performance of "our place".



In pondering the architecture of our National Museum ten years after it opened, an alternative approach is to reflect upon the expectations that shaped the building and how appropriate they were. This requires a consideration of the role played not only by architecture but also by architects in constructing our contemporary environments and the cultures they harness and contain. Did any of those short-listed in the competition query the brief to create a singular monument full of treasures on the reclaimed foreshore of New Zealand’s shaky capital city: to place all our precious eggs in a single fragile basket (that attempts to achieve longevity and durability)?   Or are we so keen to get the big jobs that we take no risks in questioning the status quo and the expectations of those in control who sign the contracts and hold the purse strings? Are architects merely handmaidens to power or can they, as those charged with literally shaping civic space, position themselves as cultural commentators who offer alternative solutions to traditional expectations?  

The big brown behemoth – marooned on a racetrack for a car race that was cancelled before it opened – was called upon to act as a sturdy container playing to the capricious demands of an easily distracted public. Jasmax’s initial gesture of creating an open social space with a veranda to the sea was never realised and the building folded inwards, forming a hotel-like lobby to a generally featureless black box designed to house the passing parade of themed interactive exhibitions. Yet while many believe the resulting museum was all too theatrical, what is in fact missing (from an architectural point of view) is theatre.  Instead – as my colleague and fellow theatre-maker John Downie maintains – “we have tourism”. Just as it snatched away the World of WearableArts event from Nelson, Wellington laid claim to our treasures in order to establish itself as a cultural destination. This left the smaller towns to continue relying upon their scenic rather than cultural characteristics.

Theatre, which both entertains and challenges, engages and focuses a community through live interaction and dialogue. Treating production as a process it also recognises the crucial part played by the public as a co-creative audience within a given environment. Effective theatre acknowledges the symbiotic relationship between space and performance to a point where contemporary practice tends to renounce its purpose-built venues and create shows in “found spaces” (under motorways, in hotel rooms and in forgotten sites). These site-specific performances utilise the location as an active player in the event. Yet we are apt to defer to the conventional notion of theatre as a highly interiorised disciplinary object that organises large numbers of spectators in order to divert their attention from each other and focus them on the framed and finished work. We also assume that once the performance takes hold the architecture recedes into the shadows. However if we were to regard the built environment as a dynamic apparatus facilitating diverse human expression and interaction, then the museum could be considered a performative space for enacting citizenship, sharing stories and challenging traditional typologies. This focus on performance as a multiplicitous and fragmented phenomenon unhouses both the theatrical stage and displayed artefact from their strongboxes, encouraging our cultural patrimony to wander and find other homes – other guardians.

The question that could have been asked over ten years ago is “what and where is a National Museum?”  Is “ourspace” a single monumental building or a series of locations to be discovered in a city? Could we have retained the Old Dominion Museum and built a sequence of pavilions and urban interventions that threaded from the original hilltop site in Mt Cook down to the water’s edge? Or could we have elected to spread the collection throughout the nation: taking taonga back to their places of origin and thereby strengthening our regional museums and creating new rural ones? This latter solution was originally offered by architect Tony Watkins, who I have long held in high regard as a visionary thinker. In an endeavour to challenge the original brief for Te Papa, Watkins proposed a series of local sites throughout New Zealand to which Maori and Pakeha artefacts could be returned that would be linked by a network of touring exhibitions. This idea of rehousing taonga as well as putting objects and their stories into circulation offers a much more dynamic solution; where cultural heritage is set in motion; where the periphery is privileged over the centre; where New Zealand’s heartland is no longer defined solely by its landscape; and where far flung sites become cultural destinations for New Zealanders and overseas guests. Unfortunately, as Tony Watkins says, “I was trying to turn architecture into theatre… We ended up with architecture filled with theatre”.

Dorita Hannah 


First published in Architecture NZ 6.2008