Te Papa CEO Courtney Johnston with Visitor Host Roger Gascoigne. (Photo: Jack Fisher/Te Papa)

Courtney’s Place: Te Papa’s CEO on leading the national museum out of Covid

When Te Papa reopens shortly, it’ll mark the end of the first big test of new tumu whakarae/chief executive, Courtney Johnston. Jeremy Rose spoke to Johnston about her vision for the museum, the impact of the pandemic, the return of taonga and making good on the Treaty. 

In 2016 a Hawaiian delegation came to collect two of the rarest, most precious items from Te Papa’s collection: an ‘ahu’ula (a cloak made from more than four million feathers) and its matching mahiole (helmet) gifted to Captain James Cook by the high chief Kalaniʻōpuʻu, aliʻi nui in 1779.

Officially the taonga are now on loan to the Bishop Museum, Honolulu, but at the handover ceremony Marques Hanalei Marzan, a cultural advisor at the Bishop, told me the cloak and helmet were going home for good.

Courtney Johnston, who took over as Te Papa tumu whakarae/chief executive in December, agrees that’s likely. It’s the way things should be, she says.

A scene from the powhiri for the Hawaiian delegation during the handover of the Hawaiian taonga at Te Papa, March 16 2016. (Photo: Norm Heke/Te Papa)

The return of taonga is a sign of just how much New Zealand museums are changing, and how they are now at the forefront of an international movement for museums to rethink their relationship with their collections. 

In March I sat down with Johnston to talk about those changes, her vision for Te Papa and the wider museum and gallery community. The full impact of Covid-19 hadn’t yet hit. Preparations were underway for what looked like a period of extra hygiene vigilance, but nothing like the coming shutdown.

Six weeks later, it seemed a good time to resume the conversation and take a look at what the post Covid-19 world might look like for museums. As a former director of Dowse Art Museum in Lower Hutt, a past chair of umbrella group Museums Aotearoa, and an astute thinker and writer on the arts and museums, she’s uniquely well placed to explore the topic.

The epidemics of the 19th century transformed the world’s cities, as town planners and architects responded to public health disasters. I asked Johnston: will the pandemic have similarly long lasting impacts on museums and art galleries? 

“There’s a lot of international chatter about the move over the last 20 or 30 years towards the more interactive hands-on participatory museum and whether that will or won’t stay a feature of museums [post Covid-19],” she says.

“There are some people who very definitely say ‘it’s over, you’re going to have to think of something else’ and then there’s others who say ‘humans are humans are humans and they want to do things like this.’ So that’s the crystal ball gazing my design team is already thinking about.”

For Johnston, the most important change won’t be physical but philosophical. “What we do now shouldn’t be just about the next six months but about adapting in such a way it will take us forward for the next 10 years. It has to be bigger than hand sanitiser and cleaning regimes.

“The language of the last 10 years has been about return on investment and that’s usually in terms of numbers through the door, hotel nights – your economic benefit. If return on investment can look more like partnership and shared outcomes, then the investment that’s going on at the moment becomes about making everything and everyone better. That would be a positive outcome for me.”

That might, she seems to be suggesting, require a rethink of how galleries are funded. 

“At the moment wherever you are in New Zealand your access in terms of physical spaces to our culture is very dependent on the mood of your local council. So it’s really uneven. You have some cities and towns that do amazing jobs and others that are quite strongly anti art. If some sort of evening-out can come out of this that would be kind of amazing.”

The reality right now is that museums and art galleries around the country are seeing their budgets slashed. Johnson says she’s hearing of museums and galleries being asked for budget cuts of between 10 and 20%.

New Zealand is lucky, she says, with most cultural institutions receiving the bulk of their funding from the public purse, be it local or central government. But that core public funding varies “from, say, 20 to 80%”.

And the philanthropic and sponsorship funds that make up the bulk of the difference are drying up. Airlines, for example, have been enthusiastic sponsors in the past. It’s hard to see that funding returning any time soon.

Johnston says drops in core funding combined with falls in other revenue means some galleries are facing budget cuts of up to 50%. “It would be a rare museum that’s not facing some sort of economic pinch at the moment.”

With slashed budgets, pandemic hygiene requirements, and the prospect of a very different visitor profile for the foreseeable future, Johnston thinks there will be a trend towards more locally focused exhibitions. 

In a normal year 50% of Te Papa’s visitors are international tourists, 20% New Zealanders from out of town, and the remainder Wellingtonians. At this stage Te Papa hasn’t cancelled or postponed any shows, but it still might, Johnston says, suggesting the much-hyped Surrealist exhibition set to arrive from Rotterdam in December could still be pushed back.

Freight could prove a problem, but Johnston says the bigger issue is the restriction on crowd sizes. “It’s not just the economic side of it, it’s also the social side. I’m aware of projects that are about celebrating the life contribution of senior artists, so you kind of don’t want to do that under level two when people from all over the country can’t fly or drive to congregate somewhere and share in that moment. So projects like that are getting pushed out further.

“Every museum is shuffling its programme around at the moment. Extending shows, pushing shows out, going for cheaper shows rather than more expensive shows.” 

On a positive note, Johnston thinks creative people often like having to work with limitations. “There’s something quite nice about not having the pressure of having to put a blockbuster on and instead go ‘OK, what can we do within these parameters?’” 

Before the Covid storm

Te Papa CEO Courtney Johnston examines an object in one of the museum’s many back rooms (Photo: Jack Fisher/Te Papa)

Before the Covid storm hit, Courtney Johnston was plainly enjoying herself in her new role. In January, happily tweeting from the vertebrates storeroom, she sounded like a kid finding herself in charge of a lolly shop.

“Collections are magical,” she says now. “And the people who work with them are pretty magical too. When I was out at the Dowse I had all the access I liked. If I was having a bit of a shit day often I would go down to the collection store and kind of fossick around and find something that would lift me outside of what was going on inside my head – and reinforce that feeling of being a temporary part of what’s here to last forever: here to sustain a community and a public for a long time.”

There’s a sense of wonder and delight that animates Johnston’s conversation. It’s a common quality in artists, but not so much chief executives. Knowledge and thoughtfulness about the place of museums and galleries in the world also sets her apart from her immediate predecessors, Geraint Martin and Rick Ellis, who came to Te Papa from jobs at a DHB and a telco respectively. 

Her appointment is a hopeful sign that others share her view that museums aren’t just another business.

From tour guide to chief executive

Photo: Jack Fisher

Twenty years ago, as a university student, Courtney Johnston had a part-time gig as a visitor host at Te Papa. It was then she first became aware of the significance of the three boulders that stand outside the entrance.

“Most people just walk past and don’t notice them but they’re the founding concepts of Te Papa: Papatūānuku, Tangata Tiriti and Tangata Whenua. And in that space is everything that Te Papa has to foster for the nation. How do we come together as cultures? How do we come together as people within this environment?”

Johnston says Te Papa is in a continuous process of returning taonga to their iwi. “A taonga gets its mana – its power – from its connections to its people. Which is different from how museums were set up, where objects get their power from the authority that researchers place on applying their knowledge to that object.”

Te Papa’s Māori collection is now considered to be on loan. “The hapū or iwi have easy access to whatever they want to. And Te Papa is negotiating all the time about repatriating taonga back to their communities.”

The Hawaiian ‘ahu’ula and mahiole are far from the only taonga being returned to their rightful owners. Te Hau ki Turanga – Aotearoa’s oldest wharenui and a masterpiece of carving – will be heading home to Tairāwhiti in the near future, more than a century and a half since it was stolen from the Rongowhakakaata iwi by James Richmond, the minister of native affairs, and placed in the Colonial Museum in Wellington.

The Ministry of Culture and Heritage is even facilitating the return of an Egyptian mummy, gifted to the Colonial Museum in 1885.

It’s a major point of difference with one of Te Papa’s tīpuna, the British Museum in London. Famously, that museum insists it is the rightful owner of the Elgin Marbles taken from Greece by a British nobleman in 1801. So if the Elgin Marbles had found their way into the Te Papa collection? “I’d return them home,” says Johnston.

“The British Museum will say, ‘no actually the best place for all of these things from all over the world is here. Because we can create the context from which people can understand them.’ And you’re like: ‘What about the context that they were made in and the people they were taken from?’.”

Johnston notes that the legislation behind Te Papa, unlike that for Auckland Museum, does not mention the Treaty of Waitangi. “I think in some ways our bicultural kaupapa – the way that it was baked into our foundation, the structure of the building, our co-leadership model, which is not legislated – is something that was opted for.”

Pictured centre Arapata Hakiwai and Courtney Johnston at Spread the Love! A Combined Community Service for Samoa at Te Papa, January 2020. Image: Andrew Matautia.

But is the co-leadership model really a sign that Te Papa is bicultural, when the chief executive position sits above the kaihautu Māori co-leader position – currently filled by Arapata Hakiwai – in Te Papa’s power structure?

“The State Sector Act as it stands doesn’t recognise the co-leadership model. The system that we operate in is a western system that goes: one person, one job title, one signature.” 

Johnston would like to see the legislation changed to allow for co-leadership roles. “I think that would be such a useful, challenging conversation to have on a wider level,” she says.

In a sign of things to come perhaps, the press release announcing Te Papa would be opening within two weeks of the start of level two quoted the co-leaders, rather than just the CEO.

Then there’s Aotearoa’s crucial relationship with the Pacific. Where does Te Papa’s internationally important Pacific collection sit in terms of the bicultural model?

Johnston starts to respond by describing the structure of the level four history galleries, where the Māori and Pacific galleries sit on either side of ‘Passports’, the European migrant history exhibition. “So Māori and Pasifika are separated by the building, by the way it’s set up. And I think that’s something that if we were rebuilding… We are at the very beginning of the redevelopment of level four. That will be a very different conversation now.”

“Our Matauranga Māori and our Pacific curators work together really tightly and they awhi each other. It’s that whanaungatanga that is different, that is special.” 

Art and its troubled past at Te Papa

Opening day at Te Papa, 1992. Far right, Cliff Whiting, who would go on to become Te Papa’s inaugural Kaihautū in 1995, and Cheryll Sotheran, the museum’s founding CEO. (Photo: Michael Hall/Te Papa)

After years of criticism of its commitment to fine art, in 2018 Te Papa opened Toi Art, an $8.4 million gallery space spanning two floors of the building. 

Johnston, an art historian by training, is the first Te Papa head since founding chief executive Cheryll Sotheran to have a strong background in the visual arts. So can we expect to see any changes in direction when it comes to Te Papa and the arts? 

“Cheryll was an art person and I feel she had to suppress that a little bit. I’m clearly an art person. And I’ll need to monitor myself too. I need to give the art curators the same respect as I give to all the other curators. It’s not my job to run an art gallery any more. It is my job to have an opinion.”

One of the clearest guides to those opinions was her time at the helm of Lower Hutt’s Dowse, a position she took up in 2012 aged just 33. 

“At Dowse we were very focused on turning down some of the voices that have had a lot of airtime and turning up some of the voices that have less airtime. You can’t dispute that anyone other than white male artists had less air time in New Zealand, Western art history, exhibition, publication history… Just look at the size of the books that have been published. There are not as many big books on women artists as there are on men.”

And it’s the same story with artists from minority and outsider communities. As the country’s national museum, Te Papa has an important role in amplifying those historically silenced voices, Johnston says.

She’s keen too to see an increasing focus on climate change and the environment at the museum. “How we live together is an environmental question as well as a social question.”

When asked to nominate a couple of international museums that have inspired her, she opts not for a famous national museum but for Sir John Soane’s House in London and Baltimore’s American Visionary Art Museum

“Personally, as a visitor I love extremely focused, jewel-like experiences that you can think into. That are often quite mad.”

But, as if to reassure us that her heart is in what amounts to a wildly overflowing jewellery box: “They’re not museums I would want to work in, they’re not my passion.

“I work in New Zealand because I think our museums are better than museums in any other country in the world. Otherwise I would be trying to work at one of them. But I don’t. I love big scale impact and the complexity of trying to be almost everything to almost everyone.” 

How ‘shovel ready’ are the arts?

A 2018 school group visit to Hinatore, Te Papa’s Learning Lab (Photo: Kate Whitley/Te Papa)

In the past there’s been talk of a Te Papa North for Auckland or a new national art gallery. Could we see development on those sorts of projects as a result of the government’s call for shovel-ready projects to help kick-start the economy?

In short: no. Courtney Johnston doesn’t think there’s any appetite for a major expansion of Te Papa’s physical site. But she’s been disappointed by the response of local bodies when museum projects have been “punted up in that kind of speculation phase and people have written them off as being non-essential”.

She let’s out a heavy sigh. “I do understand that water, waste and sewerage come up as the big triumvirate, and transport, parks, libraries, pools, museums, galleries and community art – those all get shunted into the nice-to-have.” 

One area of the museum that is likely to see an ongoing boost due to Covid-19 is the online space.  

“In lockdown everyone has shifted their focus online. So for example we’re working quite closely with the Ministry of Education on producing content for their education channels. It could be a whole new way in which museums intersect with learning, maybe a step change in the way that they do things.”

In her job interview Johnston committed herself to a 10 year term. What are her hopes for the Te Papa of 2030?

“It’s that community involvement, that co-sharing of responsibility for the collections, that sense that people have that the things here are meaningful for them and they have a meaningful relationship with them, whether they’re in the collections, out on the floor or out of our collections and back in the communities they came from.

“And it will be a museum where people are confident coming and having conversations with each other about who we are and where we’re going.”



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