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What the hell is going on at Te Papa Press?

Whena Owen reports on the slow gutting of Te Papa Press.

Farewell afternoon teas are a very Wellington ritual where public servants gather around the nearly departed, politely chatting and nibbling at gluten-free cake. The team leader’s speech will first attempt a joke then list the many virtues of their subordinate who is finally handed vouchers and an over-sized ‘You’re Leaving’ card.

The farewell afternoon tea at Te Papa today is a bit different. It’s at the museum’s publishing department, Te Papa Press, which has seen a few ta-ta afternoon teas lately – and today’s ceremony will farewell the last two remaining permanent members.

It sounds like a wake and sources from the inside suggest that it might just be one.

This time last year, the museum’s management announced plans to cut four jobs at Te Papa Press and suspend publishing for five years during Te Papa’s re-development phase. It caused an outcry. The public jumped on it. An editorial described it as “vandalism”. There was a petition; The Save Te Papa Press campaign was backed by literary heavy hitters such as Eleanor Catton.  

“We need greater protection of our cultural institutions from market forces,” Ms Catton said at the time.  “Worth and value are not the same.”

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Terry O’Connor, Marlborough Street, Auckland, 12th September 1981. Gelatin silver print, 160 × 239 mm. Taken from New Zealand Photography Collected (Te Papa Press) by Athol McCredie. The book is a finalist at the 2016 Ockham national book awards.

Biographer Jill Trevelyn described her reaction – and that of many others – as “shock and horror”. Three of her books were published by Te Papa Press including the 2014 NZ Post Book of the Year, Peter McLeavey: The life and times of a New Zealand art dealer.

Then came the good news. Te Papa CEO Rick Ellis announced that following feedback from his staff and the public, they would continue publishing books while they renewed the museum.

“Te Papa Press will continue to publish high quality books,” he said, “and we will retain the existing staff.”

But since Ellis’s U-turn, those existing staff members – including head of Te Papa Press, Claire Murdoch – have left voluntarily. Wellington is a village and the rumours around the tight publishing and booksellers community suggest that despite the CEO’s reassurances, things are not rosy at Te Papa Press. An insider reluctantly told me that life at Te Papa Press had become “untenable”, with no new books signed up.

I sought clarification from the museum. After a couple of days, comms spokesperson Kate Camp informed me in writing that they were in the final stages of appointing a new head of the Press. That person will be appointed in May, and “confirming a forward list of publications will be a priority.”

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A demonstration of the Dishmaster dishwashing machine at the Wellington Industries Fair in 1959. Taken from Real Modern: Everyday New Zealand in the 1950s and 1960s (Te Papa Press) by Bronwyn Labrum. The book is a finalist at the 2016 Ockham national book awards.

In the 2014/15 financial year, Te Papa published 12 titles. This year? I was told that there’s only one book scheduled for publication, Damien Skinner’s The Māori Meeting House. But a browse through Te Papa Press’s 2015 catalogue shows Skinner’s book was in fact scheduled to be published last year.

In response to my enquiries, Te Papa says it typically publishes six to eight titles a year and expects to at least maintain and most likely increase this number in the years to come.

There was no response to my question about staff numbers. In a follow-up phone-call, I was told it would take a few more days to get that information and that statistics on staffing is not that simple. Its permanent staff members – publisher, senior editor, editorial assistant – have all left, but there are several contract workers attached to Te Papa Press.

Rick Ellis proclaimed last June that Te Papa Press will continue throughout the museum’s “time of renewal”. But in what shape and form? Will Ellis honour his promise and replace the departing permanent full time staff members? There is doubt that the new head of press role will be full time. There is speculation the announcement of the new head will be timed to coincide with the Ockham Book Awards where two Te Papa Press titles are finalists.

And what does it mean for the staff who have been leaving in droves?  “Everyone,” claims an insider, “is really angry.”

The last two permanent staff members leaving today are an editor and assistant editor. According to rumour in Wellington’s literary community, they’ll be paying for their own afternoon tea.


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