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Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

SocietyDecember 13, 2023

Why Auckland Museum pulled the pin on hosting a hit Harry Potter exhibition

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

As New Zealand dealt with fallout from the Posie Parker tour, Auckland Museum quietly decided to pass on the Fantastic Beasts show due to its links to JK Rowling. A trove of internal messages obtained by The Spinoff explain why.

It was a hit exhibition connected to the juggernaut Harry Potter universe, one that began at London’s famed Natural History Museum, before travelling to Canada and Australia. “Fantastic Beasts: The Wonder of Nature… aims to inspire a love for nature and to raise awareness of conservation issues by highlighting to visitors their own relationship with wildlife and biodiversity.” Its next stop was to be Auckland, kicking off in March of 2024. The museum conducted a survey showing a willingness to pay that exceeded all previous exhibitions, and a large group of Harry Potter fans excited to have it arrive in their hometown.

Of the 500 people surveyed, a tiny minority worried about the views of Harry Potter creator JK Rowling – just two, one more than expressed concern about her implied support of witchcraft. This was the scene at the start of March 2023. Then Posie Parker (real name Kellie-Jay Keen-Minshull) arrived in New Zealand, spurring enormous counter protests and a toxic online environment that brought the bubbling issue of transphobia to lead news bulletins. After Parker’s Auckland event was cut short due to large protests, JK Rowling – who describes herself as being “gender critical” – tweeted that she viewed the protest as “repellent” and “a mob”. The environment at the time made the exhibition extremely contentious within Auckland Museum, leading to an agonising months-long discussion, culminating in the decision to decline to host the show.

The Spinoff requested emails and Teams messages under the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act, and received an enormous volume of communication – more than 450 pages. Below we lay out a timeline which shows how a major museum exhibition almost made it to New Zealand, before its staff forced the executive to address their concerns

The Spinoff agreed to accept emails and messages with staff members’ names redacted where they were raising concerns about the exhibition.

JK Rowling at the Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore premiere in London in March 2022. Rowling wrote the films that inspired the exhibition (Photo by Neil Mockford/FilmMagic)

February 16, 2023: ‘The sentiment against JK Rowling seems to be growing’

A short flurry of messages are exchanged on the museum’s internal Teams messaging platform. They’re prompted by a staff member reading Sam Brooks’ critical review of a major Harry Potter game for The Spinoff. “I really think we’re going to get panned by anyone under 30,” a staffer suggests, referring to the Fantastic Beasts exhibition. Another replies that “the sentiment against JK Rowling seems to be growing more and more as she continues to be unapologetically transphobic”. A third wonders how the “front of house team will feel selling tickets”.

March 13: ‘The feedback seems to be manageable’

Communication on the subject ceases for a few weeks, until a staff member sends an email pointing to research conducted by the museum. “Of the people who said they were unlikely to attend, 2 mentioned JK Rowling.” They go on to note that Rowling’s views were raised by two out of more than 500 respondents, saying “we need to be aware of that feedback” but that the scale of it did not seem unmanageable. The recipient points out that there are other concerns beyond the public sentiment. At this point, communication again falls silent for 10 days.

March 24-26: Posie Parker arrives in New Zealand for a planned tour, inciting major protests

Until this point anti-trans activism is largely considered a phenomenon that manifests most vividly on social media platforms. That changes markedly with a visit from Kellie-Jay Keen-Minshull, also known as Posie Parker. She hosts a rally at Albert Park. The protest and counter-protest are largely peaceful, but occasionally violent too, and the scale and intensity grips much of the country and discussion about trans rights and transphobia echoes for weeks afterwards.

March 24 : ‘My trainer hasn’t even clocked the Posie Parker news’

Screengrabs from an Instagram post, again from The Spinoff, are shared within an Auckland Museum Teams channel. They summarise an opinion piece headlined ‘Anti-trans activism is extremely harmful. It’s also a confusingly wasteful use of time’. The staffer who shares the post notes that there are lines being drawn between “Posie Parker coming in and spreading hate” and JK Rowling. They go on to say “it is felt that the questions being raised about Fantastic Beasts haven’t been acknowledged or answered”. 

Another staff member replies, mentioning the research that suggested negligible public disquiet about Rowling’s views – but says they will meet with rainbow representatives of the museum. The original staffer replies, wondering about how the show would make their “people and communities” feel, and the impact it might have on the museum’s Rainbow Tick, while quoting from a number of previous Teams posts that they feel have not been adequately addressed.

Another staffer responds, saying “it’s great to get a perspective on how you’re all thinking and reading about things”. They go on to point again to the positive response to the museum’s research, saying “people would pay more to see this than anything we’ve ever tested”. They reiterate the position that the show’s connection to perceived transphobia is a minority concern. 

“There are going to be communities and people who feel aggrieved by the connection to JK Rowling, but you might recall, before you guys raised this, I had never heard about it… In my world, my friends and family aren’t talking about it. I think I’ve got a fairly broad cross section of people in my world, both demographically and geographically. I have members of the rainbow community too.” They point to their trainer, who is “pretty aware” – while acknowledging it’s a “sample of one”, they had “not even clocked the Posie Parker news”.

They conclude by reasserting the quality of the research, and say that “we have to be careful not to let our personal views and experiences cloud the reality of the market”, and that the museum will “plan for all eventualities”.

Scenes from the Posie Parker counter-protest at Albert Park in March (Photos: Madeleine Chapman)

March 31: ‘The tolerance for forgiveness is diminishing’

Communication goes quiet for a week, until the following Friday afternoon. A Teams message quotes the defence above, saying “it’s really hard, even for ‘clean as a whistle’ brands not to be called out on something these days”. They suggest speaking to others who’ve hosted the exhibition about how to respond, also noting that “the tolerance for forgiveness is diminishing”.

Within an hour, a more formal email has been sent, expressing similar sentiments – pointing to the gulf between concerns surfaced in the research, and those expressed by museum staff. They note that “we’ve just had a volatile situation in Auckland”, but express no doubt about the exhibition going ahead. “Closer to the time, when we develop marketing, we’ll assess how we’re going to navigate any issues”. 

Half an hour later, the recipient responds, suggesting that in a year’s time “there will be more not less of a spotlight on the trans community”.  They raise two core concerns. Firstly, the museum’s reputation: “great that some people asked say they’ll come, but they’re likely not the ones who would vocally criticise the museum’s decision”. Secondly, the feelings of staff: “has anyone factored in how our own people may feel having to promote, sell and upsell this exhibition, which ultimately lines the pockets of someone who is so anti-trans”. 

They conclude by asking to hear a response from the executive and the board “rather than just continue to discuss it in our own team”. Another email in response to the original says they would like to “quietly share” concerns, noting risks to brand reputation, but saying “I really don’t mean to be antagonistic by writing this.” A third makes similar points, adding concerns about potential media coverage (including from The Spinoff), protests at the venue and the museum being “cancelled” and thus losing under-20 audiences long-term. They wonder whether this will ultimately create further scrutiny of their funding.

This feedback is collated into an email summarising the department’s concerns. This is distributed to senior staff: head of exhibitions Max Riksen; Sheryl Graham, visitor and research manager; Amber Lamana, touring exhibitions manager; and Tim Hart, the museum’s director of public experience. The sender talks about “trying to quell strong feelings in my team about Fantastic Beasts”… “I’m not advocating we should ditch the exhibition,” they say – but the lengthy summary of the team’s concerns shows “the many and complex issues we’re going to need to navigate”.

April 3: Raised to the CEO

The following Monday, Hart forwards the email to the museum’s CEO David Gaimster, saying “interested in your views on this”. The following day, Lamana, in charge of bringing in touring exhibitions, says she will leave it with Riksen and Hart, only saying that to withdraw would potentially damage the museum’s relationship with the Natural History Museum in the UK – the show’s creators – and make it unlikely the museum could assemble another big show in time for the middle of next year. Riksen replies, echoing Lamana’s concerns. 

The email laying out staff concerns is forwarded again, this time to the museum’s head of people, Catherine Smith. She replies, saying “I share a lot of these concerns”, while also raising, for the first time, the idea of abandoning the exhibition: “I think we need to consider taking a step back.”

April 11: Melbourne makes an announcement

The Melbourne Museum announces the show. Auckland Museum’s head of brand, Denise Cohen, looks it over. She says of the 1,400 comments on Facebook, “by far the majority are excited… however there are definitely some pointed comments, as you will see below”. She posts 11 critical comments, which include people asking whether Rowling profits from the show, calling Rowling a “Nazi supporter”, calling Rowling “harmful” and asking the museum to “do better”.

The next day senior staff covering brand, communication and exhibitions get together for a meeting to discuss the issue. In the aftermath, head of brand Cohen circulates an email that suggests the museum is now leaning away from hosting Fantastic Beasts. She asks “what if we did proceed as planned?” She goes on to make the case for pushing on despite the internal misgivings. “We’ve worked on this for three years,” she writes, “we’ve juggled around our exhibition schedule and I don’t think we should think about dropping this”.

April 13 : ‘We’ll need to tread carefully’

The following morning, Cohen emails Hart and museum CEO Gaimster to say the follow-up meeting about pushing ahead went well. “We feel we can, with time on our side, navigate the issues this exhibition presents… The museum is a place for discourse, for confronting difficult issues,” she writes. She goes on to express interest in what Melbourne is doing to “address the sabotage by the LGBTQI community”, noting that activists are replying to each one of the positive comments on the announcement post. “We have the good fortune to be better prepared.”

Gaimster weighs in for the first time, in response to Cohen’s email. “There could be some major opportunities here in terms of fronting the public discourse,” he writes, “but we’ll need to tread carefully given the depth of feeling within our own organisation.” He notes that he and Hart have a call in with the Natural History Museum in London to hear about its own strategy.

For the next few weeks, the issue goes quiet – it’s flagged as a risk in a board paper, and there are questions about how it might be addressed in the business case. 

Fantastic Beasts: The Wonder of Nature exhibition when it opened at London’s Natural History Museum in December 2020 (Photo: Tolga Akmen / AFP via Getty Images)

May 1 : ‘People can conclude outcomes without the full picture’

Teams messages about the exhibition almost entirely cease between the end of March and July. The only exchange is a brief reassurance that the situation in Melbourne is being monitored, with the respondent saying they “definitely don’t want to disrupt any of the decision making”. 

While the executive team continues to move on as if the exhibition is going ahead, more junior staff remain concerned. Part of the exhibitions team meets, and provides an email to Hart and Riksen on the afternoon of May 1. Its second paragraph reads, in its entirety: “We believe Auckland Museum should not host this touring show for the following reasons.”

It lists several bullet points, including that: “JK Rowling’s transphobic views are not casual or covert”; “hosting this show could alienate the LGBTQIA+ kaimahi at Auckland Museum”; “we are worried about the safety of our kaimahi… confronting conversations would be inevitable”. They go on to express concern about whether Rowling might profit from the exhibition, and suggest creating a “reference group” to avoid similar situations in future. (Future research by museum staff confirms that Rowling does not receive royalties from the show.)

They conclude by noting that the group are fans of Harry Potter and think the exhibition looks “very cool”, but that “no amount of coolness can take away from the fact that we are deeply uncomfortable” with the show. Soon after, Riksen acknowledges the email, but notes that “the museum will need to do what it believes to be right at the time”.

May 30: ‘Will we be accused of being “woke” and giving in to cancel culture?’

Aside from some brief emails around a staff member’s trip to see the exhibition in Melbourne, the chain goes quiet for a month. Strategic communications manager Laura Skeritt then distributes a draft risk assessment. It runs to 22 pages, and identifies seven risks, which are placed on a matrix that assesses their likelihood and severity. These include negative media stories, youth and LGBTQIA+ community backlash, protests forcing the museum’s closure and staff refusing to work on the exhibition.

Five of the seven are either “highly probable” or “almost certain”, while all are either “moderate” or “significant” in terms of the severity. It notes that “three other museums around the world have hosted it with no major crises”, and adds that “the biggest risk for the organisation is that the staff element is not handled properly and sets a precedent for the future”. 

It goes on to note that there are also risks associated with turning the exhibition away. These include the potential for future exhibitions being chosen by committee rather than at executive level, and the question “will we be accused of being ‘woke’ and giving in to cancel culture?” It contains an appendix of comments from Rowling, and social media responses to Melbourne Museum’s announcements around Fantastic Beasts.

June 8: ‘The problem is quite unwieldy’

Cohen emails the executives to suggest the museum employ an external consultant to resolve the issue. She says she has called Avi Shenkin, who has worked with the museum on strategy before. A few days later she expands on the idea in an email to CEO Gaimster. “The problem is quite unwieldy,” she says, and suggests Shenkin might be able to help lay out and rank the conflicting perspectives on the issue. 

Gaimster replies on June 12, saying “we’re going to follow due process on this”, leading up to a meeting of the museum’s trust board on July 31. He notes that “one critical feature will be the question of JK Rowling and royalties”, saying it’s unclear whether those accrued to the author or to the Natural History Museum. He makes it clear that the museum would not sell any merchandise, as that “will be licensed to JKR”. Cohen replies to make it clear Rowling is not involved in the exhibition.

That evening, Cohen sends Shenkin a brief to background the issue, saying “we have a problem, deciding whether or not to continue with plans to bring the Fantastic Beasts exhibition to Auckland”. The brief toplines the concerns as “lining the pockets of JK Rowling”; “in conflict with our position on diversity and inclusion”; “how our staff feel”; “being a veiled promo for the books/movie”; “people being against the exhibition” and “fuels the fear of the transgender community”.

The brief is then circulated through multiple teams in the coming days, before being formally supplied to Shenkin on Friday, June 23 – a little over a month out from the crucial board meeting. Cohen suggests a meeting of 12 stakeholders representing different elements of the museum, including executives, exhibition staff and pride committee members. 

Tāmaki Paenga Hira Auckland War Memorial Museum (Photo: Getty Images)

June 27: ‘A deep understanding of each participant’s perspectives’

A few days later Shenkin replies, quoting between $8,000-$9,500 to conduct a series of interviews and a workshop, and to offer post-workshop support, in response to the brief. It’s quickly approved by Cohen and Hart. Cohen then forwards many of the emails received encapsulating staff concerns from different parts of the museum. 

Later that day, Cohen emails workshop participants explaining what Shenkin will do. She then forwards that email to Gaimster, who replies four minutes later. “OMG isn’t this over thinking it..?” he writes. “It’s risky as it might provoke a disproportionate level of anxiety.” Hart says he believes it is “the only way for everyone to own the decision” and that he worries about a “sniping culture” if a different path is taken. He replies again later, admitting “we are taking a turn into the unknown”.

Gaimster is not the only one with concerns. Not long after, Jignasha Patel, head of finance, emails Hart, asking “are you ok with this approach? Does this signal a change in how we evaluate potential future exhibitions?” Hart replies that this is “an exceptional problem”, but that he is “hoping it doesn’t set a precedent”. The following day, Cohen asks executive support manager Ruth Porter to set up one-on-one meetings and the workshop with Shenkin. 

July 7: ‘It’s like a pair of generic trainers’

The museum’s head of commercial, Jennifer Haliday, notes that she has not been invited to attend the workshop (“not essential”). She emails the museum’s head of finance to note how difficult it will be for her to achieve sales goals without officially licensed merchandise from JK Rowling. She likens the task to selling generic trainers, and suggests the museum would likely have to discount the range, impacting margin.

July 10 : The business case

Touring exhibitions head Amber Lamana emails a business case to Hart, suggesting the exhibition will bring in 700 visitors per day, and predicting a profit of $151,000. This forms the basis of the case to go to the board at the end of the month. The paper goes on to recommend that the board “approve the museum to enter into a contract with the lender to present the touring exhibition Fantastic Beasts”. 

A flurry of emails are exchanged ahead of the board meeting. Many make reference to the JK Rowling situation as an issue to be managed, but otherwise the bulk of communications centre on financial and operational considerations around the exhibition. It appears to be going ahead. Two days later, Shenkin’s workshop is held. One attendee, Patel, describes it as “robust”, and that it will have “flushed out our key concerns and opportunities”. 

July 13: ‘Unsafe and uncomfortable’

An email is sent to the museum’s head of people, Catherine Smith, representing eight members of the museum’s rainbow community. It recounts concerns around staff safety, and says that by hosting the exhibition, the museum “will send a message that we do not care about our communities and will do whatever we can to make money”. It goes on to say that “this will result in a deterioration of our safe space” and that “what is outlined barely scratches the surface”.

Smith replies that afternoon, saying the email has been “received with the utmost seriousness”. She goes on to say that the decision, “whatever it may be… will include consideration of your concerns”. She then forwards the original email, along with her response, to a group of senior executives.

July 17: ‘The business case for Fantastic Beasts will not be presented’

Five days after the workshop, a group of five senior staff meet to discuss it, and to decide whether the exhibition should be taken to the museum’s board for approval. Head of people Catherine Smith recuses herself due to having already formed a firm view about whether it should go ahead. Of the remaining four, a unanimous decision is reached: the exhibition should not go ahead, and an alternative exhibition urgently sought.

July 19: ‘Utterly bewildered’

Two days later, a lengthy email is sent to Reeves and Hart. “As I sit here on the train this morning, I remain utterly bewildered,” they write. “The score coming out of the workshop was emphatic,” with eight of the nine participants wanting to go ahead. “The decision leaves us with a gaping hole that seriously jeopardises our ability to sustain visitation.” They return to the original survey, saying “how some of ET [executive team] and a minority of staff feel about JK Rowling doesn’t reflect anywhere near what our customers feel or care”.

The same day, Shenkin delivers her report. Of the nine participants, eight voted for “run the exhibition with extra elements” that would address concerns about transphobia. One voted for “an alternate exhibition, requiring more staff resources”. Cohen forwards it to senior leaders with a note saying that Melbourne’s exhibition “is tracking ahead of target”. She goes on to say that “I am aware a decision has been made, but sharing with you nonetheless”.

Later, an email goes out to staff, informing them of the decision not to go ahead with the Fantastic Beasts exhibition, saying that the decision has been made to replace it with one that “more closely aligns with our values”. At the board meeting two weeks later, there is a single question about the decision to decline to host Fantastic Beasts, with museum staff noting it was based on both a financial and values-based basis.

July 26: 

David Reeves, who has by then succeeded Gaimster as the museum’s acting CEO (later made permanent), emails the Auckland Museum pride group, informing it of the decision. One replies “this is a great outcome for Tāmaki Paenga Hira’s queer staff and visitors”. Another replies to say “it means a lot to be working at an organisation that not only listens to its kaimahi, but respects and supports us in tangible ways”.

The following day an update goes out from the chief executive. Between a note about hosting Kamala Harris’s husband and winning $19,100 in funding from a history trust, it explains the decision not to go ahead with Fantastic Beasts. “It would likely have had popular visitor appeal, but it also represents financial and reputational risks for the museum.” For weeks afterwards, emails ping back and forth. Some express concern about the decision, and question the description of Rowling as transphobic. Others express gratitude that staff have been heard. Eventually, the last remaining dispute peters out. “While I think the exhibit would have been a smashing success, I respect the difference in views.”

Correction: an earlier version of this story stated that names were redacted for non-executive staff. In fact redactions were when staff were raising concerns about the exhibition. The Spinoff regrets this error. 

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