Two years ago, The Spinoff founder Duncan Greive commanded Hayden Donnell to stop pitching things that should be in Te Papa. Today we announce our new show, Get It to Te Papa, starring Hayden Donnell. Here he tells the story of its genesis.
Get It to Te Papa began in great and abiding failure. It was a few months after the Waitangi Dildo had been flung, hitting Steven Joyce’s cheek and exploding into our national consciousness. I was at a morning news meeting at The Spinoff and a thought hit me. It was the closest I’d ever come to a Eureka moment – like a key clicking in a lock inside my brain. The world exploded into a kaleidoscope of different hues. In an instant I knew: the dildo should be tracked down and placed in Te Papa.
The Spinoff’s then-editor, Duncan Greive, wasn’t convinced. He gave me tentative permission to pursue the dildo. But when the story fizzled out, and the trail went cold, I was told to move on.
Still, every time I wrote about a nationally significant artefact after that, I’d make the same pitch. Thingee’s popped-out eye – put it in Te Papa. The “rat” infesting Sally and Jaime Ridge’s new bungalow in the debut episode of The Ridges – exhume its corpse and preserve it inside Te Papa. Aaron Smith’s sex toilet. The stray cat ruining Auckland. Kiwi Onion Dip made by the inventor of Kiwi Onion Dip. Te Papa. Te Papa. Te Papa.
I was obsessed. Eventually, the people around me lost patience. At a morning news meeting, I pitched the idea of putting the Big Fresh Animatronic Fruit & Veges in Te Papa. Duncan’s reply was quoted by a Sunday Star-Times journalist who was at the meeting researching a feature on The Spinoff. “It’s time to stop pitching things that should be in Te Papa,” I was told. A few months later I left for my OE in London, discouraged; feeling further away from Te Papa than I’d ever been.
That seemed like the end of it. I gave up on my dream and became a dish runner at a Kings Cross restaurant between stints as a part-time musician. Te Papa didn’t cross my mind for weeks. Months. Then one day a call came through. It was Duncan, and something inside him had changed. The man who’d disparaged the idea of getting things into Te Papa was gone.
In his place was someone who backed the idea of getting things into our national museum so strongly that he’d pitched the premise to Lightbox as a potential TV show. “It’s really looking like it might happen,” he said. “Would you be willing to come back from England if we get it signed off?”
By October last year I was writing scripts for Get It to Te Papa. Skyping with our producer Amber Easby and director José Barbosa. In February this year I travelled back to New Zealand to start filming. We’d settled on six treasures we wanted to get into our national museum: the Lets Gone Warriors sign; a piece of Suzanne Paul’s memorabilia; Auckland’s Giant Santa; the Huntly Deka Sign; the Big Fresh Animatronic Fruit and Veges; and most importantly, the Waitangi Dildo.
All those objects held special currency in my life, and I knew they would in other lives too. I thought they’d induce nostalgia, and maybe a few waves of residual joy or terror.
I hadn’t prepared for how personal they’d be to some of the people we met. While trying to secure our treasures, I watched middle-aged men on the verge of tears in the presence of a disassembled Giant Santa. Heard the strangely moving and deeply personal story of divorce and redemption behind the Huntly Deka Sign. Listened as someone confessed to hugging and whispering secrets in the fibreglass ears of their Big Fresh Animatronic Fruit and Veges.
These artefacts weren’t Edmund Hillary’s icepick, James Cook’s rudder, or even a giant squid corpse. Most of them weren’t official or auspicious. But it was oddly moving to watch the way these off-beat, occasionally slightly shabby artefacts had worked their way into our collective consciousness. Huntly loved the Deka sign in a way I never could. The Waitangi Dildo had depths of meaning I’d never fully considered. The Lets Gone Warriors sign is now hanging over a couple’s bed. These weren’t historical treasures – they were cultural ones. Touchstones of our shared experience as a nation. Physical manifestations of our trademark Kiwi understatement. They reflected us in all our glorious shittiness, and what should a national museum do if not reflect us in all our glorious shittiness?
Maybe there was a part of me that wasn’t fully serious when I used to pitch Duncan on putting these things in Te Papa more than a year ago. A part that didn’t truly believe. That part died during the making of this show. I became a fully-fledged Te Papa truther. I was willing to go to extreme lengths to wrest control of these treasures and win them the respect they deserved. It was a mission that took me the length and breadth of New Zealand, into the depths of my soul, and eventually to the gates of Te Papa itself. I really believe Get It to Te Papa was worth the trip.
The Spinoff presents: Get It to Te Papa a Lightbox Original. Episodes one and two premiere on Lightbox on October 16
Join The Spinoff Members for as little as $1 to help us hire more journalists and do more investigations. Or get a free Toby Morris-designed tea towel when you contribute $80 or more over a year.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.