Tuesday, October 29, 2013

...and change

Cruising the Te Papa web site the other day brought up a window asking if we wanted to help with a survey. Happy to help. Turns out Te Papa is about to bring in a big Chinese exhibition so it wanted to test some ideas. OK, but what ever happened to "Changing hearts. Changing minds. Changing lives"? 

Since adopting its the new vision (a process that took almost a year) Te Papa's self-styled blockbusters have hardly been what you would call game changers: a big Pompeii exhibition followed by a big Aztec exhibition now to be followed by a big Chinese exhibition.

These kinds of exhibitions (whatever the quality of objects) change nothing. They are just better packaged versions of the same old ideas about masterpieces, civilization and culture that did the rounds in the 1980s in NZ and in the 1960s and 1970s in the US via Thomas Hoving at the Met. 

The last time anyone could accuse Te Papa of "Changing hearts. Changing minds. Changing lives." with art was probably right back in its opening months with Pax Britannica and the infamous Madonna in a condom controversy. It was the first and last time an imported contemporary (as in now) art exhibition was ever allowed near the place with all its attendant provocation, attitude and emotion. Not to say that having the church camped out on your doorstep is something to aim for but Te Papa now works hard to avoid any controversy at all which doesn't make that much sense given that change itself is usually controversial.

It's hard to believe we're saying this but the reason Te Papa can’t affect the sort of change championed by its new vision is because it lost a critical skill when Cheryll Sotheran left the building in 2002. That's taking a point of view.

Image: Protesting Pax Britannica, the Dominion Post Collection, Alexander Turnbull Library