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Te Papa Compared
Written by Elaine Heumann Gurian
Even in retrospect I find that the quality of staff interaction and the collective regard we had for each other proved unequaled with only one exception. Every other institution with which I have been associated, however worthy, principled, and hard-working, never produced among its staff the wide-spread joy and innovation I witnessed in The Children's Museum in the '70s and '80s. The one exception was the project team of Te Papa during the 1990s when they collectively revitalized the National Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tangarawa in Wellington, New Zealand, in a new building. I served Te Papa as an occasional but deeply committed consultant.
These two museums, The Children's Museum and Te Papa, separated by half a world and two decades, had much in common. Both institutions seemed unparalleled in their coherence, camaraderie, and collective commitment to the visitor. I think their commonalities arose from believing in themselves without taking themselves overly seriously, in being sheltered from public scrutiny until they became famous, in giving themselves permission to become personal friends by socializing outside of work, in delighting in creating self-made systems that worked, and in creating private language and rituals that encouraged generally harmless silliness.
Te Papa's leader, Ken Gorbey, like Mike Spock, was a great listener and encourager, a visionary of stubborn proportions, a man who needed very little public stroking, and less than usual "airtime." He preferred to hire people with indelible idiosyncratic personalities very different one from another. Both Ken and Mike were fair men who gave public hearing to every idea but called a halt to dithering when the way forward was known. The parallels between Ken and Mike are probably very important to understanding the creation of their extraordinary museums.
Staff at both places shared their boss's enthusiasms to explore new uncharted territory, to learn on the job, and to prefer practical solutions over precedence. I always had the feeling that with a change in accent every staff member of one institution would have worked happily at the other.