journal of museums aotearoa
As Winston Churchill said, there are lies, damned lies and statistics. If we only take a numbers approach, then the re-invention of the former Wellington Maritime Museum as the Museum of Wellington City and Sea could be said to have been successful from a maritime interest point of view, in terms of visitor numbers. I shall get to the reasons why it is no longer a Maritime Museum shortly, but at the moment it has one-third of its exhibition space devoted to matters maritime and the Museum ensures that at least one-third of its changing exhibitions and public programmes also have a maritime theme.
PEOPLE COUNT OR PEOPLE WHO COUNT?
The Museum now gets about 85,000 visitors a year, as opposed to around 30,000 when it was purely a maritime museum. So we can state with certainty that nearly three times the numbers of visitors get exposure to maritime stories and artefacts than did previously, but of course there are not as many of them (stories and artefacts that is). Now numbers of visitors is one measure of a museum, but if you measure the quality of a museum by the square meterage it devotes to a particular subject, then changing our Museum was a retrograde step from a maritime interest point of view. However, that analysis would mean that a giant museum that had very few visitors was a ‘better’ museum that a smaller one that was packed.
There is also the small but important matter of whom the museum is for. If we receive public funding, then we have a duty to make it as accessible and interesting to as wide a number of people as possible as it is their money, and to try to deal with specialised interests with temporary shows, touring exhibitions and programmes.
But visitor numbers are not the only criteria of success. We also have other duties, such as care of, and accessibility to, the collections and acting as a focus and facility for community groups. I shall address those later, but first I discuss why our museum broadened, not abandoned, its maritime focus.
The Wellington Maritime Museum opened in 1972 as single room set up by the Wellington Harbour Board (WHB), the body that operated the port. It steadily expanded until the Harbour Board went out of existence in 1989, following restructuring of local government. Prior to its demise the WHB created a Maritime Museum Trust to continue running the museum. However the Trust found, as many other museums have, that admissions were not enough to keep afloat so, in 1996, the Maritime Museums Trust handed over the collections and the responsibility for running the museum to the Wellington Museums Trust – a body controlled and funded by the Wellington City Council.
A SURVEY, A REFIT AND A NEW TACK
The City Council contributed $7 million towards a $12 million upgrading of the Museum but wanted its mission expanded to cover the social and cultural as well as the maritime history of Wellington. He who pays the piper calls the tune.
Thus its new mission became:
This was a totally different brief than the Wellington Maritime Museum’s aim of:
To mark this change its name changed from the Wellington Maritime Museum to The Museum of Wellington City and Sea (figure 1).
FREEING UP THE MUSEUM
After the money was spent and the Museum redeveloped, along the lines mentioned previously of two-thirds other themes and one-third maritime exhibition space, everybody stood back (figure 2). Visitor numbers started high with a projection of 100,000 (never achieved) and then steadily decreased to fewer than 40,000 per year. Various attempts were made to halt this decline, which was one of the issues I inherited when I took over the directorship. I managed to obtain free admission and that marked a massive upsurge in numbers. They doubled. To put this in context, our Museum was the only one that charged in the whole of Wellington and we were 500 metres along the waterfront from Te Papa, New Zealand’s newest and biggest museum. Te Papa not only was free but had several cafés, specialised children’s spaces, a strong Maori presence and a parking lot. Parking at our Museum remains problematic and very expensive as all nearby parking is privately controlled and we have no room for a cafe.
I also wrote a Strategic Plan that emphasised that, while the mission had expanded, we were not to deny our previous history and would keep a strong maritime flavour. This salty flavour, and our concentration on the city of Wellington, effectively differentiates us from Te Papa and I believe one of the mechanisms of marketing is to differentiate your offering from similar products.
So the Museum now has exhibitions about the history of Wellington, war, sport, health, education, women’s work and Maori culture, as well as shipwrecks, fishing, shipping, lighthouses and other maritime matters (figure 3). The Museum also manages a large conservation project that is preserving the remains of the Inconstant, a ship that was wrecked in Wellington in 1849. (As an aside; is ‘Inconstant’ an appropriate name for a ship?)
Temporary shows at the Museum have covered the gamut from cartoons to rugby to Maori issues but there is still this maritime flavour. And of course the Museum maintains and increases access to the mainly maritime collection. We held an exhibition of paintings of ships by a folk artist Frank Barnes, which we promoted as being as much about art as it was about ships (figure 4). The next show, which was for the International Festival of the Arts, covered the photography of Alfred Burton on his cruise to the Pacific in the SS Wairarapa in 1882 (figure 5). That was about colonialism and photography, as much as it was about tourism and trade. These shows were followed by an exhibition on the political and social effects of the 1913 Waterfront Strike.
Now this model is one of several courses the Museum could have set. We could have decided instead to undertake the redevelopment but create a fully up to date and exciting maritime museum, still with a Wellington focus. We have examples of successful maritime museums not only in Auckland at Hobson’s Wharf but just over the Tasman in Sydney where there is a modern National Maritime Museum. Both these museums have a much wider brief than the original Wellington Maritime Museum. In Auckland’s National Maritime Museum there is a fair amount of social history; for example, there are displays on holidays at the beach and emigration. In the Museum over in Darling Harbour, Sydney, there is a submarine moored outside, thus incorporating naval history and Australian politics. Other maritime museums have some extra factor such as being the site of Meridian Zero at Greenwich, England, or the home of the Vassar in Stockholm. So there is no one model for what makes a successful maritime museum, but it may be possible to draw some points from our own experience.
If the museum is to be a specialist museum it probably needs one or more of the following factors:
ROOM FOR BIG AND SMALL
Now all this raises more issues that it solves. Does the future of museums reside in large omnibus institutions that try and be all things to all peoples or is there room for thousands of small specialist museums and single theme museums? I would suggest both – there are the large national museums which are as much about pride and identity as individual themes/subjects/disciplines,and there are small specialist places about a single subject such as whaling, a lifeboat service or even a singlelife such as house museums. In my own opinion it is the smaller places that are more interesting, but that is because I suspect that size itself creates inertia as well as a sort of bland internationalism.
In Wellington the transforming of our Museum to attract a wider public was not a success for those who regarded it as a clubhouse or validation of their own lives and careers and that is sad. As an example, one retired mariner said to me he was so upset that we had removed some model ships from public display that he was not going to leave his maritime collection to the Museum and would give it to the National Maritime Museum in Auckland instead.
I replied that that was fine. As far as we were concerned, as long as it was in a publicly-owned collection somewhere being looked after and made accessible, we could always borrow it if needed. He was astounded. He had never thought of the bigger issues of public ownership, co-operation between museums and why museums actually collect and display things and who pays for them.
Once we moved from funding by a maritime interest body to public funding, then it was inevitable that the Maritime Museum in its traditional form was on the skids. The maritime lobby had not the financial resources or the political clout to resist. The only chance for the Museum to remain purely maritime would have been to present a convincing case to the funders that overrode the desire of the City Council to incorporate the history of the city.
THE VOYAGE AHEAD
So is there a future for maritime museums? – yes, there is, but what form it takes, I haven’t a clue. Each museum needs to respond to its purpose and unique local circumstances. In fact there are a whole range of possibilities: They encompass large national museums, specialist museums, volunteer-run local sites or it may be that a hybrid model like ours that widens potential audiences is a good way to go. As we have demonstrated to all but the most purist and die-hard, broadening our focus did not mean jettisoning our past.
I mentioned a mariner who was very upset about our loss of maritime exclusivity; he was only one of many old salts and those with a very strong interest in the sea who were upset. However the Museum now has a very constructive relationship with maritime interest groups who have their own organization – The Maritime Friends of the Museum of Wellington City and Sea. This group actively assists in both programming and fundraising and they have their own lounge. But it is interesting looking at the Museum’s visitation records; we were only getting - on average- a couple of visits a week from maritime members so, while they are supportive, they do not actually visit the museum very often. I would suggest it is because they are interested in ships, not museums.
Te Ara - Journal of Museums Aotearoa; Volume 32; Issue 1 & 2; December 2007
Figure 1: Wellington Museum of City and Sea signals its building’s maritime origins as a bonded warehouse by incorporating containers into its exterior signage.
LAST UPDATED: 28/06/2010