The New Zealand Herald

Museum still a social anchor in troubled times

- David Gaimster comment Dr David Gaimster is Chief Executive, Ta¯maki Paenga Hira Auckland War Memorial Museum.

Ta¯maki Paenga Hira Auckland War Memorial Museum has closed its doors for an extraordin­ary situation once before. In 1918, at the height of the Spanish Influenza pandemic which caused the deaths of 9000 New Zealanders, the Auckland Museum was closed from November 3 to December 1, or nearly a full month. The museum’s 1918-19 Annual Report notes that after re-opening “it was at least another month before the attendance became normal”.

Auckland War Memorial Museum too will open its doors again and play its part to help our city recover its equilibriu­m. In the meantime, during lockdown, we have been operating as an online museum, supporting the booming home education economy and maintainin­g our connectivi­ty with Aucklander­s and our global audiences. Our Museum at Home web hub provides regularly updated stories, activities, videos and puzzles designed to educate, stimulate and entertain.

When we re-open, it may take a little time for Auckland Museum to re-establish its pre-Covid levels of just under a million visitors. We certainly won’t see the return of our tourist visitors until restrictio­ns on internatio­nal travel are lifted some way down the track.

We look forward to Auckland Museum’s reopening and know in doing so we will play a part in re-establishi­ng public confidence in civic life again. Market research across the globe tells us that museums are among the most trusted of public institutio­ns. A poll of 3500 adults in the US published on April 1 suggests many people trust cultural attraction­s will not reopen unless they are a safe place for numbers of people to spend time. People said they would feel comfortabl­e visiting again by the very action of the cultural entity reopening.

Auckland Museum was one of the fledgling city’s first public buildings, opening to the public in a disused farm building in 1852, and growing rapidly to require a purpose-built building on Princes St by 1876. The present-day Auckland War Memorial Museum was opened in the aftermath of WWI, largely thanks to public donations and subscripti­ons. In 2020 that social anchor role remains fundamenta­lly unchanged.

Auckland Museum has a responsibi­lity to support the city’s recovery following the decline of the Covid-19 contagion. Not only do large museums like ours have the floor space and facilities to enable continuing social distancing and the necessary health and safety conditions, they also offer people who have experience­d weeks of isolation a safe place to visit and welcome respite from confinemen­t. Our re-opening will signal the gradual beginnings of a return to normality. What’s more, we can serve as hubs of education, informatio­n-sharing and collective reflection on the causes, responses and impacts of this global crisis. Our curators are actively recording and collecting the social and material culture of the lockdown experience for future investigat­ion, exhibition and public debate.

Whilst our bottom line has been severely dented by the loss of tourism revenues and our building transforma­tion suspended, the lack of internatio­nal visitors will enable us to refocus on our domestic audiences and local communitie­s with new experience­s and to return to our core function, as an exhibiting, collecting, educationa­l and research museum.

If Aucklander­s are going to be restricted from travelling overseas for some considerab­le time, the role of Auckland Museum in bringing the world to them is amplified further. Since its foundation, the museum has enabled Aucklander­s to access world human and natural cultures.

We will see the Covid-19 pandemic feature in our planned public laboratory space, Ta¯maki Data, part of our new galleries devoted to Ta¯maki Makaurau Auckland, opening on completion of our current works programme.

Auckland Museum is closed as a cultural destinatio­n for the present. However it will be among the first visitor attraction­s to re-open to the public. When it does, it will spark hope, connectedn­ess and, like all great museums, renewed curiosity about the world in which we live — its past, its present and, most critically, its future.

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