Otago Museum: Igniting a spark

Shimrath Paul, Otago Museum's chief executive, says the Animal Attic is his favourite gallery in...
Shimrath Paul, Otago Museum's chief executive, says the Animal Attic is his favourite gallery in the museum. Photos by ODT/supplied.
The intricately carved prow of a Maori waka taua (war canoe) at the museum. Photos by ODT/supplied.
The intricately carved prow of a Maori waka taua (war canoe) at the museum. Photos by ODT/supplied.
The Kodak camera taken by Sir Edmund Hillary to the top of Mt Everest. Photos by ODT/supplied.
The Kodak camera taken by Sir Edmund Hillary to the top of Mt Everest. Photos by ODT/supplied.
The museum's 2400-year-old Egyptian mummy is the only one in New Zealand. Photos by ODT/supplied.
The museum's 2400-year-old Egyptian mummy is the only one in New Zealand. Photos by ODT/supplied.
Clare Wilson, who is the Otago Museum director of collections, research and experience, at her...
Clare Wilson, who is the Otago Museum director of collections, research and experience, at her desk. Photo by Jane Dawber.
Otago Museum has one of only a dozen known Easter Island moai (ancestor statues) worldwide...
Otago Museum has one of only a dozen known Easter Island moai (ancestor statues) worldwide outside of their home in the southeastern Pacific Ocean. Photos by ODT/supplied.
Pupils of Elmgrove School head to the museum for an educational sleep-over. Photos by ODT/supplied.
Pupils of Elmgrove School head to the museum for an educational sleep-over. Photos by ODT/supplied.

Otago Museum has been the subject of praise, awards and criticism. Bruce Munro looks at what drives this non-traditional regional museum to punch so far above its weight.

The turtle shell lies on the floor, hidden by stuffed lions.

It is a clue.

Sonia and Sultan, the reclining lioness and vigilant lion - circus escapees shot and donated to Otago Museum - demand instant attention when visitors enter the Animal Attic.

Eyes are then drawn to an impressive Bengal tiger skin, and beyond to a whole elephant skeleton, before sweeping the glowing, wood-panelled Victorian-era gallery to take in a giddying array of transfixed apes, bears, birds and snakes.

The turtle shell - large enough for a small child to climb under but otherwise entirely unexceptional - does not even register.

This 135-year-old gallery may seem an odd place to find clues to what stokes the fire of Otago's innovative, hugely popular and multi-award-winning regional museum.

On the surface the gallery is an interesting, even mesmerising place to spend an hour lost in the world of animal taxonomy. The whole museum is the same - fascinating, informative and, at times, decidedly entertaining.

But the leisurely, multi-storey, sensorial feast belies the reality of a fierce fire burning in the depths of Otago Museum, sometimes felt but largely invisible to the casual visitor.

And here, tucked away in the top most corner of the museum, a lick of that flame emerges.

"Where is the turtle shell?" Otago Museum chief executive Shimrath Paul asks as he casts his eyes around the Animal Attic.

"Is it here?" he repeats with what seems like an unnecessary level of concern.

"Yes, there it is, behind the lions," the museum's multi-portfolio director Clare Wilson responds.

"Ah good," Mr Paul says.

"The children love it. They get underneath it, and pretend to be a turtle. It's great."

Attention to detail, bordering on obsessive, with the visitor always in mind. A bright flash of flame.

Otago Museum began with a pile of rocks.

A display of Otago geologist James Hector's 5000 rocks and minerals at the New Zealand Exhibition, in Dunedin, in 1865, moved the provincial government to plan for a museum of natural history.

Three years later, the museum opened in post office rooms in the Exchange area, before moving in 1877 to a purpose-built home on Great King St, North Dunedin.

For the next eight decades it was managed by the University of Otago, and became the finest teaching museum in the commonwealth. Two additional wings were built during these years, with another added in the early 1960s.

An Act of Parliament in 1955 placed the museum's management in the hands of a trust board also charged with appointing its chief executive officer. Shimrath Paul, appointed in 1994, is only the seventh chief executive in the museum's 137 years.

Benefactors since the museum's earliest days have gifted it a collection, the significance of which is out of all proportion with the museum's comparatively small size and geographic isolation.

Treasures among the estimated more than two million items include one of only three known intact skeletons of the extinct giant indigenous New Zealand eagle Harper gornis; the Kodak camera Sir Edmund Hillary used to take history-marking photographs of Tenzeng Norgay atop Mount Everest; a 2400-year-old sarcophagus containing the only Egyptian mummy in New Zealand; and one of only a dozen Easter Island statues housed outside their windswept Pacific Ocean homeland.

The museum is now a member of a rare breed of repositories with nature, science, culture and living environment collections and displays. Within this one facility, visitors can view a 19th-century Micronesian suit of armour made of cleverly knotted coconut fibre and dried fish skins; stare up at the almost 3m-tall skeleton of a South Island giant moa whose skull is tilted slightly sideways as though considering whether the viewer would make a tasty snack; take in an exhibition of talented and creative winning entries in past World of Wearable Art competitions; examine the intricate detail of a carved Maori door lintel replete with symbolism of life's many passages from one state to another; ring a shiny ship's bell in the Maritime Hall ... and stand canopy-high among tropical trees to watch dozens of butterflies glide in multi-hued splendour.

It seems to be a winning package with the public and industry watchdogs.

In the 12 months to July, the museum attracted more than 480,000 visitors, making it, on a per capita basis, one of the most visited museums in New Zealand and Australia. In comparison, Dunedin Public Art Gallery gets about 200,000 visitors a year, and Otago Settlers Museum, before it closed for renovations, about 60,000.

And Otago Museum's trophy cabinet has to let its belt out another notch almost every year. The museum has received 17 awards in the past decade, including three New Zealand Tourism Awards for best culture and heritage attraction, three Westpac/Otago Chamber of Commerce business excellence awards, and, last year, a Qualmark EnviroGold award for exceptional sustainable tourism practices.

But describing Otago Museum and its achievements only hints at how the museum does what it does and what motivates those actions.

Wilson, the museum's director of collections, research and experience, has watched and helped shape that process for almost 20 years. Seated in the naturally lit, ground floor museum cafe among the quiet chatter of diners and passing visitors, Ms Wilson describes layers of strategy, passion, hard work and determination - the "unseen powerhouse" of all those "positive visitor experiences".

"It's been a really big journey, we've come a long way," Ms Wilson says.

She started as a receptionist in 1993 but within a month became the personal assistant to Mr Paul, who was then the museum's business manager.

"I saw what he did and how he did it, and thought here's someone with skills that I want," she says.

The museum's first strategic plan was drawn up in 1994, during Mr Paul's first year as chief executive.

Creating the strategic plan highlighted several elements that needed attention, Ms Wilson says.

Over the following five years, collection shelving, data collection and climate control were modernised.

At the same time systems and processes were improved or developed "to allow people to do their jobs well".

With the new millennium, the focus shifted outwards.

"We moved from problem-solving to looking at how to make the most of our opportunities," Ms Wilson says.

"For instance, how to develop an exhibition programme we couldn't afford, either by raising additional funds or creating relationships and partnerships that would facilitate that."

In time, the museum did both.

Drawing on Mr Paul's international contacts and experience, as well as his business acumen, was key.

Museum heads have traditionally had a "curatorial focus". Mr Paul's private sector business background and University of Otago MBA "set us apart from other similar institutions", Ms Wilson says.

Otago's local territorial authorities help fund the museum. And that funding has grown from $1 million to $4.1 million a year. But the local government contribution is now less than half the museum's annual spend because its own income-generating activities - ticketed exhibitions, grants applications, shop and cafe sales, Discovery World and Tropical Forest tickets - have grown from 5% to 54% of total annual income.

The $20 million, two-stage redevelopment of the museum during the 1990s and early 2000s, for example, used only $120,000 of ratepayers' money.

The museum could just take the ratepayer-funded money and do what it could with that each year.

"Which would be very little," Ms Wilson says.

But it has chosen a non-traditional modus operandi that embraces business skills in order to provide a high quality visitor experience.

"We do what we do because we should. We are here to serve the community," Ms Wilson says.

"We are aware we have the opportunity to do something really great in this community."

It seems a laudable but slightly odd motivation and vision for a museum.

Strategic partnerships continue to bear fruit and raise Otago Museum's international reputation.

This week the museum announced it would host a major exhibition from Shanghai Museum in the middle of next year. Focused on China's minority cultures, the exhibition will be "stunning", Ms Wilson promises.

Otago Museum will reciprocate in 2015.

Before either exhibition, the museum hopes to reopen the former North Dunedin post office, on the edge of the Museum Reserve, as an exhibition space and multi-purpose venue. The museum has raised $250,000 for the project and is investing more than $1 million from its reserves.

"We could put it off ... but we wanted to take some leadership and help maintain and preserve this beautiful wee building," Ms Wilson said.

"And it's a good time to be putting some money into the local economy."

Not that Otago Museum has always got everything right.

A $15,000 staircase entrance to the museum built in 1996 proved widely unpopular and was demolished in 1999.

"That was arguably one of the most important things we did [during that period], because we said yes it was a mistake and we are going to fix it. We got a lot of goodwill and respect from that."

By the end of 2004, the museum was an agile organisation, responding to opportunities and building momentum, Ms Wilson says.

An employee survey conducted the same year gave impetus to the next evolutionary step - a focus on the people and culture of Otago Museum.

"The past seven years have been about how the team works best together. This has resulted in some of the biggest changes in my time here."

A "whole of team" contribution is vital to what the museum attempts and achieves every day, Ms Wilson reiterates.

So clear job descriptions and expectations, matching people's roles to their skills and potential, and making sure "everyone is on the same page" have been at the heart of this process, she says.

She believes it is also what lies behind publicly-aired disgruntlement about museum management during the past couple of years.

"Ironically, the more momentum we've had in building [an effective team], the more it shows who is not wired to work that way.

"Yet it is because of that culture that the museum can make such a contribution. We are now able to do a lot more with the same number of staff as we could five or seven years ago."

On the first floor, beyond doors that only open for staff swipe cards, is a large space filled with low-walled work stations, filing cabinets and busy staff. In a room at the far end, Mr Paul is seated at his computer.

His office feels distinctly warm, as though an unseen wood-fired boiler was somewhere close at hand.

Mr Paul is just putting the finishing touches to an email telling employees they will receive an annual bonus in their wages. It is performance-based, so not guaranteed, but something that has been achieved every year since 1995, he says with obvious delight.

"One of the greatest challenges is building and maintaining a great team," Mr Paul says.

It is crucial if the museum is to achieve its goals, he adds.

So when looking for staff, prospective employees are interviewed up to three times.

Some people consider that ridiculous, he says.

"We work very hard to get the right people on board.

"Qualifications are only one aspect. Our main focus is figuring out whether they have the right attitude - a very high work ethic and standard, and that they go the extra mile - otherwise they won't succeed in this work culture.

"We want everyone on our team to be a tall poppy, to pride themselves on that. We have lots of them, and they make the difference."

It is part of what has brought staff job satisfaction levels up to 90%.

The museum is a "repository of knowledge" which can expand minds and increase understanding, Mr Paul says.

So the overarching goal for the museum team is "making things happen that will add value for our community, but not be of cost to our community".

Making a difference, going the extra mile, doing something great in this community - these are lofty values and goals for what could be seen as the caretakers of a collection of rocks, bones, and fish hooks. It has to have a point of origin.

Mr Paul was born in Sri Lanka.

His father, who hailed from the southwest of India, was a United Nations consultant who set up several charitable institutions.

One day, Mr Paul would like to follow in his father's footsteps.

"I will never retire, but when I leave here I will never work for another museum.

"Eventually I would like to set up a charitable organisation to take care of people who cannot take care of themselves."

In the early 1990s, when Mr Paul looked to settle in Otago with his family, he received three job offers in the same week. The other two were in the private sector. The museum position was the lowest paid.

"I took it because I thought through this I can be more part of the community and make a contribution."

He intended to move on after five years, and then after five more ... The past two decades have been "very satisfying", but at times "very hard".

"Because we have taken a particular approach, different to the traditional museum approach. But we've stood up for what we believed in and stayed true to it."

His ethos is an echo of what is seen and heard throughout the museum. Why does it feel so hot?

"My most enjoyable hobby is to come in to the museum at the weekend and watch people having a good time or learning something new. It gives me a lot of personal satisfaction.

"Otago Museum is not something I work for, it is part of me."

The turtle shell falls into place. Here is the blazing furnace, door wide open, flames leaping ever higher.


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