Hands off!

"They're at it again'' might well be a common reaction to the Museum of New Zealand's continuing attempts to bolster its own collection at the cost of regional museums, such as the Otago Museum, for the sense of injustice about the Wellington museum's practices remains undiluted after 20 years.

It was always going to be difficult to get enthusiastic about the Museum of New Zealand, mainly because it was promoted from the beginning on a basis of erroneous reasoning.

One such reason was the assumption that national institutions must be sited in the political capital, Wellington.

But a museum is a repository for the use of the people and the greater population of New Zealand does not reside in Wellington, despite what some who are resident there may think.

By far the majority reside in Auckland, and that was also the case when the decision
to locate the "national'' museum was made.

The absurdity of having the nation's "showpiece'' museum located in a population byway, as it were, rather than in the main centre of population, was further compounded by the example of having the country's three primary libraries of deposit also located in the capital.

Other reasons are to do with funding and site choice. The national museum cost an enormous fortune and was built on a difficult and limited waterfront site beside a major active earthquake fault line - its contents, the nation's so-called "treasures'', are literally hostages to chance.

Had the museum been located, for example, at Auckland's War Memorial Museum on the Auckland Domain, where there is plenty of room for expansion, a considerable sum of money would have been saved on a site far safer than the one Wellington's politicians and bureaucrats

To explain why the national museum's location was never seriously contemplated elsewhere than in the capital one need only to recall the sorry state of the old Buckle St museum and art gallery.

When something relatively small fails, as this institution had failed, then too often the political temptation is to replace it with something grandiose rather than face practical realities.

As was suggested at the time, a better and more logical option would have been to house the nation's major ethnological collections at an Auckland site and build a new regional museum in Wellington.

But the major absurdity was the belief in the capital that regional museums were less important, and therefore less proportionately entitled to the vast sums of money provided to the national museum in capital and maintenance expenditure.

Remember, too, that the decision to spend hundreds of millions in 1990 on a national museum was made when the country was in serious economic trouble.

It was thought in some quarters then, and subsequent events have proved the predictions to be all too true, that the money poured into the national museum effectively would deprive regional museums and hinder their proper, orderly expansion.

There was also the suspicion that the national museum would embark on a programme to gather into its embrace some of the prized artefacts held in the major regional museums at Auckland, Canterbury, Otago and perhaps other centres, thus further denuding local resources.

After all, the argument went, what would be the point of a "showpiece'' national collection without the showpieces? In fact, this rather sophisticated form of pilfering was, in effect, enshrined in the museum's authorising legislation.

The latest manifestation of it to be made public is the national museum's attempts to get its hands on Otago's holdings of the Oldman collection of Maori and Pacific artefacts.

These were bought by the Crown and distributed quite deliberately among the four main museums in the 1940s, obviously so that the largest number of people could view it.

But the national museum argues they were only "loaned'', and it wants them all.

The success - indeed, the international reputations - of the three Dunedin-based museums (the Otago Museum, the Otago Settlers Museum and the Dunedin Public Art Gallery) is based in large part on the quality of the collections.

Each institution attracts many thousands of serious students and visitors every year precisely because of them.

To have any part of the collections diluted in order to pump up the status of Wellington's mausoleum is simply outrageous, and a denial of basic access rights of the people of the South.

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