Lights out over funding struggle

Tūhura Otago Museum director Dr Ian Griffin says central government should shoulder some of the...
Tūhura Otago Museum director Dr Ian Griffin says central government should shoulder some of the costs of keeping the lights on. PHOTO: SIMON HENDERSON
When it comes to scientific and cultural collections, Dunedin is supremely well served by local institutions.

But the costs of maintaining these treasures can be a heavy burden.

The challenges faced by cultural collections will be highlighted on Monday when museums and galleries across the country turn off their external lighting as a symbol of the struggle for sustainable, long-term funding.

The campaign, organised by national industry body Museums Aotearoa, comes as it says research conducted with its members "paints a bleak picture" for the future of the sector.

Tūhura Otago Museum director Dr Ian Griffin said it had a nationally and internationally significant collection.

Its most recent annual report showed from a budget of $9.7million it received $5.1m from local authorities, $1.3m in grants and earned $2.9m from people visiting and paying for activities at the museum, and it had some income from investments.

"So of the $9.7m, we bring in roughly $4m that is not from the ratepayers of Dunedin."

But it was struggling to maintain its operation, and it ended the year with a deficit of $993,000.

Dr Griffin said the museum was very appreciative of the funds it received from ratepayers and said the Dunedin City Council did a brilliant job.

"Dunedin is blessed with a set of cultural assets that are second to none."

But looking after these cultural riches is proving to be a challenge.

An example is that some parts of the building are not protected by the sprinkler system at present, including some areas where collections are housed.

Upgrading the system would cost about $1m, and the museum was having to do a little bit every year.

"Ideally, you would do it all in one year, but we just can’t afford to do that," Dr Griffin said.

Spending the "bare minimum" ultimately meant the work could cost more over time.

"There are many things that concern me, but the most frustrating thing is that our galleries are getting old."

The most recent major gallery refurbishment was Southern Land, Southern People, which opened in August 2002.

The Tāngata Whenua Gallery at the museum opened in the late 1980s.

Despite being a "real set piece gallery" it was showing its age, he said.

To replace a gallery could cost between $3m and $5m.

While the museum had about $10m of reserves, much of that money came with very specific conditions.

"They are bequests, for example we have got a bequest for stamps, and we have got a bequest for dresses."

"So the amount of free reserves we’ve got is relatively little, and that is a real challenge for us."

Dr Griffin said an "accident of history" led to Otago having a large collection of cultural riches, "because Dunedin was a really wealthy place in the 1900s when a lot of our collections came to us".

With a limited ratepayer base, he is advocating for a central government funding mechanism.

It could be a contestable funding model, where museums could submit projects or proposals that could help ensure long-term sustainable solutions.

Science and technology minister Judith Collins recently said improving the tertiary and science sectors was part of the government’s plan to rebuild the economy.

Dr Griffin said the museum engaged in widespread educational outreach and supported impactful scientific research.

For many people a visit to a museum had helped ignite a lifelong love of science.

"The reason I work in museums is not because I’m a historian, my background is in science.

"My journey as a scientist began with a journey to the Science Museum in London — my dad took me there when I was young."

He went away thinking "that’s amazing", and wanting to learn more, Dr Griffin said.

"So the role we play as inspiring the next generation to take an interest in the world around them, I think is very much underplayed and unrecognised."

Dr Griffin said the museum employed 110 people, many who worked part-time.

"We have got fixed costs basically, and by far the highest fixed cost that we have is staff costs."

While he did not want to scare his staff, with the reserves the museum had and the deficits it was running, "we’ve probably got about two to three years if we keep burning money at the rate we’re burning."

"So at some point, the only thing I can really do is try and figure out a way of running the museum with fewer staff."

"And what that then means is we do less, we won’t be able to as much outreach, we won’t be able to do as many programmes and events, and I don’t want that and I don’t think the public wants it."