Councilcast Ep 11: Building a new museum

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Published: 14 Jun 2023


(Please note this has been automatically generated by AI from the audio file, so there are likely to be inaccuracies)

Stephen Doran  00:00

Welcome to the Timaru District Councilcast. Today I've got museum director Philip Howe, who is looking down the barrel of quite a big project at the moment when you move into a new museum and a couple of years time.

Philip Howe  00:09

That's right. It's hard to imagine in a couple of years’ time, but we are planning a major development, which is linked to the redevelopment of the Theatre Royal, and that's going to see a new museum building on Stafford street. But it's not the entire museum because our existing building will be retained. What we're doing is shifting the public facing roles of the museum into this new Stafford Street site. So that's exhibitions, education programmes, public programmes, all the stuff that people come to the museum to do or enjoy. Meanwhile, the current building here on Perth Street will be turned into our archive Centre for people coming in to do research. It'll be a collection storage area, our behind the scenes work area and exhibition preparation spaces. So it's going to be a game of two halves. And this has been done around the country, I can think of at least three museums who operate in this way, where you may not have the physical space to have everything under one roof. But you can be close by and have the public facing roles on one side and the supporting activities and another.

Stephen Doran  01:12

So how do you go about filling out a new museum, is it just sticking all your old stuff in a new space?

Philip Howe  01:17

If only it was that simple! Well, with the design, we're looking at two major exhibition spaces, one of them the largest, being the long term exhibition space. And that's where we tell the stories of where we are and who we are. So we're looking at how the landscape was formed, local biodiversity, local Māori heritage, local European arrival and settlement, social history right up to the present day, and those will be displays that are there for quite some time. And we're developing those quite extensively. In fact, it's quite an exciting project in itself, we have been working with an internationally renowned design company to look at how we can turn this exhibition opportunity into a world class experience. And I believe we're going to be able to do that. So we're going to have about 650 to 700 square metres of permanent exhibition space. But we're also building a 250 square metre temporary exhibition space which can have changing shows; it can have travelling shows, it can also be used for events, performances, all sorts of things. And of course, because we are building the museum to be connected to the Theatre Royal, there will be spillover and crossover with both of those sites with functions from one going to the other and vice versa.

Stephen Doran  02:37

Could you do things like themed shows where if there was a long running show on at the theatre, you could do a temporary exhibition?

Philip Howe  02:42

We certainly could And yeah, here in the in the present museum, we have a temporary exhibition programme, which changes every two to three months. And that can be a mix of local heritage shows nature, history, culture, or travelling shows, or maybe we work with a community group, and that's quite a small area, it's about 50 square metres. So having 250 square metres suddenly gives us whole new opportunities to develop major exhibitions, which are held for two or three months, they could be linked to a theatre show, as you suggest, or it could be a travelling show that we never were able to get before because we didn't have the space or the ability to get into the building. Because the Perth street site is a very tricky site to get large shows and large objects into that won't be the case with the new facility, there'll be a great loading bay shared with the theatre.  And if need be, we can even get big stuff into the front door off Stafford street. So that space is going to be used for all sorts of different things. If we could have two or three smaller shows running concurrent concurrently, we could have a major event happening with around an exhibition that's in it and performances happening in the space alongside the exhibition. So it's all looking rather good and exciting.

Stephen Doran  03:56

When you say do we actually miss out on things because we just can't host them?

Philip Howe  03:59

We certainly do. And I am very aware as a former small boy that we've missed out on some great dinosaur shows, which could have come to this town had we had the space and the ability to host them. But there are travelling shows from other museums, including from Te Papa, we've been lucky enough to try and shoehorn a couple of them into the small space we've got that sometimes we've had to strip them back and remove a lot of the elements system make them fit.  Now we have the chance to get those shows and other travelling shows and the other great thing is this exhibition space will be maintained at internationally recognised museums standard environmental conditions. So it means shows that a travelling can come to Timaru with confidence that their precious artefacts and collections will be housed in appropriate conditions. The present building is really problematic for that. So what can work sort of killing two or three birds with one stone by building this new temporary exhibition space, we can get the shows we never could, they're easier to get in here. And we've got a much better quality of space to show them.

Stephen Doran  05:07

So it was being slightly facetious about your stuff and a new building. But effectively, it will be the collection being hosted or displayed in a different way. How do you go about that? Do you start with a blank sheet of paper? Or do you see what you've got? This sort of springboards it just to a new level, do you think?

Philip Howe  05:20

It's been a very big process. Yeah, of course, a lot of our planning has been guided by what we have done in the past. Here in the Pioneer Hall building, we've identified themes that we want to explore in detail in the long term displays, again, to do with nature, or history or culture, right up to the recent times. And we've spent the last two years working on developing a concept plan with these exhibition designers called Workshop E, and have engaged with local iwi representatives to look at how Māori heritage is presented and embedded throughout. We've engaged with other experts and specialists just to get their input in review what we're doing. It's a very involved process, where it's a case of identifying what the story is about, it's a case of identifying what the best objects and images to use our and then what new exhibition techniques we can utilise to really make it a high impact experience and one that local people enjoy and be proud of, but also one that will put Timaru on the map. We want people to say, Oh, if you've gone to the South Island, you must go and see that new museum., that's got some really interesting things happening. And it's a really amazing experience. That's what we're striving for.  I'd like to think so. I mean, well it's not that we're out there to try and attain some sort of Gold Star Award for Excellence, but what we want to do is the best we can with what we've got, and we can see these huge opportunities, using modern storytelling techniques, digital technology, as well as the wonderful raw material that our collections contain the specimens, the artefacts, the images, all of that can be combined. And we can create what I believe will be a pretty amazing experience that local people not only will be proud of that want to come back to and point other people towards. So there's that aspect to it. And over the next two years, as we head towards the building's final design and the start of construction, we've got a huge job ahead of us with the exhibition designed to detailed design, and also to raise some money to pay for it. Because this is not in the project budget, we've got a certain lump sum in our budget for exhibition development, but it's nowhere near enough. In fact, our planning has identified we've got a target figure of, brace yourself, $3 million. We've started fundraising through the Museum Development Trust, and with the money the museum already has, plus the trust fund raising, we've now got about nearly $1.2 million in hand, we've got two years to get the rest. And we're looking at how we can target specific funds, lotteries, Environment and Heritage as well as local supporters who are willing to chip in grants that can be obtained from different places, cake sales, whatever it takes. So that's a bit of a challenge. But it's an exciting one. And we can see this exciting in goal to strive for.

Stephen Doran  08:20

Because I guess you've been in the museum game a little while now, you could say?

Philip Howe  08:24

Yeah, looking the other day, it's about, I don't know, 34 years. So it's been a while.

Stephen Doran  08:29

Is it good to have some new technology to like completely change how you display things?

Philip Howe  08:34

It is. I must admit, I'm a little cautious about the use of technology. I have been in some museums around New Zealand and overseas where the technology is a little bit whiz bang, flashing lights and all very glamorous. But it doesn't actually help people understand the subject, it doesn't it overshadows the objects and overshadows the content. Technology used well creates an experience where people are immersed in the subject matter. And I'm thinking of one particular aspect we're planning, it's a geology projection area, which tells the stories of our landscape. Now we can have rock samples on display, we can have words written down on information panels, but to be able to go out and use footage, to use even animation if necessary, to tell the stories of our landscapes that's going to be incredible. And that really excites me. And there are even simple things like creating this wonderful walk-in photographic room, which looks at the social history of Caroline Bay, and the images are projected on the walls all around you. So we're looking at taking our wonderful content that we've always used in exhibitions and finding new ways to present it and make it really immersive, exciting, and not just some sort of high tech, Silicon Valley bells and whistles. thing which you see it once and you go, ehh, that's it. It's not that interesting. Because I've seen that elsewhere don't want to repeat it here

Stephen Doran  10:01

And is it good coming to a fresh building because you can learn from mistakes from other places?

Philip Howe  10:06

Certainly can. And of course, the present building here in Pioneer Hall on Perth Street has got a lot of limitations. And so when we've been looking at other museums around the country, and also overseas, we do see some really good examples of what to do. And also one or two examples of what not to do. I've got a good network of colleagues around the country who I talk with about their projects, as do some of the other museum staff here. So yeah, we take notes and we pride ourselves on stealing good ideas from all around the place.

Stephen Doran  10:37

If you look at the site today, the theatre has been closed for a while there's a big empty gap beside the beside the theatre, and people can be forgiven for thinking nothing's actually happening. Does that really belie the fact that a lot is going on in the background?

Philip Howe  10:48

Yeah, it does. So people will go past that site, as I will look for the last couple of years, nothing's happening there. We've got a billboard up saying what's coming. But there's a huge amount of work from the architectural development side of the building complex. And then from the museum side, looking at the exhibition development. The other thing, which we're also working on is a plan for how we're going to operate this thing, because the there is a museum team here in the present Museum, there's no theatre team. And is it going to work as a combined facility will we have staff and positions that go across both of those functions, there's opportunities here. So we're also working on planning all of that. So yeah, a huge amount of work is going on behind the scenes on architecture, exhibition planning, facility fit out, but also operations, funding, business models, all that stuff that you need to create a flourishing community facility. And there's some good examples of combined facilities around the country, it might be a museum and a library, or a theatre and an art gallery, or we can learn from those examples, and talk with the staff there. And yeah, I'm really excited about what Timaru is going to end up with. I mean, yes, I'm all about the museum. But I also see the bigger picture, this is going to be a fantastic thing.

Stephen Doran  12:00

So in a few years’ time, you will be basically delivered a concrete box with some very good services like lighting, and AC and temperature control and things like that. And then you'll just have to move in and create something within there.

Philip Howe  12:12

That's right. And that's why we're planning it now we need to make sure that our physical plans for the exhibition link into the architectural plans, and there has been some dialogue between us and the architects and the exhibition. Design is about materials that go on the walls how high the ceiling should be in order to facilitate the exhibition. So it's not like we're going into an empty box completely, it's going to be a box that has been shaped ready for us to move into. And what we're doing is taking in the material, it's been designed, ready to roll, it won't be an overnight instal by any stretch, it will take a few months to do it right. But the end result will be something, again, that's really fantastic.

Stephen Doran  12:53

Because a lot of the expense in the museums and stuff, you don't see it as the services, it's the lighting, it's that sort of thing. It's ensuring that it's a safe environment.

Philip Howe  13:00

That's right. And of course, in this day and age, we're so much more aware about aspects of say public health and safety. And we mean, we're concerned about the safety of our visitors the safety of our staff. But we're also very concerned about the safety of our collections. So making sure the collection items, most of which are rare and irreplaceable, are looked after and protected and able to be seen able to be experienced, but are not going to suffer as a result. So if we do our job, right, you can come back here in 300 years time and those objects, they might not be on display still, but they'll still be in good nick, because we've looked after them

Stephen Doran  13:35

Is there a bit of a tension between a museum director and a conservator that you're wanting to keep these things in perpetuity, but people still need to be able to see them?

Philip Howe  13:42

There is. And the challenge to every museum is to provide access and but also to ensure preservation. And usually there are ways and means of doing that, sometimes very sensitive objects can only be on display for a fixed period of time, and then put away in the dark and stored carefully and the right sort of conditions. But it is a tension. But it's one that most museums and art galleries are now managing and that we know a lot more about the science of preservation. And so we have to make sure that's respected and monitored when we put things on display.

Stephen Doran  14:12

And it gets going into modern space will help with that a lot.

Philip Howe  14:15

It certainly will and the other thing, which you won't see as a visitor to the new museum is the space is out the back. Apart from offices and various functions like that there will also be a big loading bay and exhibition preparation area and we’ll have a van to shift collection items from to and from Perth street over to Stafford Street. It's only a short hop and a jump. But we want to make sure things get there safely. And so looking after our collections is paramount, as well as making them as accessible as we can. And the other thing too is a lot of our collections are now accessible online. So that's great. But at the end of the day, nothing beats seeing the real thing in a museum.

Stephen Doran  14:58

It's been quite a long project. Probably the longer than a lot of people realise, how do you keep the excitement going over that period and keeping the end goal in mind?

Philip Howe  15:05

And yeah, it has been a long process. And on top of that, of course, we've also got the day to day job of running the current museum, business as usual. But for the team working on the planning for the new facility, yes, it’s that result, thinking about how it's going to look when it opens, thinking about how it's going to function, thinking about how people will react, and the opportunities that come, again, with having the museum and the theatre combined both back of house and front of house, so that the theatre can make sometimes make use of museum spaces and vice versa. I think we're going to see some really interesting outcomes from what can be done in this new facility.

Stephen Doran  15:46

So you're quite excited about the possibilities.

Philip Howe  15:48

Still very excited. Yeah, just when I thought I was getting old and boring and tired, there's something to get excited about again. But no, the thing about museums is they're wonderful places to work. People, museum workers love working in a museum, for the most part. And all our team here do but this gives us something, again to aim for our education team are excited about the how schools will be able to use the new facility, how they'll be able to take schools through and we'll be able to also use theatre spaces from time to time.

Stephen Doran  16:18

Phil, thank you for your time.

Last updated: 14 Jun 2023