Friday, January 8, 2010

There's nothing wrong with Te Papa that a large bomb won't fix

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, January 5.)

ASSUMING the government ever gets around to announcing an appointment, I have some advice for whoever succeeds the late Seddon Bennington as chief executive of Te Papa.

Blow the place up and start again.

The problem with Te Papa is not simply that the architects missed an opportunity to make a dramatic statement – something to rival the Sydney Opera House – on its prime waterfront site. You could excuse that failure if the building worked internally, but it doesn’t.

It’s a haphazard, chaotic jumble, so poorly signposted and lacking in cohesion that every time I leave the building, I have an unsettling feeling that there must be things I have missed.

As if to confirm this, I read last year that Te Papa had decided to close its library because only 5 percent of visitors bothered going there. I’m hardly surprised. Despite having been to Te Papa many times, I didn’t realise there was a library.

As for the art gallery, I heard the artist Grahame Sydney comment recently that you needed to be a bloodhound to find it.

Admittedly it must be challenging for museum designers to create a coherent, sequential flow that guides the visitor past most of the important exhibits, but some manage it.

Te Papa misses by a country mile. There’s no sense of order or logic in the way things have been arranged.

Moreover, Te Papa makes things worse by trying too hard to be clever with the use of gimmicky signage and captions full of laboured puns that get in the way of clarity. Bizarrely, many captions and explanatory signs are hidden in semi-darkness where they are almost impossible to read.

Interesting exhibits are easily missed. On a recent visit I noticed for the first time, high on the wall in the entry foyer, a massive iron anchor left behind in a Northland harbour by the French explorer de Surville. Despite its size it’s easy to overlook because the attention of people coming and going through the doors is focused elsewhere.

When you do spot it, and wonder what story lies behind it, you have to search to find a tiny, obscure plaque explaining the anchor’s significance.

A good museum leads visitors on a voyage of discovery. Te Papa leaves them to stumble about and hope that with time and luck, they’ll find their way all around the interesting bits. Not good enough.

* * *

THE cumbersomely titled Capital Markets Development Task Force, which delivered its recommendations to the government last month, wants faith in the sharemarket restored so that more people are encouraged to invest in productive enterprises rather than ploughing their savings into property.

It’s a worthy goal, but you can hardly blame people for being cynical about the way the market treats small investors.

Take my own case. I wanted to invest in a New Zealand company that produced something useful, drew on New Zealand technological expertise and was export-focused, because ultimately that’s what New Zealand depends on for growth. I also looked for a company that had solid names behind it – not flash Harrys, but people with a proven track record. I didn’t want big dividends and was happy to park my money long term.

I bought shares in Provenco, which ticked all the necessary boxes. The presence on the share register of names like Peter Maire, Sir Stephen Tindall and Todd family interests was reassuring.

Alas, the rest is history. Provenco merged with a company called Cadmus – they were both in the business of providing eftpos equipment – and eventually it all came crashing down.

Well, them’s the breaks. Every investment has a risk attached.

What irks me, though, is that in the five months since ProvencoCadmus went into receivership, I haven’t heard a word from the company or the receivers. Not a word. It seems that in such situations, there’s no obligation on anyone to advise shareholders of the fate of their investment.

This is surely a simple matter of courtesy, if not of law. If the ProvencoCadmus experience is typical of the contempt with which small investors are treated, it’s scarcely surprising that people don’t trust the markets.

* * *

I SINCERELY hope Labour leader Phil Goff has a better year than he did in 2009, when he was barely more than a spectator. But I wonder whether his party has learned anything from the last election.

Labour recently distributed a glossy pamphlet in which Mr Goff talks about his grandmother being widowed with three kids and struggling to make ends meet, then goes on: “My story is like that of a lot of New Zealanders. I raised a family. I spent seven seasons in freezing works. I joined Labour because it stands alongside New Zealanders’ values.”

Freezing works? Widowed mothers? This is pure “old” Labour. It will resonate with those who remember Mickey Savage, Walter Nash and Norm Kirk: voters who will go to their graves voting Labour anyway, out of sheer habit. But it completely fails to connect with the vital voters of Generations X and Y whom Labour must capture, and for whom nostalgic evocations of the party's proud working-class history must seem quaint and irrelevant.

One of the lessons of the last election was that there has been a generational changing of the guard. If Labour still hasn’t grasped that, it’s stuffed.

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