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An ‘explosively genteel’ letter from the Museum

On the surface, the Auckland Council's $250,000 review of the city's cultural heritage institutions is all glassy calm. Everyone, reviewers and reviewed, welcomes the chance to explore "whether there is a case for change".

Beneath the veneer, however, is a clash of wills, Acts of Parliament, and possibly personalities as the reviewed, including the Auckland Museum, wonder just what change a money-and-control-hungry Council has in mind. The Museum has a reserves fund of almost $60 million which could prove irresistible to bureaucrats and politicians.

It says it supports a "truly independent review" but has already pushed back ahead of the process starting.  

Citing the detrimental effects of politics, and the Museum Trust Board's obligations by law to the people of Auckland, not the council, it has made clear it will not be pushed around.

One councillor has described a letter from the Museum, kept confidential until now, as "explosive, in a genteel sort of way".

Mayor Phil Goff, who says the review is not a cost-cutting exercise, this week recommended political oversight over the appointment of the reviewers, so they were not selected only by council officials.  

In March the council's Finance and Performance Committee agreed to a review, passing it to the Environment and Community Committee this week to approve some terms of reference and get a review started. The institutions being examined are the Museum, Motat, the City Art Gallery, the Maritime Museum and the Stardome Observatory.

As well as examining a case for change, the purposes of the review talk of achieving greater coherence and value from council investment in cultural heritage. It could end up suggesting a combined board or one organisation running the facilities - without separate laws and funding arrangements.

The council spends $61 million a year on such organisations, but critically does not control all of them - the Museum and Motat have separate statutes which give them a level of independence; the Art Gallery is run by a subsidiary of a Council Controlled Organsation and the other two are subject to a regional funding system set up by Parliament.

The review will look at any sector governance changes which should be made. Some in the cultural heritage world believe that translates as Auckland Council wanting rid of these separate Acts which keep the Museum and Motat out of the council's direct command.

In the letter, which hasn't been made public and wasn't circulated to councillors for almost a month after it was sent to the finance committee chair Ross Clow, the Museum board chair, William Randall, took issue with some of the justifications cited by council officials for the review.

The letter attempts to put some of the council officials in their place by challenging claims they had made about the Museum, its accountability and willingness to provide information to its funder, the Council.

Overall, it suggests the Museum, which takes just part of its funding from the council - the rest coming from commercial activities - is wary of a power-grab by Auckland Council and while supporting better coordination between institutions does not want its current success and advances diminished. The letter cites "public respect for the Museum's added value remains very high at 98 percent and 99 percent satisfaction and recommendation ratings". And it tells the council the tempo of activities at the museum has increased as population and tourism expand.

"The Museum's leaderhip in exhibitions, public programmes and development of open digital access has been recognised by industry bodies in New Zealand and overseas."

Randall's letter sets out the Museum concern "at a number of incorrect statements in the staff report ".

He makes it clear the Museum has responsibility broader than to the council. "Please note that it is important that the Trust Board does not find itself in a position where it must carry out any activity contrary to the requirements of the Auckland War Memorial Museum Act 1996 - a key obligation being to act in the interests of the Museum at all times.

"The 1996 Act was an attempt to separate the longer-term funding requirements of the Museum from possible detrimental effects arising from the politics associated with a short-term electoral cycle.

"As the Museum is an asset owned by the Trust Board and held in trust for the people of Auckland, it follows that the Trust Board must also act in the best interests of the people."

Translation: Be aware, we are independent, and will guard that independence, until Parliament tells us otherwise.

"Despite the fact the Museum's governance is prescribed by the Act of 1996, considerable time is spent at Board level to align its strategic thinking with that of the Auckland Council in an attempt to maximise ratepayer benefit," Randall writes.

His letter takes exception to five statements made by council officials to their political masters, including one which says: "Overall, staff consider there are significant risks and missed opportunities in the current system and separate to the levy process." Randall says: "The Trust Board is very interested to hear of significant risks and opportunities it may have missed."

Interestingly, he asked that his March 30 letter be made available to all members of the finance committee, however for reasons unexplained to councillors it was not revealed, let alone circulated, to them until April 26.

At the environment committee meeting this week, one councillor, Wayne Walker said: "I have a real concern about some of the information we might be working off from officers. Certainly my observation is we have a Museum of international stature with metrics in the top echelon in the world."

Speaking after the meeting, he added: "There will be people in the council at officer level and possibly politically who would want to have more oversight and control of the Museum."

Another councillor, Mike Lee, was worried the council's review of libraries - which led to redundancies among librarians - was about to occur at museums.  "I'm concerned about the intention. This is another neoliberal reform of something that should not be touched or damaged."

The committee chair, Penny Hulse, responded: "A city or an organisation that refuses to change is a non-evolving organisation and is more likely to become irrelevant and die."

The review, set to cost $250,000, will likely involve an overseas expert and supporting local members. It is due to report back to the committee by late this year or the start of next year.

Should it recommend some kind of unified board or governance structure, the council would need to ask Parliament to change the Museum and Motat laws. So far, the Government has simply said it would listen to what Auckland wants, if there is an agreed mood for change.

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