I was off work last week, in part for a break and in part to look after my school age son during school holidays. The week was a mix of things each of us wanted to do. One of my choices was a trip to Palmerston North for a pilgrimage of sorts to visit my mother’s grave. It’s twenty-five years since she passed away so it was an anniversary that needed marking. My brother came along, and both my sons. My boys rose to the occasion and decorated her headstone with found, lost and stolen plastic flowers from around the cemetery. They did her proud. Afterwards, thanks to a detour leaving the cemetery, we got lost, here:

Kelvin Grove map

I grew up in Palmerston North but this area is new since my time there. It used to be the bit of farmland before you got to the cemetery; the farmland that was being broken into small lifestyle blocks; the blocks that people were shifting the city’s colonial villas into. Now it’s a sprawl called Kelvin Grove, which is even harder to drive through than the map suggests.

It’s not like the Palmerston North that I grew up in – that city was flat and conforming to a neat grid of parallel and perpendicular streets. With one eye on the hills in the east and enough left and right turns you could navigate across the city without hassle. It was designed to make it easy to get in and out of. Here, those rules don’t apply. It’s all curved roads, crescents that look like cul-de-sacs, and streets looping back on themselves. The trick of navigation here relies on going in the direction that most other cars are traveling. That’s how we found our way out.


Two days later we were at Te Papa, this time with my son and a school friend. Usually when I’m at Te Papa it’s with my school age son and his pre-school brother. It’s an age gap of just under five years, which leads to a fairly unsatisfactory experience for everyone. With two kids the same age, a shared set of interests and sense of purpose, Te Papa is a whole new experience. We covered at least half of the museum; they led and explored, I followed and kept a casual eye on them. There were bits I’d seen often enough – the squid, the bush, discovery centres, the earthquake house – but for the first time in ages I found myself in the Blood and Fire section.

It’s a funny place to end up in. It’s one of the few exhibition areas on the third floor and is accessed across a bridge. I’ve never found the entrance enticing and have often assumed it’s associated with the exhibition area next door. But it’s classic museum fodder in a way that Te Papa’s second floor and much of the fourth floor isn’t. I felt oddly comforted by its simple display of objects, showing rather than telling. And cabinets – it has cabinets!


I’d tweeted earlier that I was at Te Papa and included a photo of my son running.


A friend from Te Papa had replied, ‘NO RUNNING!’, to which another friend replied and suggested that Te Papa take possession of this…

@Te_Papa replied at that point that they couldn’t think of a space long enough for running like that and it’s true, there aren’t many long straight lines at Te Papa. I found one:

Te Ara ? Hine

This is probably one of my favourite spaces in the building. There are only a handful of works to see as you make your way up Te Ara ? Hine but there’s a strong sense of movement and progression, of getting somewhere and working your way through a space. There’s a real strength to that feeling of being part of the story that you’re moving through. A big part of that for me is having clear sight lines, being able to see where you’re heading and where you’ve been and feel the scale and scope of what you’re inside.

Nowhere else in Te Papa does that feeling exist for me, with the possible exception of some of the larger spaces in the Ng? Toi space on level five. Everywhere else feels a bit like that suburb in Palmerston North of curved roads, crescents and cul-de-sacs, and looping streets. Once you’re inside an exhibition space, you’re forever looping back on yourself, or meeting a dead-end, but never really getting a sense of where in a narrative you are. For me it’s a building that’s very hard to gain a sense of how it fits together and how the pieces relate to each other and the building as a whole.

I don’t want to be a bagger of Te Papa as I know it’s doing some great work, but I do feel like a national museum needs some kind of monumentalism and grandeur. But perhaps more than that I’d like to understand why spatial planners have eschewed straight lines for curves; ease of egress for complicated ‘organic’ shapes; and spaces that lead nowhere.

Is there something to do with better social cohesion in city planning? Or is it the opposite – does it make communities harder to organize and therefore more docile? In a museum, is the straight line too linear, and being linear suggest an allegiance to grand narrative? Grand narratives and their reliance on accepted tales of winners and losers is hardly the way history is told at a national level anymore. By replacing the linear with the curve, is Te Papa telling a different story, or at least giving the appearance of doing so? Is history becoming more lively or docile as a result?


I’m probably being a stick-in-the-mud and showing my age or conventional devotion to straight lines, rectilinear forms, right angles, and a desire for stories with a simple beginning, middle and end. But it’s also that idea that there’s a large story being told, admittedly with intricacies and small stories woven through, but one that includes all that and maintains a narrative that compels you to keep following the paths and tales they tell. From all those paths you can see where you are in the story, you can get a sense of its scale and size, but as importantly you’re able to interpret how and why an institution is telling you that version of the story. Too many cul-de-sacs just leave me wondering how much of the story I’m missing.

Junglerama and the museum of childhood

Junglerama giraffe

We were at Junglerama today, a treat for our eldest who turned seven. A treat for him, a friend and his little brother; something of a chore for the adults. It’s a curious place, part funfair, part arcade parlour, and part (plastic) zoo. It’s a got a carnie feel to it; it’s bright and gawdy, as are the staffs’ tattoos; you wonder if a few decades ago they’d all have been travelling with the circus; you half expect to find a Fiji mermaid on display.

Junglerama merry-go-round

(There’s even a shooting range.)

Above all it’s a playground and like it or not, kids love it. It’s not the place I imagined spending time when I thought of having kids. I suspect I’m fairly typical of middle-class parents, having thoughts of pleasant trips to cafes, public galleries and museums, a life of gentle bush walks and sandcastles.

Junglerama tube

But there’s something else too at Junglerama. Tucked away in the corner, right below the shooting range two or three child-sized flights up, is something pretty close to a small, simple discovery centre. Using the same plastic and foam balls that litter the building, kids can drop them into funnels and air blowers and watch their gravity defying tricks.

Junglerama air balls

It’s simple stuff, but fascinating to the many kids and parents playing in the space. And that’s an interesting thing about Junglerama. Sure there are plenty of parents sitting down to a coffee, chips and wraps, looking on from afar as their kids play, but there are plenty of other parents actively joining in with their kids on the playground equipment. Or like us, taking turns to chase kids or eat chips.

The whole area is one big locked down environment, mixing the cafe, arcade games, big kids play area, parents sitting area, and toddlers play area. Kids run free, parents come and go. We assume it’s safe in much the same way as we assume our neighbourhoods no longer are. Get used to it, you’re soaking in it.


Junglerama elephant

This was at the new(ish) Junglerama in Petone, near Seaview, handily close to the Hutt Park campground. It’s about 6.5km away from Naenae College, one of the Hutt Valley schools, and a subject in National Radio’s Sunday morning Insight show in October 2012. It’s a really interesting listen, especially on the way that the amount of experiences a child has directly influences educational achievement. In lower socio-economic areas like the one that Naenae College serves, children typically experience fewer of the types of activities that stimulate educational development.

The school’s principal turned tables on the interviewer and asked how many people in a class of twenty-six on a school trip to Te Papa did the interviewer think had been to Wellington? Wellington’s 20km from Naenae, a twenty-minute drive down the Hutt Road, a bus or train fare. It’s the big city just down the road, full of everything that people in my world – a middle-class, educated, cultured kind of world – value and enjoy: cafes, galleries, museums, national institutions, art collections, the lot.

I suspect the radio journalist lives in a similar world. Of the twenty-six students he guessed that surely most if not all of the had been to Wellington. He guessed wrong. It was 10, or just under 40%. That figure really worried me. If experience stimulates the mind, creates curious kids, and curious kids learn more and achieve at a higher level, then surely we should be funneling kids into places like Te Papa.


Junglerama happy kid

I moved back to New Zealand at the end of 2007 with a nearly two-year-old in tow. I must have visited Te Papa before moving overseas in 1999, but it didn’t leave much of an impression. With a small child, that’s changed, and I can appreciate what they’re trying to do at least at the popular and hands-on level in their discovery spaces and  educational exhibitions on the lower floors. It’s the other floors that I’d to get to though, the ones with paintings and sculpture and carved waka and the like. We pass through the upper galleries occasionally, when I can trick the kids into going up to the top floor and walking back down, or if I dig my heels in and demand to see something like Michael Parekowhai’s piano.

Te Papa puts on a good show for kids in the discovery centres – my kids will go again and again. But the discovery centres are all separate from the rest of the museum and exhibitions, and prompt a listless disinterest in me. As a parent I can entertain my children or I can entertain myself, but as a family we can’t all be entertained at the same time and in the same space. It’s ironic in a place like Te Papa too – the tired complaint runs that it can place a McCahon next to a motorbike (and it’s true, it can) but it can’t place a McCahon next to a kid’s activity.

This seems a long way from Petone’s Junglerama, but what got me here is this question: is Junglerama giving local Hutt kids all the experience they need, or want, or that their parents think they need? What’s the mix that Junglerama has so right that parents will fork out up to $10 per kid on an entrance fee for a glorified playground? There’s a free gallery not far away, a whole city a bit further on, free beaches and walking tracks in easy distance, but it’s Junglerama that my son picks as his birthday treat. And he’s not alone.


Junglerama airgun

What it really makes me wonder is how can a museum or a gallery create a space that stimulates the sort of child and parent interaction that you see at Junglerama? Is it the sort of thing Te Papa has tried to achieve in its discovery centres? It doesn’t feel to me that it’s worked there, so what does a museum that really gets parent-child interaction look like? Is it just a matter of an activity table in the middle of a room with paintings on the wall? It sounds really simple when it’s put like that.

But how does that affect other visitors? Too noisy or distracting? Is it within the capabilities of museums to bridge the needs of parents and children as a group in a way that still appeals to other visitors? It also makes me wonder what sort of metrics museums have about visitors and the different ways they visits – alone, with children, on dates, to kill time, and how each visitor feels about their visit using their different personas.

It’s possible that it’s just too hard – maybe parents and children need to be segregated out in the same way as children are put with children in schools and old people are put with old people in rest homes. But I’d really like to see someone try.

Open quote

NDF2012 left me feeling two things this year. One, that one day I want to work in a museum; and two, that I need to start thinking about the websites I work with at the Ministry for Culture and Heritage as a big collection of data. That’s the first step in being able to realise our ambition that our sites can be a re-usable source of content for other people and organisations.

Back to museums, but still on the re-use theme, a couple of recents posts are worth quoting and remembering. Both are about why it’s ok to release and share you content. This one in particular, from a post about how art museums are failing art educators, argues museums are becoming irrelevant by not being online, and not being online effectively:

Restrictive museum policies seek to retain authority, but in practice render the museum’s expertise largely irrelevant for those beyond its walls. – “Can I Use This?” How Museum and Library Image Policies Undermine Education

As Suse Cairns said in her talk at NDF2012, if a user can’t find your content online, they’ll find it somewhere else (and that goes for onsite visitors too), which fundamentally undermines a museum’s position.

Another argument I’m hearing recently is that open collections undermine commercial opportunities, whether that’s an organisation’s commercial activities or similar activities in the private sector. This from Nick Poole is in response to fears that openness undermines commercial models:

It is perfectly possible to reconcile commercial activity in the Commons, but it is the type of commercial activity that depends on the addition of value, not the control of access. – Culture must always be a commons

Some good examples to follow: the British Library’s guide for authorising re-use: Access Reuse Guidance Notes for the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts, or go play at the Rijksmuseum’s Rijks Studio.