Saturday, 20 April 2019

Art News New Zealand, Autumn 2019

Pursuit of knowledge 

Earlier this year I was invited by the Royal Society of New Zealand to deliver one of three ‘provocations’ at their annual strategic gathering, speaking from the perspective of both my new(ish) role at Te Papa as Director of Audience and Insights, and as chair of Museums Aotearoa.

I met with the Royal Society’s chief executive to ask what he was trying to achieve by bringing these provocateurs in. One of the things he noted was that while the Royal Society’s Act had been amended in 2012 to include the humanities, the society as a whole had not made significant progress on that front. Membership is still made up largely of research scientists (with an increasing number of engineers and other applied science aeas); the Council is still made up of scientists, and the public did not perceive the society as having a focus beyond science. This despite the Act’s very wide definition of the humanities, ranging from philosophy to media theory to te reo Māori. As the Royal Society’s website states, “Our act talks about science, technology and humanities. In practice that includes engineering, applied science, and social sciences; and effectively the pursuit of knowledge in general.”

I spent about a fortnight mulling over what I would say, testing it out with colleagues at Te Papa, and during various other meetings and conversations, including a hui of art gallery directors conveniently held at The Dowse during my prep time. Finally, I spent the evening before the event drafting my ten-minute talk.

What I didn’t anticipate was that writing a provocation would feel so depressing.

One area where the sciences have excelled is the establishment of science communication as a contemporary field of study and applied endeavour. The growth of this area has tracked quite closely with my own entry to university and then the workforce. In fact, if I had known such a thing existed when I was in my final year at high school in 1997, it’s a career path I may well have taken. From within the arts, I’ve watched this development with envy. I look at the Masters in Science Communication at Otago, the Science Media Centre, the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor, the Science Communicators Association, and I feel deep envy for a sector that seems to have collectively and successfully committed to bringing expert knowledge into the realm of everyday conversation, and thereby promoting the importance and validity of scientific research and investment.

When I questioned this envy, I realised that what lay at the bottom of it was worry. Because I’m worried about the arts. I’m worried about what’s happening at our universities with their support for the humanities. To write my provocation I googled the phrase “Cuts to the humanities at universities” and opened tab after tab after tab of media reports. As I paged through the coverage I felt paralysed by the consistent song of decline: declining enrolments, declining staff numbers, declining job prospects.

I’m worried because I graduated with a MA in Art History in 2004 and in five years’ time I question whether anyone will be able to do that at a New Zealand university. I worry because Te Papa employs about half a dozen art curators, and I don’t know where our talent pipeline is going to come from in the future. Extrapolate this over all the humanities disciplines represented in museums, and we have a small-scale future crisis. This might seem a luxury problem. But in the biggest sense, I’m worried because what I think we are truly at risk of losing with the changes at our universities is the education of our educators, our communicators, our thinkers and advocates; our interested audiences and our informed citizenry. What is at stake is our ability to support the visual, cultural and historical literacy of New Zealand society.

That was February. Since then, the urgency of this endeavour has been sharpened in the most horrific way. Now I am writing in the wake of the terror attacks in Christchurch, and in the midst of museums and museum workers seeking to understand their role in documenting this tragedy, supporting the Muslim community, and playing our part in building a better, safer society for all.

Under Te Papa’s Act, we are charged with the responsibility to be a forum in which the nation may present, explore and preserve the heritage of its cultures and knowledge of the natural environment, in order to better understand and treasure the past, enrich the present and meet the challenges of the future. This responsibility is not unique to us – the kaupapa is shared across our sector. In February, I was asking the leaders of the Royal Society what we could do to influence universities together, to protect our ability to serve and support the diversity of thought and diversity of communities in Aotearoa New Zealand. Today, this responsibility feels all the more urgent, focused, and meaningful.

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