Kiwi culture goes GLAM

Wellington was once a town where espresso was dangerously pretentious, but an innovative alliance of galleries, libraries, archives and museums has helped rebrand the New Zealand city

July 31, 2008

My first full-time academic appointment was in the history department at the Victoria University of Wellington in Aotearoa/New Zealand. I was a replacement at short notice for an ambitious male researcher who was taking up a grant in the US. I was grateful for the chance. Baby-boomer bosses at the time suggested that the next generation of academics would have to wait another ten years for a full-time post in Australia. One of these senior scholars was horrified by my movement across the Tasman Sea, warning me with a whisper, “If you go to New Zealand, you’ll never make it back.” In a form of reverse deportation, a young Australian academic would be exiled and imprisoned – rather than employed – in a neighbouring former colony that did not share a convict past.

I did “make it back”, but I always return to the city that gave me a start. Wellington in 1994 was seen by academics and journalists as a dull place populated by politicians and civil servants. It was a city where drinking hot chocolate with marshmallows and bitter micro-espressos accompanied by giant Garibaldi biscuits was exciting performance art. Coffee culture was pretentious. Film culture was pretentious. Shopping culture was pretentious. But it was a quiet place to be gainfully employed between coffees. Adventure tourism beckoned in the South Island. Exciting nightlife lured party people north to Auckland.

The exodus of excitement away from Wellington created a social, economic and cultural vacuum in the capital, with the occasional earnest film festival to tempt the espresso drinkers out of the chrome, white and black coffee shops. There were always great bookshops and the city had the profound advantage of being compact and walkable, only hampered by a wind that transformed a good hairstyle into a wig for Grandma from The Addams Family.

Change came to Wellington, but what makes this windy city unusual in the international creative industries literature is that it was a museum-led recovery. This rejuvenating museum, which opened in 1998, was named Te Papa, Maori for “our place”. It has its critics, but in the late 1990s it provided a focus – a reason – for other New Zealanders to visit their capital. From this basis, a tourist and business initiative titled Absolutely Positively Wellington was able to build a tourist portfolio not only to rejuvenate but to brand the city. This was a GLAM strategy, working with the social, intellectual and economic capacity of galleries, libraries, archives and museums.

While phrases such as creative city, cultural quarter and cultural cluster have been deployed by urban theorists such as Richard Florida and Charles Landry, such initiatives are – at their most basic – about advertising cities and regions, rebranding declining locations and facilitating entrepreneurial initiatives to reinvigorate buildings, shopping complexes and events management. The assumption is that creative industries will – intrinsically – regenerate declining areas through agitating the relationship between “quality” culture, access and entrepreneurialism.

The role of GLAMs in such a narrative is underplayed, lacking policy integration with the more stylish creative industries of music, fashion and film. In the UK, Mark Wood, CEO of ITN and chair of the Museums Libraries Archives Partnership, has realised that “our cultural organisations are not passive stores of the past but catalysts for a new economic and creative age”. From a British perspective, there is value in seeing what happens when adding a “G” – galleries – to the MLA strategy and positioning the sector within the unpredictable vortex of creative industries.

There are many historical relationships between museums and archives, galleries and museums, and libraries and archives. To integrate all four institutions of memory is a rarer objective. In 2003, the Australian Society of Archives used GLAM as the hook for its annual conference, seeking strategies across the cultural sector to “glamorise culture” and assist diverse curatorial traditions while building relationships between school and university collections, along with business, labour and corporate archives. Once GLAM as a term was publicised online through this conference the usage increased, moving east to New Zealand. The internet and the challenges of digitisation were (and are) the catalyst for unifying agendas about storage, preservation, accessibility and platform migration.

The key for GLAM policies in formerly colonised nations is that “access” to materials must be managed to ensure that the original owners have rights that are respected and safeguarded. The Library and Information Association of New Zealand Aotearoa (LIANZA) has created a sustainable model and support structure for this increasingly formalised affiliation between GLAMs. Penny Carnaby was the chair of the first GLAMs meeting, maintaining her role as chief executive of the National Library of New Zealand/Te Puna Matauranga o Aotearoa. The goal was to create a unified voice for the sector. Meeting every three months, the GLAM committee set up a series of collaborative aims:

• Professional development

• Collaborative voice to influence policy and legislation

• Shared services, storage and ICT systems

• Distribution of funding

• Sustainability

• Working more coherently with communities with the aim of preservation

• Working with iwi (Maori tribal organisations)

• Building relationships with the Australian sector.

The key developments in the next – more complex – stages of creative industries are present here. This is Creative Industries 2.0, where professional development and larger sectorial relationships – rather than “the independents” – share best digital migration practices rather than revel in a permanent revolution of platforms. This is a movement from city imaging to active regional engagement and working with citizens, not only consumers. This is the graft – the gift – that GLAM initiatives bring to the creative industries.

Wellington is the flagship for these crossovers between creative industries and GLAM, but the city also gained an advantage with another cultural windfall that built on Te Papa’s success. It involved one of the most successful filmic trilogies in cinematic history. It is difficult to predict when a film, television programme or popular music genre will move to influence other media, facilitating the horizontal integration of creative industries. The film Sideways, for example, was not only a surprise success in the cinemas, but led to a range of tourist operators capitalising on wine tours of central California.

New Zealand’s filmic success summoned hobbits rather than pinot noir. Before Peter Jackson transformed New Zealand into a Hollywood backlot – before Wellington became the entrance to Middle Earth – its cultural and creative policies were evolving. But Lord of the Rings was the cultural product that thrust Wellington into visibility in the international creative economy. The key problem to emerge from these moments of popular cultural triumph is sustainability. Weta, the Academy Award-winning special-effects firm based in Wellington, is part of that initiative. Formed in 1987 and predating the Lord of the Rings trilogy by nearly a decade, Richard Taylor, Tania Rodger, Jamie Selkirk and Peter Jackson have created a business much larger than the Fellowship. But in all their productions and marketing, they stress not only the quality of their work but their location in Wellington. Their business is not positioned in a flattened digi-space. In June 2008, Weta completed the full Te Papa circle and commenced tours through “Weta Cave”, including a mini-museum. Entry is free and – not surprisingly – merchandise is available for purchase.

In New Zealand, the dialogue between sectors is ongoing. LIANZA continues to chair three monthly meetings of GLAM directors. But Phillipa Tocker notes the challenges that museums in particular face in a GLAM environment. “As we go into the future, there are some questions to keep in mind… While museums and art galleries are part of the GLAM sector, not all the parts are equal: museums tend to be content rich, and resource and skills poor. We have not yet been at the forefront of things digital, having tended to prioritise the immediate aspects of museum work, such as exhibitions and collection care. In the wider context, there is a huge challenge to integrate all the content initiatives across the culture, heritage and information areas.”

From Tucker’s diagnosis, the strengths and potential of Te Papa’s leadership can be recognised. It has deployed innovative architecture, interactive displays, a strong archive and a dynamic capacity to adapt to contemporary concerns. It has provided the foundation for branding, job creation and an extraordinary reimaging of Wellington. It has reached beyond its walls to link tourists with other Wellington-based players in GLAM. The huge hanging representations of the Treaty of Waitangi in Te Papa – in English and Maori – are used to remind visitors that the originals are held in Archives New Zealand/Te Whare Tohu Tuhituhinga o Aotearoa, in Wellington. Other museums, such as the National Tattoo Museum of New Zealand, are also advertised along with the New Zealand Film Archive, again both located in Wellington.

In their discussion of the rise and rise of creative industries, academics David Hesmondhalgh and Andy C. Pratt asked a simple but powerful question, “What changed?” For some scholars, the answer is that nothing changed in Wellington except that a few Hollywood-funded films used New Zealand as a backlot. But the more obvious point is that if Lord of the Rings had been filmed in Los Angeles, then New Zealand would have received few benefits except Peter Jackson’s directorial Academy Award. Instead, tourist operators, effects companies and skilled migrants also followed the Ring. Through this profile, there has been an unexpected and more scholarly impact on New Zealand’s former colonial master.

Waitangi Day 2007 – which commemorates the signing of the Treaty – saw the opening of the Centre for New Zealand Studies at Birkbeck, University of London. It is the first location in the world – outside the home country – for New Zealand studies. It operates as a hub for northern hemisphere research on the nation, while also providing a base for Kiwi scholars on study trips. Centre resources include films, posters, journals, magazines, books and regular seminars. It is headed by Ian Conrich, who was acclaimed as the 2008 New Zealander of the Year in the New Zealand Society’s annual awards for his research and efforts in supporting scholars in the field. After this success, Prime Minister Helen Clarke gave the centre financial support of NZ$255,000 (£94,000). An odd inversion of colonial culture, this centre confirms Richard Florida’s maxim that “everything interesting happens at the margins”. From Te Papa to hobbits, from tourism to scholarship, windy Wellington has built a brand from the GLAM.

Tara Brabazon is professor of media studies, University of Brighton.

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