27 Feb 2019

Scientists have growing concern for Te Papa's natural history collection

5:40 pm on 27 February 2019

The man famous for his work with the colossal squid at Te Papa has asked the museum to remove any reference to him, in protest of potential redundancies.

Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa Wellington

Te Papa museum. Photo: CC4.0

He's written to it, asking for his name and any material featuring him to be removed from any exhibits.

The colossal squid is not currently on display, as the nature zone is being revamped, but will be from May.

Steve O'Shea had been associated with Te Papa and its previous iterations for more than 40 years.

In a letter to chief executive Geraint Martin, Dr O'Shea talked of the excellence of one of the scientists whose job is on the line, mollusc expert Bruce Marshall.

In light of what he'd heard about the restructure, he said he was thoroughly disillusioned with management at Te Papa, to the point he no longer wanted to be associated with the museum.

"I don't want to be associated with a museum that doesn't respect its staff, and doesn't respect its collections."

Speaking from Sydney, where he was now a researcher at the Australian Museum, he said people he interacted with on a daily basis could not understand what was happening at Te Papa.

His comments came on the same day Te Papa released a petition it had been sent, signed by 30 international scientists, warning Te Papa it may regret losing the staff it was planning to make redundant.

The letter refers primarily to the expertise of fish expert and fish collection manager Andrew Stewart, who was set to be made redundant through the restructuring process, revealed by RNZ last year.

The changes disestablish three collection manager roles, with new assistant curator, lead curator, and technician roles created, and caused an outcry from the museum and science community.

RNZ understands that process is on hold due to an appeal launched by Mr Stewart.

The letter said the decisions Te Papa has made regarding the staffing of the natural history collections had been unwise.

Some of those who wrote the letter had worked with Andrew Stewart in writing the Fishes of New Zealand book.

They detailed the demands of working in the national fish collection, referring to a backlog of material waiting to be processed, and a recent review done by an international panel, which said Te Papa needed more staff.

When writing that report, the panel did not know about any plans to restructure the museum.

"In our view ... the executive's proposal to have only five full-time posts to take care of all the national natural history collections is not rooted in reality," the letter read.

They were concerned the national fish collection, which was one of the largest in the world, and considered world-class, would not be maintained. It was expected the demand for the services offered by the fish collection team would grow.

"With all due respect, we fail to understand how Te Papa's executives and Board see all this material handled concurrently with other routine collection activities and demands from other Te Papa activities without trained ichthyologists."

Andrew Stewart, Collection Manager of Sciences at Te Papa

Andrew Stewart was set to be made redundant through the restructuring process Photo: Te Papa/Norm Heke

Although Mr Stewart may not have endeared himself to management during periods of restructuring, the group believed he had negotiated hard out of real concern for the future of the fish collection, his "life-time project", as well as the reputation of the museum, the letter read.

"We propose that reconciliation between management, and Stewart and other experts Te Papa may regret losing, is the way forward and would be a win-win situation for all parties involved."

In response Te Papa said it was absolutely committed to the preservation and development of the fish collection.

Chief executive Geraint Martin said changes being made were to ensure the world-leading collection could be cared for, accessed and researched, and the changes would create a highly skilled and highly versatile workforce.

The changes were not personal, but reflected the needs of the museum.

They had been designed to ensure all collections received the right level of research and collection care expertise, Mr Martin said.

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