Coming to work every day at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa is like taking a ticket in a lottery in which you are guaranteed to win a prize.
You can never be precisely sure what lies ahead, but it’s a certainty there will be many rich and rewarding encounters along the way.
To start one’s working day participating in a full-blown haka pōwhiri on Rongomaraeroa – Te Papa’s spectacular twenty-first century marae – is a potent reminder of the bicultural kaupapa of this place, the only museum in the world where a treaty between an indigenous peoples and the British Crown forms the centrepiece of a story about the push and pull of colonisation in the Age of Enlightenment.
It’s here at Te Papa that the role of museum host was pioneered, a unique approach to visitor engagement and hospitality that borrows heavily from the Māori concept of manaakitanga: taking the very best care of people – going out of one’s way to enhance the visitor experience.
On a daily basis, my role as a Te Papa host takes me from the front door, meeting and greeting visitors as they enter the building, all the way up to Level 6 and out onto the rooftop terrace lookout.
When people ask me where I work, I tell them my 'office' comprises six levels of the most dynamic and stimulating exhibition space, a playground filled with historical artefacts and rich cultural and natural-world treasures.
My job description requires me to walk and talk with visitors from around the world; interpreting exhibition content and providing way-finding assistance and information on a broad range of museum and citywide options.
The most gratifying and fulfilling aspect of the role is tour delivery – guiding groups of eager visitors throughout the museum and employing interpretive storytelling to open hearts and minds to the dynamic nature of our geological story, our flora and fauna, and our rich multicultural social history.
People are fascinated to learn the story of the enormous wrought iron anchor hanging in the entrance foyer – the first known European relic left within New Zealand waters. Eyes widen in disbelief at first sight of the tallest bird in the world, the giant moa, and its principal predator the harpagornis moorei or Haast’s eagle. (I particularly enjoy acquainting our American visitors with this latter beast – the largest eagle that ever flew).
Arriving on Te Marae, the sheer visual spectacle of this rich cultural space takes the breath away. The stories that can be told here – and in Mana Whenua next door – are powerfully expressive of an indigenous people’s dynamic engagement with one another and with the natural world.
Then there’s the giant glass facsimile of the Treaty of Waitangi, an astonishingly powerful exhibit that sits right at the centre of the building, so that it comes between but also draws together the two principal parties: on one side, tangata whenua – those Polynesian peoples who were first to settle these shores just over 700 years ago – and on the other, tangata tiriti, later arrivals from around the world who settled here by virtue of the treaty.
I’ve been hosting and tour-guiding at our national museum for over 15 years now and still the place throws up fresh challenges every day, stimulating new stories to learn and to tell, new ways of looking at the things and events that have shaped our past, our present and that point us towards our future.
And the personal pleasures are legion. In my first year at Te Papa, I spent several months in a gallery filled with bronzes by the great twentieth-century British sculptor Henry Moore, an artist whose work I’ve adored since childhood.
I’ve been to Pompeii, Aztec Mexico, Antarctica, ancient China and Japan – all in a day’s work.
It’s a privilege to come to work in galleries filled with great New Zealand art (pre-European to contemporary); masterworks of European impressionism; prints by early Dutch and German masters; luminous cast glass works by Ann Robinson... the list is endless.
The greatest reward, though, comes from raising smiles of recognition, sharing moments of discovery and prompting gasps of astonishment and incredulity amongst our many visitors (well over a million annually) from throughout New Zealand and around the world.
This is a job like none other: a job that elicits deep pride in us as Te Papa hosts, as well as understanding and gratitude in the visiting public we serve. It’s a job that vividly expresses one’s love for this beautiful country and its quiet but strong voice in the world.
I love Te Papa and the work I do here.