An amusement arcade masquerading as a museum

Theodore Dalrymplevisits New Zealand to find the lowest common denominator is now official cultural

To celebrate the first anniversary of the opening of New Zealand's new national museum, Te Papa, on 14 February, the staff have decided to construct a 48-yard-long pavlova, which is said to be the national pudding. Slices will be handed out to visitors who arrive on the museum's birthday.

Actually, there is a long-running dispute as to whether the honour of inventing the pavlova belongs to New Zealand or Australia. If the two countries were in the Balkans, they'd probably be at war by now over the question. It also happens that there is a dispute over the meaning of the museum's name. "Te Papa" is supposed to be Maori for "Our Place", but many Maori deny this.

But even if Te Papa really does mean Our Place, there is something rather unpleasant about the name. It buttonholes you and precludes criticism: for if you are not entirely at home in Our Place, it means you are not one of us. And if you are not one of us, who exactly are you?

The museum now dominates Wellington harbour. Built at what, for so small a nation, was vast expense, the contents are nevertheless few; and, as befits a postmodernist age, the museum is billed as accessible and interactive. The first impression on entry is of a giant amusement arcade. There are virtual-reality machines on which you can windsurf or water-ski. Coloured lights flash, there is a lot of electronic whizzing and banging. A young man dressed like a ball boy at Wimbledon approaches. He is one of the Te Papa hosts, who appear on posters throughout the city: "Helpful. On to it. Stimulating. Te Papa host."

He asks whether you would like to be photographed digitally in 3-D in one of a number of poses: pursued in a jeep by moas (huge, extinct flightless birds); riding a tyrannosaurus; riding a Harley Davidson; sitting in a Christmas stocking; with a condor landing on an outstretched arm; in a space capsule bearing the New Zealand flag.

The offer refused, the on-to-it Te Papa host is not downcast. He offers one of the rides instead. There are two, Blastback and Future Rush, with a cut-price offer for both. I choose Blastback, which compresses 65 million years of geological and evolutionary history into eight minutes.

Before buying the ticket, however, I am enjoined to read the following warning: "Blastback and Future Rush are exciting attractions that involve motion simulation and laser effects. People are advised not to experience these attractions if they suffer from the following conditions: epilepsy, dizziness, neck disorders, back disorders, heart disorders. These attractions may also be unsuitable for women who are pregnant."

It seems, then, that the rides at Te Papa successfully combine two modern tendencies, the craving for excitement and anxiety about health. Te Papa wants to be exciting and innovative, but not the first museum in the world to be sued for causing a miscarriage.

Another on-to-it Te Papa host says, "Thanks, mate," as he takes my ticket for Blastback. The other visitors and I walk through about ten yards of plastic primeval forest, and then enter a small cinema auditorium, where we must fasten our safety belts. For the next eight minutes we are jolted hither and thither, tipped backwards and forwards, while the screen plunges us to the depths of the ocean, propels us into the crater of a volcano, rushes us over foaming white water, speeds us through the undergrowth of a forest and attaches us to the wings of a high-soaring bird in a fast- moving sequence without any apparent reason or narrative purpose.

"That's it, folks," announces the on-to-it Te Papa host when the 65 million years compressed into eight minutes are over.

No information whatever has been conveyed by Blastback, only sensation (in my case, the sensation of mild motion sickness). Sensation is much more democratic than information, which - unlike sensation - is neither sought nor understood by all. Therefore information must be eliminated.

I progress to the exhibits. There is an astonishing cacophony, as a variety of recordings are played when people press the interactive buttons: the barking of dogs, the baa-ing of sheep, music and so forth. One is invited to "Hold a soundshell to your ear, press the button and hear some freaky, weird stuff about nearby creations".

There is no obvious principle by which the exhibits are arranged. As the hectoring slogans (a little reminiscent of the museums of religion and atheism in the Soviet Union) put it, "Everyone has a place at our place", "Where there are people there is art" and "Home is where the art is". "Is it treasure or junk?" the visitor is asked, to be told that, "Everyone has an opinion". And since what is treasure to one person may be junk to another, the museum authorities are exonerated in advance for their choice of exhibit. They cannot be criticised because there is no fixed standard by which to make a judgement. After all, one man's opinion is as good as another's.

Distinctions are dissolved between categories of endeavour. A landscape painting is placed next to an exhibit of little plastic figurines of the All Blacks rugby team, which are given out at petrol stations when you spend more than $20 on fuel and are called the Small Blacks. We are flattered into supposing that, merely by virtue of living and consuming, we are contributing greatly to civilisation.

Political correctness is much in evidence. As is well known, the New Zealanders are keen on sport, and it is only natural, therefore, that in a museum dedicated to every phase of national life there should be a representation of this activity. And since the sport in which the New Zealanders undoubtedly excel is rugby, it is also only natural that this should be the sport depicted. And so there is a photograph of a game of rugby in progress, played by young, mixed-sex teams.

I watched the visitors as they looked at this photograph for any sign of amusement, any sign of ironical detachment or intellectual rebellion; but no, they simply looked at it and moved on. And thus they accepted with sinister equanimity what amounted to a deliberate propagandistic lie, that the most typical expression of New Zealand rugby is the mixed-sex team.

Despite the expected genuflections in the direction of multiculturalism, the greatest insult in Te Papa (other than to the intelligence of the visitors) is to the Maori, for the finest examples of their magnificent wood-carving art, which even to an unschooled eye such as mine were obviously of the deepest significance to those who made them, are placed in the midst of the household detritus of modern New Zealand. Nothing could be more demeaning to the men who devoted their lifetimes in mastering the art of carving.

Not that the visitors to Te Papa are allowed to contemplate the Maori expression of man's artistic and religious impulse in silence: far from it. As soon as they enter one of the great carved wooden buildings now housed in the museum, coloured lights come on by remote control and a recording is activated: "Welcome, visitors, to this magnificent storehouse called Te Takinga . . . We see this unusually large and elaborate pataka as evidence of our Mana in Te Papa Tongarawa, the museum of New Zealand."

The recording, by a man with a vaguely Maori accent, conveys no information about Maori life whatever. Who he represents, who "we" are in his unctuous little speech, is not explained. Mana, by the way, means power and status: precisely the underlying obsessions of the politically correct.

The coloured lights and the recording prevent the exercise of the imagination, while at the same time they serve no intellectual function. They are not so much entertainment as distraction from the possibility of thought; in Te Papa, the mind is never left to its own devices, but undergoes constant sensory stimulation. Te Papa is the MTV of museums.

Te Papa is only a straw in the cultural wind. Its atmosphere is similar to the modern hospital's - another temple to the short attention span, another example of modern man's inability to be alone with his thoughts. Once upon a time, silence was regarded as part of the cure, and hospitals had an almost monastic quiet. No longer. Wards are now alive with the sound of music and televisions.

Te Papa does make one or two small concessions to the museum as formerly conceived. On the third floor, in a bare concrete gallery, ill-lit and unadvertised, there are two rows of paintings. There are no signs to say what they are, or who they are by. For a small and young nation, not entirely sure of its cultural identity, New Zealand has a considerable tradition of painting: but the visitors to this gallery are made to feel that, by visiting it, they are doing something almost illicit. There is a dirty-postcard feel to the gallery, as if it were the inside of a dirty old man's raincoat.

Then there is the library at Te Papa. "Here," says a notice, "you'll find magnificent books and soft seats - the ideal place to browse and stay." The library is also the ideal place, says the notice, "to take a short break from the hurly-burly of Te Papa."

The hurly-burly of a museum? The very idea is the antithesis of learning, let alone of scholarship. One leaves Te Papa knowing no more than when one entered it. If one has the mentality of a child of limited intelligence and curiosity, one might have been amused or kept out of trouble for a while, but nothing more. There are, surely, other institutions, which require no public subsidies, to achieve that limited (and limiting) end.

Only one question filled my mind as I left Te Papa. Who is the correct kind of person to run it?

Certainly not a curator, because no detailed knowledge of any subject is necessary. A casino owner, perhaps, or the manager of an amusement arcade. Te Papa is the institutional exemplar of the lowest common demoninator turned into official cultural policy, and stands as a terrible warning to the rest of the world.

This article appears in the 12 February 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Kick out the image-makers