Topic: Trouble at our place by Peter Farell

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Trouble at our place: Te Papa and the Virgin in the Condom, is a 2012 Memoir and Local History Competition entry by Peter Farrell.

My first intimation that something was seriously wrong was when two priests, some nuns and various followers, including children, presented themselves at the Te Papa’s front door and demanded to be let into the main exhibition floor. They were carrying what looked like an altar. The priests had megaphones.

As part of the Te Papa management team I had argued that every staff member should take turns at performing the on floor security/ welcoming role to help out the Museum Hosts. So that day in March 1998 I donned the coloured shirt and went to my assigned position at the front entrance. We had all been trained for the role and knew how to deal with crises, read body language and perform all the tasks needed to ensure that the visitors had a safe and enjoyable visit to the new museum on the Wellington waterfront. Bombs in suitcases I knew about. Earthquakes and flooding were all part of the contingency planning. Unfortunately, priests with megaphones were not covered in the training.

I advanced towards the group with a brittle, practised smile in place.

Cool Britannia, an exhibition of work by young British artists, had been booked by the Wellington City Gallery. The City Gallery withdrew from its commitment to show the exhibition due to ‘programming difficulties.’ Te Papa agreed to take the exhibition at short notice, utilizing space that had not been taken up as part of the opening programme for the new museum. There was some debate internally about this decision. The concerns seemed to have been more about the logistics of introducing a new show so soon after opening rather than any real worries about its content.

Included in the Cool Britannia provocative and challenging collection was a work called Virgin in a Condom. This piece, in particular, placed the new museum at the centre of a controversy it could have well done without.

Te Papa had already gone through a searching and exhausting examination in the years leading up to the opening of what was then the biggest museum project in the world. There was to be no resting on laurels. The opening of the museum itself a few weeks earlier on 14 February 1998 had been a huge success. The branding of ‘Our Place’ seemed to reflect the public’s response to their new museum. Those of us involved had been relieved and excited, although there was a sense that there were some sections of the community still hungry for an expensive tall poppy to fall.

So it was that Cool Britannia opened in a small side Gallery at the new museum, as an interesting sidelight to the main exhibitions. The Virgin in the Condom was not the only controversial work in the exhibition but it was the one The Holmes Show zeroed in on in a piece shown on television the night before Cool Britannia opened. From then on, the media knew it had an event on its hand. Talk show hosts were wakened from their slumbers. The conspiracy theorists advanced the notion that the provocative exhibition was a clever attempt by Te Papa to court publicity. The Virgin in Condom was a small plastic Madonna – the kind that can be purchased from any Catholic supplies shop. The young Scots artist, herself a Catholic, arranged for a condom to cover the figure, apparently questioning church attitudes to women and to contraception. In the debate that later raged around the piece, the artist became so intimidated that her voice was not heard and any opportunity to evaluate her explanation of the symbolism she was trying to achieve was lost.  She became so fearful at the virulence of the response in this country that she declined an invitation to visit.

There has never been an objective look at the reaction that surrounded this exhibition in general and the Virgin in a Condom in particular. In its own way, it may have been a defining moment in the history of late twentieth century New Zealand. It is seldom that fundamental issues of freedom of expression are opened up to productive debate.  It is a great pity that none of the parties to the debate showed any real enthusiasm to address the important issues at stake. Not since the Springbok Tour in 1981 had opinion been so polarized in this country. The Virgin in a Condom had already been exhibited around the world. Only in New Zealand did moral outrage dominate the print and electronic media to the levels it did in those weeks that the exhibition ran.

As a mere foot soldier in an encounter billed, in some quarters, as a battle between Good and Evil, it seemed to me that the combatants lined up something like this:

On one side were the Catholic Church and the Christian fundamentalists. The head of the Church was bleakly disapproving of the exhibition as a whole and the Virgin in a Condom specifically. He distanced himself from the fundamentalists but encouraged Catholics to engage in a phone and letter writing campaign urging Te Papa to close the exhibition because it was causing offence.

Then Christian Heritage Party leader Graham Capill said the museum took great care to observe Maori spiritual mores but ran roughshod over Christian values.

"It's increasingly clear that any faith or belief is acceptable in New Zealand, except for the Christian faith," Capill was quoted as saying. "Te Papa needs to be not only culturally sensitive, but also spiritually sensitive."  

A valid point, somewhat undermined by Capill’s own fall from grace some years later.

On the other side, there were those agreed with Te Papa’s position and felt that the exhibition and the Virgin in a Condom had something to say and that people who found it offensive did not need to go. There were plenty of other things to see at the museum. Moral outrage tends to attract column inches and sound bites. So the more liberal view did not get much of a hearing throughout the debate.

Invective and harassment quickly became routine for museum staff. The front entrance was frequently crowded with protestors. Counselling services were made available to telephonists and front of house staff who were abused on a daily basis by enraged callers, few of whom had actually seen the exhibition. The hostility and personalized attacks drove some staff to get their home security-checked.

On some weekends, the crowds outside the museum were joined by counter demonstrations from various interest groups, including a local massage parlour, keen to exploit the situation for their own reasons. Violence, although threatened, was limited to an assault on a staff member, the odd scuffle on the forecourt of the museum and some damage to the Virgin in a Condom itself.  

The public continued to turn up in vast numbers to their new museum, tolerant of and amused by the various demonstrations. Few of these visitors went to see The Virgin in a Condom, particularly when they found that Cool Britannia exhibition was the only part of the museum for which an entrance charge applied.

Somewhere between the museum authorities and those protesting against the Virgin in a Condom sat the Fine Arts community, the intellectuals whom you’d expect to provide some leadership, given the basic freedoms at issue. Unfortunately this group appeared reluctant to be seen supporting the new museum. Many in that community had been remorselessly critical of the concept of Te Papa which they regarded as populist and unsympathetic to art.

As I was being cursed, insulted, threatened and even subjected to some sort of exorcism ritual for simply being a staff member at Te Papa, I drew some cynical satisfaction watching the arts community scrambling into neutral territory. It is difficult to wring ones hands while sitting on the fence.

Te Papa celebrated its tenth birthday in 2008. The founding Board, Chief Executive and management of Te Papa have all departed.  Fundamentalism appears to be taking a more sinister turn these days. Perhaps it is time for spiritual and cultural leaders, the media and others, such as museums, to engage in more reasoned dialogue about freedom of expression and how that should be balanced in public institutions  against religious and spiritual beliefs.

Back then, as I walked towards the priest with the megaphone, I had no idea what was about to unfold over the next six weeks. I was as naive as I had been when I took my young daughter down Lambton Quay on the first march against the Springbok Tour in May 1981.

 

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Trouble at our place by Peter Farell


Year:2012
Note:About the Author: Peter Farrell has just published his memoir The Lie That Settles. This is an extract from an earlier draft of the book. Go to www.theliethatsettles.com. He has an advanced diploma in applied arts from Whitireia Community Polytechnic. He is also a graduate of the Massey University Life Writing Course. He has contributed to a number of short story anthologies and journals, including The Magpie Stole My Heart, and has had work accepted by Radio NewZealand. He lives with his wife Sue in Petone near Wellington.