Te Papa : Treating Staff Like Children

Te Papa management revels in management-speak
by Gordon Campbell

Down the years, Te Papa has often been criticised for its sins against architecture. At the very outset, the national museum threw away a golden chance to get superstar architect Frank Gehry involved in its design. Ian Athfield recounted that sorry tale in an interview with Werewolf a couple of years ago.

Since then, Te Papa has been criticised repeatedly for dumbing down its content, and for presenting the national treasures in a fashion suitable only for the most undemanding of children. Now, Te Papa has gone a step further : it seems to want to infantilise its staff. A recent staff communique is worthy of its own exhibit at the museum, as a classic of management-speak. From a distance, the document is amusing – not that any management regime capable of creating such a document would be likely to think so.

For starters, you may be astonished to learn that since everyone who visits Te Papa is a unique individual, our experiences of it may vary. Who would have thought ? As the communique puts it :

The typical Te Papa visit incorporates such a diverse range of components that it is sometimes more useful to see the whole experience as a psychological bundle of value satisfactions. Visitor experiences currently vary because these touchpoints function independently and [are] measured independently of one another rather than as a cohesive culture.

And what is the ‘experience’ that the managers of Te Papa aim to promote ? It is no simple thing. That’s because:

With products becoming differentiated, price differentiation no longer sustainable and customers demanding more, companies are focussing on delivering superior customer experiences….The Total Visitor Experience [bolding in original] concept is a strategy that focusses the operations and processes of a business around the needs of the individual customer.. Jeannine Ray says that companies are realizing that “ building great visitor experiences is a complex enterprise involving strategy, integration of technology, orchestrating business models, brand management and top-down commitment.”

But isn’t this what in a bygone age, used to be called Customer Service? No, not at all. There is a vital difference, the staff communique insists. Customer Service is merely the “ transaction” part of a Total Visitor Experience which is much, much more ! As in :

When we talk about the total experience, that experience could start back when a customer came onto contact with a marketing initiative, a newspaper or magazine ad….a visit to a website, or a recommendation from a friend and goes all the way through to after sales service, and in many cases, the life of the museum.

In other words, your Te Papa Total Visitor Experience began back in the mists of the time and will last “in many cases” for the entire life of the museum. At which end point, our Te Papa Total Visitor Experience will still be resonating. It is so important to grasp this point that the staff document puts the next sentence entirely in bold : Customer Service is the transaction, Customer Experience is the main event.” Wow.

At this point, the Te Papa work force comes into the picture – as the genesis, conduit and apres-match function of the Total Visitor Experience. It is also where the infantilising of the staff kicks in, big time. But be patient, children. First, there is a short 600 words or so on something called “ End to End Service” and no, that’s not what you may be thinking. It is about this :

Organisations are not commonly structured around end to end process thinking being burdened with historically diffused accountability and “ stove -piped” approach based on long- functional structures. End to end service processes like Total Visitor Experience travel across these functional boundaries. [Your guess is as good as mine as to where the punctuation should have gone in that paragraph.]

Right. Now, we get to the truly weird stuff, introduced via a suggested “Enterprise Employee of the Month Award” reward system. The eccentric capitalisation is in the original :

Informal Recognition Practice, Developing a Culture of Praise: all People Managers will endeavour to catch people in the act of doing something right in their daily working routines. Anything extraordinary should be recognised as such….Each month, the recipient will receive a gift…for example – a gift voucher, movie tickets, lunchtime-in-lieu, a certificate and inclusion on the Enterprise Wall of Fame.

Lunchtime-in-lieu being presumably….instead of no lunch at all ? That sounds fair. Surely, losers can’t get lunch when winners are getting lunchtime-in-lieu – because where would be the incentive in that? Prospective winners can bone up on an entire page on Crucial Customer-Facing Behaviours and the optimal degree of conformity for “Customer-Facing People.” Thus :

Customers don’t know what they don’t know, and they make incorrect assumptions about what they need or how something works. They also don’t want to be feel stupid and will be likely to be offended if your customer-facing people make a big deal about their incorrect assumptions.”

People don’t like being made to feel stupid. We get that. When in doubt, SMILE – as staff are directed to do, under the heading : 5 Reasons You Should Smile, starting with :

1. You will get a boost of happiness. Try forcing yourself to smile for thirty seconds right now. The great feelings that make you smile work in reverse, too. By making yourself smile, no matter how how you feel, your body will start to release all those wonderful chemicals that makes [sic) you feel happy. Try it right now and feel the difference…

2. .A positive state is not just more fun, [it] also opens up to other possibilities in your mind. You will see the world differently through a happier lens….

If it doesn’t sound creepy enough to be treating grown adults in your employ as if they were kindergarten children, hold onto your hats. Because the Te Papa management goes on to instruct its staff in this fashion :

What do you say when people visit your house ? How do invite them inside? Do you tell them where the bathroom is ? Or where they can find a drink or bite to eat ? Do you help them hang their coat – or simply point to a hook and say its over there? When they leave what do you say ? Why should this be any different inside Te Papa? Lets say your customer walks into the museum, for the first time. Do you remind them of a shark pursuing its prey ? …

Customers will respond better if you learn a few things about them – their name, though not always possible, is a great start…[If you can] create a human connection before moving on to business.. Compliment their clothes, compliment anything. Ask about the sports team whose logo they boast – particularly popular with our friends from across the ditch. Even a comment about the weather will help move you out of the ranks of the greedy salesperson, and make you more of a person.

Given that Te Papa’s way of presenting its contents has often been criticised as Disneyfied, it is ironic to find that the staff communique devotes a two page inspirational spread to “The Magic of Disney’s Service” and “8 Disney Customer Service Rules” and “Contagious Business Philosophy.” ( Question : Are there any V.I.P‘s at Disneyland? Answer: Yes, Everyone is a V.I.P. ) Te Papa is aware that this is dangerous territory, but what the heck : “While at times Te Papa has been negatively compared to the world’s best fun park, is this really such a bad thing?” Finally, and consistent with how the document has been treating staff as children, there are a couple of astonishing final segments. Hard to pick which is the more objectionable : the section where staff are advised to “Act Stupid” to Te Papa visitors in order to “ subvert a lot of problems that come from absolute mastery.” Or this, perhaps, which advises the staff at Te Papa to consciously regress to kindergarten level :

We are all familiar with the familiar saying : All I ever needed to know I learned in kindergarten. Now that we are all grown up, do these rules still apply…? Share everything. Play fair. Be nice. Don’t hit people. Put things back where you found them. Clean up your own mess. Don’t take things that aren’t yours. Say you’re sorry if you hurt somebody. If you ask for something say Please…Think what a better world it would be if we all – the whole world – had cookies and milk at about 3 o’clock in the afternoon and then laid down with our blankies for a day ! Wouldn’t it be great if all organisations had a basic policy to always put things back where they found them, and to clean up their own mess? And it is still true, no matter how old you are, when you go out in the world, it is best to hold hands and stick together.

Wow. To think that some Te Papa managers are probably being paid north of $80,000 a year each – basically, in order to advise the Te Papa workers about how great it would be if they could lie down with their blankies and drink their milk at 3pm each day! Lets hold hands and hope that the cost of this bizarre exercise has NOT been at the expense of the national museum’s research role and scientific efforts. Unfortunately, Te Papa’s contents are an incoherent shambles. And clearly, the Te Papa management apply the same patronising, infantilising attitudes to its staff as they do to the displays. Our national museum really is a national disgrace.


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  1. Anne Else, 18. March 2014, 16:51

    This would be hilarious if it wasn’t so appalling. Thank you for exposing this idiocy to public derision. But oh, the poor customer-facing staff who have to at least appear to take such garbage seriously…

  2. Joe Davies, 19. March 2014, 12:38

    Unfortunately, Te Papa is not the only employer to grasp these tools with ham fists.

  3. Ellen, 19. March 2014, 18:32

    This is a typical Te Papa beat up and poor journalism/blogging. One sided views are easy to sensationalise.

    Why would I bother to comment on an insignificant blog that I’d never previously heard of? Answer – because I know more about this topic than the writer and I could shoot massive holes in the sub-standard reporting. If I could be bothered that is.

    An annoyed staff member that releases internal documents is not always the most credible source.

  4. Syd, 19. March 2014, 18:50

    An excellent expose of a giant void, for that is what Te Pap, sorry Te Papa, is. For all its emphasis on interactivity, this cheerless theme park is the dullest experiences Wellington has to offer. Unfortunately, right from the outset, those responsible were hellbent on dumbing down to the lowest possible level, removing the necessity for visitors to use their imagination. And that’s why it will never work.

  5. john mckinnon, 20. March 2014, 9:34

    Serious? What? A laugh? Thanks for this Gordon. This is client centred business ideology at its most ridiculous. Send the writer back to kindergarten so he can get over his fixation. Nothing like being given a second chance to grow up. If I were the recipient of such nonsense I would be upset, as it is I’m appalled. Has our respect for the intelligence of others sunk so low?

  6. David, 20. March 2014, 20:25

    This level of spoon-fed diatribe could only have been delivered by someone not really in tune with the day to day expectations or duties of Te Papa’s customer facing staff.

    I would suggest the author find something more productive or at the very least attend some form of customer service training. Perhaps for adults by adults.


  7. Laurie, 23. March 2014, 12:18

    #3 Ellen must be management aye?

  8. Ellen's ghost, 24. March 2014, 23:40

    ‘Cookies’ instead of biscuits at nap-time? Could the memo-writer be American by any chance?

  9. Pamela Gerrish Nunn, 25. March 2014, 8:26

    It’s the Americanisation also that irks me. This kind of workplace psychology exercise would have Te Papa’s employees fit for service in the US, but isn’t ‘our place’ meant to embody New Zealandness?

  10. Diane Strode, 8. April 2014, 21:52

    Oh dear, how can silly Te Papa people write such tosh and expect anyone to understand it, let alone comply with it? Those poor customer-facing staff at Te Papa, you have my sympathies.

    I must admit I find Te Papa to be a badly lit labyrinth, and pretty boring after the first visit. Sometimes the exhibits from overseas are interesting and I pay my money and visit some of them. But otherwise, once my kids grew up I wouldn’t be caught dead in the place. Te Papa needs to wake up and ask visitors which they prefer – Auckland Museum, Otago Museum, Canterbury Museum, or Te Papa and why. Most of my friends and I prefer these old interesting museums.

  11. Diane Strode, 8. April 2014, 21:56

    I stuck a phrase into google…it’s copied from the internet :-( boo.
    So if it is truly written by a Te Papa staffer then it’s a very bad show.

    As follows:

    5 reasons why you should smile more – The Positivity Blog

    by Henrik Edberg – in 1,280 Google+ circles
    Oct 5, 2006 – We feel tired and we got too much to do at work and we got to pay the bills and … You will get a boost of happiness – try forcing yourself to smile for thirty seconds right now. The great feelings that make you smile works in reverse too. By making yourself smile, no matter how you feel, your body will start to ..

  12. John MacDonald, 28. April 2014, 4:27

    I visited Te Papa once – way back in 1998. Never again. As a proud New Zealander I was horrified to find that apparently New Zealand started in 1840 and ended about 1845. After that almost nothing of our diverse cultural history was to be seen. What about pre 1840? The first European experience in New Zealand is dated sometime around 1642.

    Maybe it is the National Museum however I also expected to find some uniquely Wellington History. Where was the recognition that the Greek community have made to our National identity – particularly in Wellington. Where was the Gaelic contribution acknowledged? Never saw a thing.

    Sorry Te Papa. For me it is Canterbury or Auckland Museums. Even the Dargaville Museum has a more diverse cultural display than you do. Presenting our total history and culture is a challenge. You fail

  13. NoMilk&CookiesForMe, 28. April 2014, 20:31

    Nice one Te Papa. Will you be closing the doors at 3pm so you can all have your milk and cookies and a nap, or will you start to act like a real museum!

  14. Simon White, 28. April 2014, 21:00

    > (Te Papa memo) “While at times Te Papa has been negatively compared to the world’s best fun park, is this really such a bad thing?”
    Yes it is a very bad thing to be compared (whether negatively or positively) to a USA fun park, if your job is to be the NZ national museum.

    If NZers want a Disney experience they can buy a Disney movie or go to McDonalds or one of the many other businesses which use Disneyworld as a model. The US corporate mass entertainment industry is not “our place”.

  15. Alan D, 29. April 2014, 19:00

    I knew Aootearoa was in deep deep do-dos when I saw the meeting house “carvings” rendered in particle board and painted hideous flourescent colours. Te Papa is a sick joke. The only thing it truely houses by it’s existence is cynical PC rectitude.


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