31 Dec 2017

Te Papa founding CEO Dame Cheryll Sotheran dies

9:34 pm on 31 December 2017

The founding chief executive of Te Papa has died.

The planned convention centre is tipped to have a similar impact for Wellington as Te Papa.

Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa in Wellington Photo: 123RF

Dame Cheryll Sotheran died on Saturday, current CEO Geraint Martin said.

She left an "incredible legacy", he said.

Dame Cheryll was appointed Te Papa CEO in 1992 when the plan was made to merge the National Museum and National Gallery.

"Her spirit of innovation, of challenging the status quo, is part of Te Papa's DNA," Mr Martin said.

"In creating this unique place for all New Zealanders, Dame Cheryll helped change the way we see ourselves, and our place in the world."

Te Papa kaiautū Arapata Hakiwai, who worked alongside Dame Cheryll, said she was the driving force behind the controversial project.

"The opening of Te Papa on 14 February 1998, on time and under budget, can be attributed to Dame Cheryll's determination and vision," Dr Hakiwai said.

"Cheryll had an unwavering belief in a new kind of museum, and was determined to create an experience that was different - a bicultural space that was exciting and challenging and open to all."

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who is also Minister of Arts, Culture and Heritage, said Dame Cheryll had left a legacy that all New Zealanders could treasure.

"Through her innovative vision Te Papa brings our culture and history to life in a way that everyone can enjoy," says Ms Ardern.

It came as a surprise to many when Cheryll Sotheran was named as chief executive of the Museum of New Zealand in 1992 as they had expected an overseas appointee to complete the $300 million project.

Over the next five years, she developed a fearsome reputation with many staff of the old National Museum and Art Gallery, being called secretive, isolated and abrasive.

Four top managers left.

But others described Cheryll Sotheran as brilliant, tireless and visionary in driving the project to fruition.

She also triumphed over attacks on the Te Papa brand-name and fears that the museum would be too Māori-oriented, though she was forced to make concessions to claims by then Prime Minister Helen Clark and others that it displayed too little art.

The result was an extension of gallery space in 2001.

Despite much jealousy and criticism, Cheryll Sotheran could claim Te Papa as a success in the crowds it has drawn from the day it opened.

She was created a Dame Commander of the New Zealand Order of Merit in the 1999 New Year honours.

Dame Cheryll announced in early 2002 that was retiring due to ill-health and she is survived by her adult daughters Lucy and Miranda.

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