Written by Vicki Holder
MOTAT hopes to inspire a new generation of Kiwis to become innovators and spread our tech stories across the globe by showcasing our brilliant homegrown ingenuity.
A Maori proverb says, walk backwards into the future with your eyes fixed on the past, as that pathway leads to the present, which takes you to the future.
“Just look at car design to see this in practice,” says Michael Frawley, chief executive of Auckland’s MOTAT.
“The first car ran on steam. The battery followed. Then fossil-fuel. If you look through a Maori world view, the development and growth in electric powered cars is today’s focus. New Zealand’s MacDiarmid Institute is in the process of developing hydrogen or steam-powered cars. There’s a whole circular process going on.”
Look at what’s happened in the past if you want ideas for the future, he says, because it can help define your thinking about what the future will look like.
The Maori world view is a powerful driver for MOTAT’s vision, based on Past, Present, Future. Frawley says, it’s designed to move MOTAT from being simply a museum of Transport and Technology, which it was from 1964 to the early 2000s, to a “lightbulb” institution that fires up the imagination with ideas.
It’s important, he says, because in a future where augmented reality, artificial intelligence and robotics rule, the jobs we take for granted are under threat.
The traditional approach to education needs to change, he says. You need to teach kids about technology and get them to think creatively to see the pathways ahead. When you start thinking creatively, it leads to innovation and employment.
“MOTAT has an invaluable role to play in that space.”
Frawley, an ex-corporate lawyer seems an unlikely champion for a city museum, at first. However, his previous role was restructuring major businesses globally. So, he comes with vast experience in making major changes to organisations and critically, finding the funds to ensure they happen.
Encouraging corporates, the government and Auckland Council to jump on board to support change is the process he’s going through now.
Frawley scatters his conversation with analogies as he illustrates the stories he’s keen to tell. “The Tangata Whenua used cutting edge technology to sail to New Zealand. They were comparable to our Americas Cup boats. Once here, they had to adapt and innovate. If they hadn’t, they wouldn’t have survived in this environment.”
He goes on. “We’re a nation of innovators. It’s ingrained in us. For years, we were at the cutting edge of ingenuity. But we lost our way and the education system lost its way too. MOTAT is trying to put these stories back together.”
Did you know, he asks, the idea for trench warfare came from the Maori Wars?
Most people don’t know, it was a New Zealander, David Strang, who invented instant coffee in 1890. Richard Pearse was the first person to fly a motorised aircraft in 1903, six years before the Wright brothers. Bill Buckley made semi-conductors critical to powering mobile phones. Thanks to Ian Taylor of Animation Research we have the technology that lets us track golf and cricket balls across our screens. Paul Barron made the first sustainable surf board from merino wool. The list of Kiwi inventors, he quotes, is never-ending.
Frawley wants to showcase all these stories so visitors come to MOTAT and get inspired. “I want to really push these Kiwi technology and innovation stories and say to that little kid, ‘You can do this. Anything is possible.’ I want to show the science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics – STEAM – behind it.”
He aims to fire up visitors and give them the confidence to do it, to build on the mana of Auckland city. “We’re proud of what we achieve as All Blacks. We should be equally proud of Kiwi technologists because we are at the cutting edge internationally.”
Frawley was plucked out of retirement in 2013, to revitalise MOTAT because a museum of transport had a limited audience.
“We were looking at what MOTAT could do to expand its audience base, and not just impact a local area but take it to a national and an ambitious international level so then people can tell the stories and spread them to the world.”
Ever since, MOTAT has been pouring resources into that space. And it’s working. Already, it has seen a significant shift in the visitor demographics. Latest research shows people are re-engaging and it is a more ethnically diverse audience. The satisfaction rate is over 90%. People are staying there much longer.
But Frawley is not stopping at MOTAT. As a big thinker, he’s looking at opportunities to create a whole Western Springs precinct eco-system based around STEAM incorporating the zoo, the park, TAPAC and MOTAT.
“When you think about it, the zoo isn’t just about animals. It’s about the environment and science. They’re at the cutting edge of zoological and technological science development.”
The Council is repositioning the park at Western Springs so it’s more aligned to a native space as it would have been when the iwi used to fish for eels there. That’s about ecology and water quality.
MOTAT is the technological hardware software side of the STEAM equation. And TAPAC – the performing arts facility at Motions Road is the Arts component.
“Interlink the whole lot with the tram system or steam cars and you work together so people can learn about the environment, sustainability and cultural significance.
“Take a step back and look at what that would mean for Auckland and the country. You have the physical space and the natural resources to create a cultural centre, to show the future of Auckland.”
“It’s a story that needs to be told. We’d have the biggest cultural educational experience investing in the Western Springs to make it something Auckland is proud of. That’s why we’re working collectively on all these ideas to plan a joint ticket in a precinct-wide approach.”
The good thing, Frawley points out, Western Springs is central to the city. It’s easy to get to and carparking is currently being sorted out in the Meola Road site.
“Where else in Auckland can you do all that?” he asks. He reckons the bigger project is about a year from completion. In the meantime, there’s a lot of rejuvenation going on and some great new stuff to discover at MOTAT.
Recent work has put the aviation display all under one roof for the first time in 55 years. Check out the Sunderland, an artefact of international significance that pioneered air travel to the Pacific and long-range military reconnaissance from the 1930s to the early 1950s.
MOTAT now also includes Frances Valentine’s Mindlab, focusing on robotics and animation filming. And numerous specially tailored programmes of digital learning are being supplemented with special events like film nights, bear hunts, slime weekends and night lights that add vibrancy.
Keep an eye on what’s happening as MOTAT continues to look back to find more innovative ways to move forward.
Click here to find out what Upcoming & ongoing events are happening at MOTAT.