Dame Cheryll Sotheran, 11 October 1945-30 December 2017

05 January 2018
Cheryll Sotheran

Distinguished Alumna of the University of Auckland, Dame Cheryll Sotheran, died aged 72 on 30 December 2017. Renowned for her commitment to biculturalism, she created the role of Kaihautū, a Māori counterpart to her own position as the founding CEO of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. Driven to deliver a pioneering museum model, she skilfully managed the amalgamation of the National Museum and National Art Gallery to create a new visitor-focussed organisation which gave priority to Māori management of collections.

Her path to museum management was through teaching and research in Art History. Completing her BA in 1966, she went on to study for Diploma in Teaching from Auckland Secondary Teachers’ College in 1967, before returning to the University of Auckland for postgraduate study. Her MA with First Class Honours in English was conferred in 1969, the year that the Art History department was established by founding Professor Tony Green, where she taught courses in New Zealand art history and women’s art.

Following marriage to Michael Pritchard of the Planning Department and the birth of her two daughters, she became the art critic for the Auckland Star, and was one of the founders of the Feminist Art Networkers group, publishing her work on the historical neglect of women artists in 1983. She was appointed as the fifth director of the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery in 1984 and returned to her home province - she was born in Stratford in 1945 - when she was 39.

After five years in New Plymouth, her next challenge was as Director of the Dunedin Public Art Gallery where she instigated an artist-in-residence programme and produced the magnificent Treasures exhibition and publication for New Zealand’s sesquicentennial in 1990 and a women’s art exhibition for the Suffrage Centennial in 1993.

Appointed chief executive of the Museum of New Zealand project in 1993, she drove the strategic vision for Te Papa, delivering the building and its exhibitions five years later under budget and in time for its grand opening on 14 February 1998. It was the largest museum construction project in the world in the 1990s.

She was made a Dame Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for her services to museum administration in 1998, and received a Distinguished Alumni Award from the University of Auckland in 1999. She led Te Papa until 2002 when her health deteriorated and she left the role to become Sector Director, Creative Industries at New Zealand Trade and Enterprise in Auckland. After a stroke in 2013 forced her retirement, she maintained her involvement with cultural organisations as a board member of the Air Force Museum and of Soda, Hamilton’s creative industries business incubator as well as a trustee of the Endangered Species Foundation of New Zealand. Her mentoring of many colleagues in the museum profession was recognised with the presentation of a medal in 2014, when she was made a Companion of the Auckland War Memorial Museum.