What do they think of it? Kura Pounamu exhibition tours China
Kura Pounamu, the largest exhibition of taonga pounamu or ‘Māori jade treasures’ ever shown at Te Papa, was displayed from September 2009 to July 2011. As curator for the exhibition a favourite past time of mine was to sit to one side and quietly observe people as they came through, seeing who was looking at what and how long different displays were holding their attention. I observed that young and not so young Māori would often spend more time looking at the taonga than reading the labels and they were highly attracted to the visual and tactile exhibits such as the films and the large pounamu touchstones. But some visitors, Germans I think, would systematically work their way through the exhibition reading and viewing everything. And Pākehā – New Zealanders primarily of British and Irish descent – could be placed perhaps midway between ‘Māori’ and ‘German’ visitors in terms of their behaviour. In my opinion the exhibition held strong appeal to a wide range of people of different ages and cultural backgrounds, including crucially Māori visitors and also Pākehā and Asian New Zealanders, and without a doubt also large numbers of international visitors.
While essentially a Māori exhibition, accessibility for international audiences was planned for when we developed Kura Pounamu. This was because surveys had shown that numerically overseas visitors form the largest group of visitors through Manawhenua and other exhibitions of Māori culture at Te Papa. After the Kura Pounamu exhibition closed at Te Papa it came then as a surprise, but I guess not a complete surprise, when the exciting announcement was made that Kura Pounamu was to be given a new lease of life and tour the People’s Republic of China.
The Kura Pounamu exhibition has just opened at Guangdong Museum in the southern city of Guangzhou. Formerly known as Canton, Guangzhou is the tūrangawaewae of the ancestors of the first Chinese NZ families in Aotearoa. This follows successful showings firstly at the huge National Museum of China in Beijing and at Liangzhu Museum which is located in the heartland of China’s over 5,000 year old jade culture on the outskirts of the city of Hangzhou. I have been fortunate to travel to China three times with the Kura Pounamu exhibition to fulfil a range of professional and cultural responsibilities associated with the tour. And I have been very interested to also get a feeling for what Chinese think about it.
Like most New Zealanders, Māori and Pākehā alike – but perhaps not the growing Asian demographic, – I have had little prior exposure to Chinese culture. So for me this has been both a physical and a cultural journey into previously unknown territory. I was initially uncertain about whether our cultural differences would be so great and unaccustomed to one other that the Chinese people would view the exhibition mainly through the eyes of their own culture. Māori and Chinese have something special in common. They are both jade cultures. But would Chinese experience our pounamu primarily according to long held Chinese understandings of jade? If so the kaupapa or ‘mission’ of the exhibition might fall short of the true cultural exchange aimed for.
It had been explained to me that jade is a sacred stone to Chinese people because of their ancient belief that it brings good luck. At one time every Chinese person would carry at least a little jade on themselves for that purpose. I have observed that jade is still worn today by Chinese people, particularly by women. A pale coloured jade appears to be favoured. I have viewed the impressive exhibitions of Chinese jade at the National Museum of China and at Liangzhu Museum. I have seen a wide range of jade tools, fearsome weapons, beautiful adornments, and ceremonial treasures on display. Clearly there is some convergence between our cultures in our mutual appreciation of the qualities of strength and beauty inherent within this exceptional stone, and the means to which jade could be put.
The opening events for Kura Pounamu have been high profile occasions attracting a great amount of interest from many including all manner of Chinese officialdom, VIPs and throngs of media. Tribal representatives Shane Te Ruki, Archdeacon Richard Wallace, Professor Piri Sciascia, Lisa Tumahai, and Susan Wallace have officiated with the opening blessings, speeches, and other duties, giving effect to the concept of mana pounamu. And returning to the exhibition afterwards to quietly observe people making their way through; I have been at once pleased and relieved to see the obvious interest, esteem and respect accorded to our stone and to the ancestral treasures made from it. Chinese visitors are drawn to the four large touchstones positioned within the exhibition and young children are lifted up so that they too can touch and rub them. Earlier on I had questioned fellow Chinese museum colleagues about how the Chinese public might relate to our exhibition and to our pounamu which is generally much greener than the pale coloured jade favoured by Chinese. The reply indicated that this wouldn’t be a problem; Chinese would understand that this is a different jade from theirs and that the Māori treasures are from a different culture which they will also be interested to learn about. Such appears to be true.
A significant gesture by both the NMC and Guangdong museums has been the Māori waiata learnt to proficiency by staff to sing at the opening events. In terms of visitor behaviour according to my unofficial survey I would place the Chinese a little to the Māori side of Pākehā; they read labels as well as spend a fair amount of time studying the taonga and enjoying the aesthetics and tactile experiences. No reira, kua marama rātou: ‘they get it’ or they get it sufficiently. As it tours throughout the great middle land of Zhong Guo –, or ‘China’ – Kura Pounamu is connecting with Chinese visitors who are taking from it a very favourable first impression of Māori culture and of our treasured stone. It is an encounter where Poutini, the pounamu taniwha, meets the famous Chinese dragon.
China tour venues:
National Museum of China, Beijing: 3 months, November 2012 – January 2013
Liangzhu Museum, Hangzhou: 3 months, April – June 2013
Guangdong Museum, Guangzhou: 3 months, mid-late July – mid October 2013
China Three Gorges Museum, Chongqing: 5 months, November 2013 – March 2014
Shaanxi History Museum, Xian: 3 months, April – June 2014