Opinion: Curating for the Contemporary Pacific; 95 theses (New Zealand edition)

In the last six months, the arts and cultures of the Pacific have loomed large in New Zealand and Australia through a range of exhibitions, events and symposia. From Queensland’s Asia Pacific Triennial 8, the ground breaking 2016 Pacific Arts Association Symposium, Tautai’s Contemporary Pacific Arts Trust Arts 30 year exhibition, and the promise of the upcoming 12thFestival of Pacific Arts in Guam – the variety, number and scale of activity is huge, the current energy, dialogue and debate feels unprecedented.

As curators of Pacific Cultures at Te Papa, these circumstances challenge us to think about what is happening in museums and art galleries, and what our institutions might do for Pacific peoples in the twenty-first century. In this blogpost, we want to share some of our thinking with you.

Our inspiration is an article written by Kieran Long, and his colleagues at the Victoria & Albert Museum. Titled Curating for the Contemporary:95 Theses it is a collection of statements about how museums and art galleries might think about contemporary practice – in the twenty-first century. Here we present our own remixed version, version, Curating for the Contemporary Pacific; 95 Theses (New Zealand edition), exploring how we might think about these issues in our institutions, in our part of the world. We follow a similar format to Kieran and co. and have borrowed, deleted and added to their list. We share their gentle joke referencing Martin Luther’s Theses, but rather than addressing an institutional crisis of Lutheran proportions, we want to explore opportunities and responsibilities, question our own received wisdom and examine the public role of curators and the places where they work.

We have written this in collaboration with curatorial colleagues working in museums in New Zealand. Kolokesa Māhina-Tuai and Fulimalo Pereira at the Tamaki Paenga Hira Auckland War Memorial Museum; Ane Tonga at Rotorua Museum Te Whare Taonga o Te Arawa and Leafa Janice Wilson at Waikato Museum Te Whare Taonga o Waikato. Like our V&A colleagues these 95 theses are offered in a spirit of community and for debate.

On curating

  1. Curator is NOT God.
  2. Curating is a service. We are not the artists.
  3. The curator is a servant role. Not a power trip.
  4. Curating is a political act. Curators have political views, and should not pretend to abandon them when they show up to work.
  5. Curating is a responsibility. Advocate for the communities you represent or get out of the way for someone else who will.
  6. A definition of curatorial expertise includes relevance to Pacific peoples today.
  7. Personal taste inevitably shapes but must not define curatorial practice.
  8. It is important that we openly critique ourselves and actively mount challenges to our own curatorial practice.
  9. Curating is a critical process. Constructive critical feedback from the wider public (including our communities and peers) is crucial for our curatorial practice.
  10. Museum curators have as much in common with investigative journalists as they do with university academics.
  11. Also like journalists, curators have a responsibility to contextualise their opinions.
  12. The curatorial role is a position of power and can be used to empower people.
  13. Curating with any community requires relationships, build on them…
  14. Curating involves acknowledging one’s dispositions and working beyond immediate networks and friends.
  15. Curating is just another word for ‘caring-for’. Curating can mean different things to different people.

On knowledge

  1. We can trust the objects in our care to guide us.
  2. Knowledge in the museum is collectively accumulated and we can trust it is reliable.
  3. Museum-based expertise at its best is both deep and specific.Curators know about certain things not about everything. Don’t be fia poto/fie poto (try to be smart). We do not need to know everything.
  4. We should strive to be aware of what we don’t know, and constantly invite specialists in to help us.
  5. Often those specialists will be drawn from the general public. They may not necessarily have a university degree.
  6. Curators work thoughtfully and critically with historical, recent and current sources they use.
  7. What little knowledge we have is not for our glory but for the raising up of others. A little knowledge can be dangerous, let us be open at all times to the wisdom of the world and therefore be sensitive to all its magic.
  8. Curators work with an open mind and a critical eye and can be thorough and inclusive in their research.
  9. The vernacular and the academic are equally valuable. Museums will need to reshape themselves if they are to reflect this reality.
  10. When visitors have more knowledge than curators, this should be welcomed.
  11. It is important to genuinely utilise other knowledge frameworks / paradigms especially when it is specific to particular island nations and their worldviews.
  12. Indigenous knowledge is not free, it is worth more than a koha / me’a’ofa / mealofa / donation. Indigenous knowledge holders should be remunerated on par with other consultants that museums work with.
  13. Throwing around the term ‘decolonizing’ without any action lessens the value of its meaning.
  14. We are accountable for the quality of research we share with the public.
  15. Curatorial roles and opportunities are limited, become active and contribute or move aside for someone who will.
  16. Pacific languages have the power to open up other levels of meaning and understanding about museum collections.

On Collections

  1. Our Pacific collections are only as important as we choose to make them.
  2. The collection is the wealth of the people, hiding it will inevitably lead to obsolescence.
  3. We take seriously the postmodern critique that sought to dismantle hierarchies of fine art over craft, high culture over low.
  4. This means that no domain of creativity is inherently superior to any other. Painting and sculpture have no more cultural value than bilum making, umu preparation and sewing tivaevae.
  5. Indigenous knowledge frameworks/paradigms are important in defining and interpreting cultural heritage.
  6. The patina on an object is not the only criteria for determining its cultural and historical value.
  7. Ugly and sinister objects demand the museum’s attention just as much as beautiful and beneficial ones do.
  8. When a museum acquires and interprets an object, it is revealing as much about itself as it is about the object.
  9. A museum object is an incontrovertible fact in the world. It is interpretation that is necessarily unstable.
  10. Interpretation is a cultural loophole; it can be inclusive and exclusive.
  11. It is difficult to judge which things the future will value, so our choices must be based on an object’s compelling relevance to today.
  12. This conception of relevance includes both the past’s value within the present, and present views of what was valued in the past.
  13. Museum collections are extensive archives of unstated prejudice – beset with sexist, racist, and class-based distortions.
  14. Museums must work to redress this legacy, employing techniques proposed within feminism and post colonialism.
  15. A collection ultimately reflects its curator; it is part of the legacy you will leave behind.

On Exhibiting

  1. Context is the curator’s north star.
  2. When it comes to designing a museum space, neutrality is not possible or desirable.
  3. Exhibitions about Pacific peoples don’t have to be didactic all the time.
  4. The colour palette for Pacific exhibitions does not have to be bright like an aloha shirt.
  5. Not all Pacific exhibitions are celebratory. We’re not in a state of perpetual happiness and celebrating things 24/7- that would be crazy.
  6. It is not mandatory for Pacific exhibitions to include descriptors like: diverse, vibrant, fresh, or any other ‘funky’ word you can think up.
  7. Theatricality and performance is a virtue in a museum – when it is in the service of helping discover the truth.
  8. Theatricality and performance can also detract from the museum’s ability to tell the truth.
  9. Popular culture (music, cinema, video games, fashion) is a powerful force in a museum.
  10. Disrupting the Western gaze is one of the ways a curator can make the ‘other’ present in an often extremely exclusive discourse. There is more than one lens that can be used to develop and frame exhibitions.
  11. Enabling different and other voices is an art, and needs to be doused generously with alofa, sensitivity and wisdom.
  12. Discussing work with the artist might be painful and extremely time-consuming, but it is necessary.
  13. Never be afraid of the artist’s ultimate right to withdraw or to stand you up. It is one small piece of themselves they remain in control of.

On Public

  1. Museums are about the people and for the people. He tangata, he tangata, he tangata.
  2. A museum is a privileged part of our cultural world.
  3. Museums should strive to maintain openness and accommodate difference.
  4. Museums should provide a setting for democratic encounters.
  5. Museums have walls but they also exist outside them.
  6. Museums should be aware of the behaviours they allow and disallow.
  7. The museum must engage with the popular and the mass-produced: the material culture of every social class and situation.
  8. The public should be able to find objects and stories that reflect their own lives in the museum.
  9. Museum viewership at its best is an active process, in which notions of truth are consciously tested and remade.
  10. Museums should encourage critical response and involvement by their visitors.
  11. Museums are not for everyone, Pacific peoples are not regular visitors and that is okay. But museums can be meaningful and safe places for them to visit.

On the Culture of Museums

  1. Museums do not stand outside of history. What happens to the world happens to the museum.
  2. Museums should be topical, responding quickly to world events when they impact the communities we represent.
  3. Museums can take intellectual and cultural risks while accounting for cultural safety.
  4. Nothing is out of bounds for a museum. Everything is potentially relevant.
  5. All museum workers are valued from the cleaners to the CEO, when this is evident, then it is a place where working as a team is a pleasure.
  6. The museum should develop institutional modesty. Not be fia poto.
  7. Nevertheless, the expertise of curators is real. Museums should not yield our long established role as repositories of knowledge and judgment.
  8. Museums must embed the public’s authority and knowledge through all of its practices.
  9. Museums have a special role in presenting topics neglected by other institutions and the media.
  10. When the museum is grounded in the kaupapa of the Mana Whenua and the Tangata Whenua it will create space for all the peoples it serves.

 The Digital

  1. Digital technology provides opportunities for museums to reach more Pacific peoples in the Pacific and around the world.
  2. Technology is transforming traditional formats for the presentation of curatorial expertise. Curators are more accessible and accountable to the communities they represent.
  3. Digital technology should not undermine or replace the importance and value of the human and face to face interaction. This is a pressing challenge when the digital capacity in the Pacific is uneven.
  4. Digital capability varies across generations. Digital technology is not a priority for everyone and that is okay.
  5. Digital technology improves access to collections housed in museums. It does not replace the experience of the materiality and physicality of works.
  6. Much of the world’s creativity now occurs in the digital realm. We have done too little to preserve the evidence of contemporary digital practice which is changing at a rapid pace.

On Democracy

  1. Museums can be instruments of social justice.
  2. The museum can have meaningful contributions to political processes, and should seek out these opportunities.
  3. An effective museum is as rigorous in its promotional statements as it is in its curatorial ones.
  4. There is no conflict between expertise and accessible communication.
  5. Challenging old museology often goes against public expectations of a museum, it’s our opportunity to break open the vaults and bust down the ‘silos’.

On the Global Pacific

  1. The Pacific exists outside and beyond the Pacific Ocean.
  2. Samoa is not the Pacific, neither is New Zealand and any other single island/archipelago.
  3. New framings of Pacific art, cultures and histories are only valuable if they include the voices and perspectives of artists and practitioners.
  4. Museums with a global reach must consider deeply the terms on which this universality was established – such as colonialism and imperialism. We can be truthful about these historical realities.

In Conclusion

Pacific curation is a privilege but it is also a responsibility.

 

3 Responses

  1. Stuart Ncholson

    I would love it to be best practice to add something like the following to displays/information boards (National Parks are like museums, in a way):

    “This display is based on the best available information at the time of preparation i.e. [dd-mmm-yyy]”.

    Some of us get confused when the info conflicts with what we have been learning elsewhere and this gives us mixed feelings about the display/information board. A date of preparation would be helpful, scientific, and more accountable.

    What do you reckon?

    Reply
  2. Leone

    Thank you all for this! Such a great read and I’m printing it out so I can return to it regularly for further reference.

    Reply
    • Sean Mallon

      thank you for reading and commenting the blog Leone…

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