Today is International Museum Day. Mātauranga Māori senior curator Puawai Cairns considers this year’s theme – ‘Museums and contested histories: Saying the unspeakable in museums’ – through the ‘Maunga Kahu’ protest T-shirt.
When I acquire material for the museum’s collection, there is an image in my head that I constantly refer to, to help me decide what to collect.
I imagine a curator 100 years in the future who has been asked to develop an exhibition about “Life in 2017 from Te Papa’s collection”. I imagine what she would select from the collection room that I work in to represent experiences of life in my own time.
What is in the collection now that she would draw from? Would she have a rich enough selection of taonga and objects?
There would be a great wealth of 18th-, 19th-, and 20th-century objects, but would there be enough to represent the diverse opinions, voices, faces, and experiences of people today?
This year, Te Papa acquired a T-shirt for the collection, collected as an example of contemporary protest and social history. There are a number of modern garments like T-shirts right across the museum’s entire collection in the multiple disciplines that make up the collection.
Cheap to produce and quick to make, T-shirts are an important platform for expression of identity, of allegiances, of activism, and of political declarations in a democratic society.
The T-shirts that Te Papa holds document social issues important in Aotearoa and to communities of Aotearoa, and are rapidly becoming a significant feature of many museum collections around the world.
History displayed on the chest
As a reaction against a proposed patch/gang insignia ban in the city of Whanganui in 2009 (Prohibition of Gang Insignia Bill 2009), Black Power member and activist Denis O’Reilly seized on a misspelling in the Draft Whanganui District Council Bylaw 2009, where the Māori translation for ‘Black Power’ (‘Mangu Kaha’) was spelled as ‘Manga Kahu’, a term that had no relevant meaning or association to Black Power.
As a form of protest, this T-shirt was created and sold in Whanganui at the time the Bylaw was going through consultation. It is a pastiche of a gang patch, using a graphic representation of Nelson Mandela’s fist, ‘police blue’ font, and the words ‘Maunga Kahu’ (spelled differently again from the misspelling in the draft bylaw), while also playing on the use of the upraised fist on Black Power patches.
As a global protest icon in other protests, the raised fist also symbolised solidarity, resistance, and defiance. The T-shirt was donated by Denis O’Reilly and it is now part of the museum’s permanent collection.
This is not the first item acquired for the collection that is associated with Black Power. If you search this link, you can see the different images in the photography collection that document gangs and gang members by photographers like Glenn Jowitt, Peter Quinn and Ans Westra.
Incidentally, also included in the images is a picture of Denis O’Reilly’s patch lying on the coffin of New Zealand Prime Minister, Norman Kirk.
However, it is the first time that a current gang member has donated material to the museum that is generated by the gang as a satirical protest response to legislation that affected them.
Why we shouldn’t ignore gang-related material
When discussing acquiring gang-related material for the museum, part of the conversation will always deal with the pejorative aspects of gang life – crime and violence. One of the questions raised when I proposed the T-shirt was whether collecting this material legitimised gang life, giving it some sense of respectability through its association with a museum.
My answer was that it is always a risk when acquiring challenging objects or challenging histories; however, if we can accept that gangs and their history are an inextricable part of contemporary life today, will we do a disservice to that previously mentioned future curator by not collecting this material? By avoiding confronting the material culture and the complex legacies of gang life, will we erase an aspect of life today that won’t be transmitted over time to future generations?
The collection of material such as this T-shirt and the photography documenting gang life and culture does not exist independently either. It is complemented by social research by different agencies and academics such as Dr Jarod Gilbert:
“Part of the problem is the gangs are ‘poorly understood’, something that has come about through the lack of research but also because gang members rarely speak publicly.
So you often get a skewed side of the story and, more than that, you really only hear of them when they commit what are often heinous crimes, but it’s a very small minority we’re talking about.”
Ultimately, museums are becoming spaces where challenging conversations can be had, and collections are increasingly becoming part of that platform. By addressing the lack of understanding that Dr Gilbert refers to in the quote above means opening up space and dialogue around those things we think are difficult to talk about and risky to collect.
Committing to talking about and collecting material – which challenges what we think should be in museums and which also raises debates about the ethics of collecting – is only a small part of a wider range of responsibilities that face museums that constantly re-evaluate what we see is our offering to the world and, in my view, our offering to the future.
Further reading about the Maunga Kahu T-shirt and protest collecting in museums:
- ‘Breathe Through the Nose’, October 2009, by Denis O’Reilly
- ‘Collecting the Standing Rock protest and why it’s important’, December 2016, by Puawai Cairns
- ‘Why museums matter: activism, politics and protest’, September 2015, by Claire Regnault
- ‘Resist and collect: A museum’s place in times of upheaval’, January 2017, by Matariki Williams
- ‘Walking billboards: the pervasive impact of the common T-shirt’, October 2016, by Matariki Williams
- ‘…it won’t be a lonely walk” – commemorating the 40th anniversary of the ‘Not One Acre More’ hīkoi’, October 2015, by Puawai Cairns.