In 1994, four years before the opening of Te Papa, Samoan novelist and scholar Albert Wendt was an advisor for the planned Pacific exhibitions. He requested that we abandon the use of terms like ‘traditional art’ in our labels and display signage. ‘Traditional means nothing to me!’ he said. At the time, I didn’t understand what he was talking about.
I had gone through university learning about traditional societies. As a person of Samoan descent, I was used to hearing about our traditional culture and customs. As a museum worker, I talked about traditional cultures all the time.
However, Wendt was asking us, as Pacific people and museum workers to decolonise the language we use in our exhibitions. In his view, the word ‘traditional’ as used in categories such as ‘traditional arts’ and ‘traditional practices’ was the vocabulary of Western ways of writing about and cataloguing indigenous peoples.
We in museums had bought into it, and our communities had internalised it.
Later, in an interview I had with him in 2008 he explained his position to me in more detail:
‘I came to feel very uncomfortable with terms such as traditional, folk history, folk art…Colonial scholars and researchers used them whenever they referred to us but not to their cultures. Such terms I concluded were part and parcel of the Euro-centric colonial vocabulary. Traditional inferred our cultures were /are so tradition-bound they were static and slow to change; that they weren’t dynamic and growing and changing; that because they were slow to change and fixed in history they were ‘simple and easy to understand.’ Traditional also had implications about how we were viewed as people even to the extent that, because we were tradition bound, we behaved out of habit and past practice and [were] slow to adapt to other ways or change our own ways, that we didn’t want to think for ourselves, or were incapable of individual thinking and expression.’
Towards a New Oceania
This year, marks 40 years since Wendt first published these ideas in his inspiring essay Towards a New Oceania. It was 1976, and a formative period for Pacific literature, new art forms, and their developing markets.
In his essay, he argued, ‘Any real understanding of ourselves and our existing cultures calls for an attempt to understand colonialism and what it did and is still doing to us.’
Wendt challenged the idea of ‘traditional cultures’ and cultural essentialisms, criticising corruption and the use of ‘tradition’ by our political and cultural leaders.
He argued that, ‘There is no state of cultural purity (or perfect state of cultural goodness),’ and warned of stagnation, ‘an invitation for a culture to choke in its own bloody odour, juices, and excreta.’
He reminded us, ‘No culture is ever static and can be preserved . . . like a stuffed gorilla in a museum’ (Wendt 1976, 58, 53, 52).
He asked a series of questions that are as relevant today as they were 40 years ago:
(a) Is there such a creature as traditional culture?
(b) If there is, what period in the growth of a culture is to be called traditional?
(c) If traditional cultures do exist in Oceania, to what extent are they colonial creations?
(d) What is authentic culture?
(e) Is the differentiation we make between the culture(s) of our urban areas (meaning foreign) and those of our rural areas (meaning traditional) a valid one? . . .
(f) Why is it that the most vocal exponents of preserving our true cultures live in our towns and pursue life-styles which, in their own terminology, are alien and unpure?
(g) Are some of us advocating the preservation of our cultures not for ourselves but for our brothers, the rural masses, and by doing this ensure the maintenance of a status quo in which we enjoy privileged positions?
(h) Should there be ONE sanctified/ official/ sacred interpretation of one’s culture? And who should do this interpreting? (Wendt 1976, 52; italics in original)
In his request to the Pacific staff at Te Papa, Wendt was challenging us to decolonise our curatorial practice. To take care with the concepts and language we used in our representation of Pacific peoples.
However, Wendt’s questions around tradition are not purely academic or relevant only to museums.
Pacific artists, painters, sculptors, choreographers, dancers, composers, tattooists, and even orators have struggled with the ‘traditional’ in ‘traditional Pacific arts’ and the limits it places on their practices.
In 2016, Wendt’s call to understand colonialism and its historical and contemporary implications continues to provide a current of urgency in our work for Pacific Cultures at Te Papa.
This year, Te Papa returned a sacred ‘ahu’ula (cloak) to Hawaii on long term loan, developed new collections of works from artists in Guåhan, and appointed a Curator of Pacific Art – the first position of its kind in an institution in New Zealand.
These kinds of activities are the decolonising mechanisms through which museums can remember the past, document the present, and secure the future of the communities they represent.
For your inspiration Albert Wendt, fa’afetai tele!
Albert Wendt (1976) Towards a New Oceania. Mana Review: A South Pacific Journal of Language and Literature ( January) 1 (1): 49–60. Reprinted most recently in The Arnold Anthology of Post-colonial Literatures in English, edited by John Thieme, 641–651. London: Edward Arnold, 1996.
This content of this blog first appeared in the article Against Tradition by Sean Mallon (PDF, 90 KB)