Resist and collect: A museum’s place in times of upheaval

Resist and collect: A museum’s place in times of upheaval

The 1981 Springbok tour. Gay and lesbian rights. Bastion Point. Mātauranga Māori curator Matariki Williams looks at some collection highlights from various protest movements in history.

In the wake of the Women’s Marches that took place worldwide over the Presidential inauguration weekend, GLAM institutions, including Te Papa and Auckland Museum, have been calling for donations of protest ephemera from participants.

In addition to the collecting of physical ephemera from the marches, a self-funded digital archive called the Trump Protest Archive has also been established and is calling for photographic contributions with the aim to “understand the various voices of resistance and their role in shaping a new future.”

This call for donations, while great to see such proactive acquisition by institutions, causes the cynical part of me to query whether or not these calls for donations extend to other protest movements that have mobilised of late as I have not seen a call for donations reported at this scale before. Black Lives Matter and the #NoDAPL protest at Standing Rock are two global movements that immediately come to mind.

This is not an unprecedented action however as, in 2011, students from a London College actively collected placards and other ephemera from demonstrations opposing government spending cuts for the Museum of London.

We may live in a ‘post-truth’ era riddled with ‘alternative facts’ but this will not stop institutions from building collections that reflect the lives of the communities they represent.

In fact (the real kind, not the alternative kind), a recent article from the Center for the Future of Museums quotes a finding from The Organization of American Historians stating that the historical accuracy in museums was considered more reliable than “books, teachers and personal accounts from relatives”.

Closer to home, the annual “Waitangi protest” narrative was raised recently with Prime Minister Bill English reasoning that the type of protest that occurs every Waitangi Day causes New Zealander’s to ‘cringe’ and that the protests are not as ‘nationally relevant’ as they were 15 or 20 years ago.

The beauty of protest is that it does not need permission so they will continue so long as people, communities, interest groups want to voice their opposition to injustices. And it will continue to be the duty of museums to ensure that dissenting voices are heard within our collections.

With all of this on my mind, I delved into the collection and was emboldened to see the breadth of protest movements represented in the national collection and the veritable smorgasbord of objects used to illustrate each. Below are a few highlights.

Poster, ’Solidarity With Political Prisoners’
Poster, ’Solidarity With Political Prisoners’, 1981, New Zealand, maker unknown. Gift of John Minto, 2008. Te Papa (GH016057)

The 1981 Springbok tour brought simmering tensions between tour supporters and anti-tour protesters to the boil. The protests live on in infamy through the widely-documented pitch invasion in Hamilton and the flour bombing at Eden Park.

Among the tour supporters was the belief that politics should have no place in sport while the protesters linked the tour (and its previous iterations) to injustices suffered by political prisoners in South Africa as well as the racial discrimination of Māori players.

This poster was created during the 1981 tour to show support for the political prisoners in South Africa thereby raising the visibility of protests that superficially read as being anti-sport but were indeed reflective of wider issues.

Poster, ’Repeal All Abortion Laws’
Poster, ’Repeal All Abortion Laws’, 1973, New Zealand, by New Zealand University Students Association Women’s Rights Action Committee. Gift of Robyn Anderson, 2004. © NZUSA. Te Papa (GH014468)

With President Donald Trump’s recent signing of an executive order that bans: “international NGOs from providing abortion services or offering information about abortions if they receive US funding”, women’s reproductive rights are on the minds of many.

For many women, the sight of a group of men watching over another man’s shoulder while he signs an order that directly affects women was a huge affront as it reinforced the fact that a woman’s right to make choices pertaining to her own body can be legislated away from her.

Te Papa’s collection includes objects that reflect movements to repeal abortion laws, objects relating to contraception, and perhaps most tellingly, objects related to backstreet abortions thus illustrating the extreme lengths women have taken to access abortions.

In New Zealand, abortions are legislated under the Crimes Act 1961 and its associated amendments. For more information about the laws surrounding abortion, here is some information from Family Planning New Zealand.

Hieke pahuka contemporary garment
Hieke pahuka contemporary garment, April 2012, Kaikohe, by Toi Te Rito Maihi. Purchased 2013. Te Papa (ME024105)

The collection holds quite a few examples of kākahu woven in response to issues of social justice including this piece by esteemed kairaranga Toi Te Rito Maihi. Maihi was approached to create a piece for an exhibition as she was also preparing to join the protests against the Foreshore and Seabed Act in 2004.

The disconnect between the comparatively light exhibition kaupapa and the heaviness of the passing of the legislation led to the creation of this kākahu.

The kākahu is named for both its style and what it represents: hieke being a type of rain cape, and pahuka referring to the sea froth that forms on the waves, often after a storm.

’I have no idea what I’m being led into’ placard
’I have no idea what I’m being led into’ placard, August 2015, New Zealand, by Anonymous. Gift of an anonymous donor, 2015. Te Papa (GH024783)

Another recent move from President Trump saw the United States formally withdraw from negotiations relating to the controversial Trans Pacific Partnership.

In February 2016, crowds marched in Wellington and Auckland in opposition to New Zealand signing up to the agreement with the Auckland march causing serious traffic disruptions.

This placard highlights concerns around the signing and the lack of public knowledge regarding implications that would come from New Zealand’s involvement.

Poster, ’March in Support of the Homosexual Law Reform Bill’
Poster, ’March in Support of the Homosexual Law Reform Bill’, May 1985, New Zealand, by Neil Costelloe. Gift of Mark Strange, 1989. Te Papa (GH003650/7)

One thing that has been really gratifying while researching the collection items has been the ability to measure societal progress since some of these items were created and collected.

Within each of these objects are keys to a past that we are condemned to forget if we don’t record it; for example, I never knew that the Greek letter lambda was the precursor to the rainbow as a symbol for the gay rights movement.

Just over three decades ago it was a crime for two males over the age of 16 to engage in sexual acts, while in comparison, same-sex couples have been able to marry since the 2013 passing of the Marriage (Definition of Marriage) Amendment Act.

However, the struggle continues with calls for men who were charged under the Crimes Act 1961 for consensual sex to be pardoned with it being reported in 2016 that the Justice Minister Amy Adams had asked officials to look for a solution.

Badge, ’Bastion Point’
Badge, ’Bastion Point’, circa 1981, New Zealand, by EYP Ltd. Gift of Tim Walker, 1996. Te Papa (GH004670)

This last object of protest deserves mentioning not only because of the kaupapa in which it was used but because of the humble ubiquity of the protest badge.

For me it also represents the constant process of learning as I had the privilege of hearing about the history of Ngāti Whātua o Ōrākei during a hui at their marae last year.

Though I knew about the 506-day occupation of Bastion Point in the 1970s, I hadn’t known about the 1951 razing of their Ōkahu Bay settlement. This badge represents not only the fraught history but their enduring resistance as it will be kept in perpetuity in the museum’s collection.

These taonga are but a mere handful of the objects of resistance held in the collection. They are indicative of not only struggles endured but justices won as well as being potent reminders for the empathy we must have for others.

Ka whawhai tonu mātou, Ake! Ake! Ake!


  1. Congratulations for displaying the valuable effect of protest to improve the lives of the many citizens and oppressed people.

  2. A great post! Tinopai, Matariki. I want to encourage the collection of these sorts of things because they bring back the feelings and attitudes of the past and, as you say, point directly to the areas where we must help our communities develop and raise empathy for struggles in the future. Kia kaha! Ian

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