‘Museums are dangerous places’ – challenging history

‘Museums are dangerous places’ – challenging history

How do museums learn to tell the truth about what they hold in order to become “decolonised archives”?

One of the greatest privileges working with Mātauranga Māori is being part of a vast collective network of indigenous scholars, writers, commentators, scientists, environmentalists, artists, and professionals, who all contribute in some way to build and restore Mātauranga Māori.

In this blog, Puawai Cairns, Kaihāpai Mātauranga Māori | Head of Mātauranga Māori, shares thoughts from a recent meeting with noted Māori scholar, Moana Jackson.

‘Museums are dangerous places because they control the storytelling’ – Moana Jackson

For the last few months, my curatorial team – Mātauranga Māori – has been meeting regularly to discuss the potential for change and challenges to the way we develop exhibitions, in preparation for the renewal of the Level 4 galleries, of which the key Māori gallery, Mana Whenua, is a significant part.

The discussions have been challenging and wide-ranging but hugely inspiring, focusing on how we can do things better, more inclusively, and which reflects the enormous range of Māori experiences, of Māori people living their culture in Aotearoa, past, present, and future.

This week (on 15 October 2018), we hosted Dr Moana Jackson (Ngāti Kahungunu, Rongomaiwahine, Ngāti Porou), who came to share his thoughts on indigenous storytellers/curators/researchers in a national museum.

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Te Papa staff with Dr Moana Jackson, fourth from left, 2018. Te Papa

Moana was one of the keynotes at the Museums Australasia conference in Auckland in 2016, where he gave an extraordinarily insightful and provocative talk to museum professionals from Australia and Aotearoa. He asserted that museums are dangerous because “they are the namers of names”, that museums have the power to define and confine knowledge, and for indigenous people, this can amount to historical erasure of their own narratives or even complete silencing. One of my favourite indigenous writers in this space is Nathan “Mudyi” Sentence (Wiradjuri man from the Mowgee clan), who also writes:

“I had a discussion with someone once about if memory institutions, like museums, libraries, and archives, should modify past classification and description of First Nations material that use antiquated and potentially offensive terminology, they said we could not because that would be whitewashing history and we need to remain objective and just present the facts. While part of me partially agrees, my retort was memory institutions have predominantly presented a colonial history as fact and have excluded the voices of marginalised people and by doing so have demonstrated an ingrained bias.”

These thoughts, generated by indigenous commentators and people of colour who have found themselves under- or mis-represented in museums and archives, have now begun to affect how museums view their role, as can be seen in this latest article from the Washington Post about museums in the United States:

For years, the San Diego Museum of Man has displayed Native American belongings and human remains behind glass. The museum’s approach to the exhibits changed in 2012, when the anthropological museum began to “decolonize,” a process that institutions undergo to expand the perspectives they portray beyond those of the dominant cultural group, particularly white colonizers. For the San Diego museum, it meant partnering with the Kumeyaay Nation so they can have a role in curating their own history.

“It means including perspectives at the museum that should have always been included, but historically were not,” said Ben Garcia, the museum’s deputy director.

Decolonisation / ReMāorification

Museums are trying to find ways of allowing multiple narratives and perspectives to be shared from its platform, relearning new ways of storytelling and new ways of opening up or sharing its authority. The need to decolonise, to decentre the institutional – and therefore, the powerful – voice, and allow others to tell their own stories on their own terms has become a wero (challenge) to which many museums are trying to respond.

In a blog post by our colleague Sean Mallon, Senior Curator Pacific Cultures, he also talks about this tension inherent both within museums and within indigenous cultures. He refers to renowned Pacific scholar, Professor Albert Wendt’s challenge to not use the word ‘traditional’, as it was a concession to colonial classifications of non-European cultures:

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.

In line with Professor Wendt, arguing to restore our own ways of viewing our culture and cultural expressions, Moana shared that his preferred term to use in place of decolonisation in Aotearoa, is “reMāorification”, to recentre Māori voices in an act of restoring Mana Motuhake (independent thought and autonomy) and privilege the various ways that Māori perceived knowledge and knowledge sharing.

Going from colonised archives to decolonised archives

Moana noted that museums are “colonial archives”, inheritors of collecting legacies and practices from periods of massive imperial expansion and domination.  The challenge is, then, how do museums learn to tell the truth about what they hold in order to become “decolonised archives”? Can museums learn to decentre their own need to be the storyteller and hand editorial authority to other communities?

One area where Moana said Te Papa was able to do this, was in the iwi exhibition space on Level 4 (presently occupied by Iwi-In-Residence, Rongowhakaata). It was there, he said, that the museum had true expressions of mana motuhake because Māori groups were given license to create their own narratives, even if they contradicted what the museum might say.

Giving others the first voice

Reflecting on that, I draw on the words of Kōka Thelma Karaitiana, who was a Rongowhakaata Pou Tikanga (Advisor) for Te Papa and who wrote a piece for The Spinoff to reflect on the uniqueness of Rongowhakaata whakaaro in the exhibition, specifically in relation to the storytelling around the first encounter with Lieutenant James Cook in 1769 on the shores of Tūranga Nui a Kiwa:

The dark clouds had started to gather over the land during the two-day encounter with James Cook. To the English he was a hero and yet the Rongowhakaata voice speaks of unresolved muru and utu. The voice echoes abhorrence at the deliberate violation of tapu and mana of the people. The voice carries anguish at the desecration of property both personal and public, and home invasion. The tangi hotuhotu holds the misery and pain of senseless murder and maiming. The voice echoes unrestrained anger at the assault and kidnap of three youths. Being the first iwi to experience colonisation is difficult to forget and some 248 years on, the modern Rongowhakaata voice is often hostile, filled with anger, harsh.

The Rongowhakaata exhibition enabled a tribe to impart its own narrative about the encounter with Captain Cook in 1769, without apology and with authority, offering a very different perspective to what might have been historically written (by whom?) about the Endeavour’s first voyage to New Zealand. But as also noted by Moana, this particular project, with its commitment to allowing the tribes of Aotearoa to tell their own stories, should not the sum of what Te Papa can do to ‘remāorify’, it should only the beginning.

There is so much to write about the kōrero shared by Moana and his team, Anne Waapu and Ngawai McGregor, during his time with our team. But the meeting with Moana has left our team feeling inspired and to finish with Moana’s words: “Dare to imagine where we need to be. Just be brave.”

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