Is there a culture of exclusion in museums?

Is there a culture of exclusion in museums?

Puawai Cairns, Kaihāpai Mātauranga Māori | Head of Mātauranga Māori, looks at the nuances of language and how ‘diversity denial’ can exclude the communities you’re trying to embrace.

The Mātauranga Māori team is continuing our ‘fertiliser talks’ – kōrero | discussion with allies and accomplices to help us think about what museum practice could and should be in Te Papa – as we prepare for the renewal of Level 4 at Te Papa. A principle of the fertiliser talks is that we aim to share the conversations that we have (“It isn’t knowledge unless it’s shared” – Dr Wayne Ngata) about what we find insightful and illuminating in those kōrero.

So far we have had talks with Moana Jackson (‘Museums are dangerous places’ – challenging history) and Wayne Ngata (The museum as marae ātea – He whare kōrero tonu), with plans to have more with other people. But we also are also privileged in that we are able to leap onto opportunities that are presented through visits to the museum.

A few weeks ago, we were visited by iwi taketake | indigenous people from Australia. We hosted Rebecca Bateman, Indigenous Librarian at the National Library of Australia in Canberra, and her colleague, Libby Cass, Director, Australian Collections Management. And the following day, we met with a friend of the team, Glenn Iseger-Pilkington (Wadjarri, Nhanda, and Nyoongar, Scottish, and Dutch), independent curator and consultant and the 2017 Museums Aotearoa keynote speaker.

Related: Stories of the Stolen Generations preserved in Bringing Them Home archive at National Library

Indigenisation and decolonisation

Meeting indigenous museum practitioners/archivists is always an important honour. The conversations around indigenisation and decolonisation of museum spaces, and developing our respective museological practices, is a shared conversation across international borders and multiple settler colonial histories. And while we do not want to position a decolonisation conversation as a panacea that will work across different political and cultural contexts, there are common experiences that indigenous museum professionals have, which help all of us shed light on what we are doing and what we may be each striving for in our various positions.

In our meeting with Rebecca and Libby, who were visiting Aotearoa for the International Indigenous Librarians’ Forum, they discussed a new initiative at the National Library of Australia to incorporate Austlang into the MARC Language Source Codes, codifying archives with information to link to relevant Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island communities, enabling researchers for those communities to reconcile records specific to their people. It is working towards creating greater intellectual access across incredibly varied communities spread across vast geographical areas.

The language of museums

The codification inherent in the language of museums and archives is an ongoing and enormous topic for discussion and development, and it is a language that can either invite or exclude different communities. It may be meaningful to those in charge of the information but to those who desire the information, the language may be meaningless and perhaps even obstructive. So when it comes to strategising how we can incorporate indigenous ways of thinking and classifying the collection, looking at the language of our various organisations is crucial.

As an example about moves towards opening the language of archives to encompass different terms, consider the question raised in this blog by our colleague Mark Sykes: When is a korowai not a korowai?. In the blog, Mark discusses the erroneous popular use of the word korowai to denote any type of woven Māori cloak, when, in fact, korowai was an example of a cloak among many examples.

Mark with a korowai, 2018. Photo by Rachael Hockridge. Te Papa

Mark’s blog was incredibly popular and a revelation for many people with a passing knowledge of cloaks. It is further supported by the collection database at Te Papa which has listed the numerous types of cloaks grouped under the term ‘kākahu’, reflecting the breadth of the collection and the research that has been undertaken and continues in the Māori textiles collection (called Te Whare Pora o Hineteiwaiwa).

Screenshot from the Ke EMu database showing the multiple types of Māori cloaks that Te Papa uses to classify the collection, 2019. Te Papa

Ensuring the language and codification of the collection encompasses mātauranga Māori and the sophistication and multitudinous quality of textile types in te ao Māori means that researchers working in and out of the museum can continue to build our knowledge of textile making within the Māori world (historical and traditions yet to emerge), pushing against western classification of indigenous knowledge that can limit rather than expand the research possibilities.

Decolonising practices

Finally, we talked with Glenn about decolonising practices, the communities we work with, and how the language museums can use can embrace and exclude communities. It was a wide ranging conversation that is not done justice in this blog, but there were salient points related to what has been discussed here and which point out potential weaknesses in how museums draw together material discussed above.

“If we don’t approach conversations like these with the understanding that the cultures we work with are nuanced and complicated,” Glenn says, “we may homogenise how we talk about indigenous peoples. We need sophisticated conversations.”

Glenn discussed the need to ensure our rush to open up conversations around language did not result in another type of diversity denial. Referring to the example of the cloak types above, this may mean that other regionally- or locally-recognised terms specific to particular communities are overlooked or that the localised term becomes a nationally-used term, thereby disconnecting it from its original use. It was from Glenn that the title for this blog came when he discussed a hidden culture of exclusion that is in museums and galleries, and language was just one obstacle adding to that exclusion.

Ultimately, we agreed across the multiple conversations between indigenous museum professionals that museums should be of use to indigenous communities rather than centres of overly abstract, and therefore isolated, theory and language. The language that museums are rapidly developing and deploying is about reflecting more nuanced thinking around classifications of indigenous knowledge, but also as accessible and welcoming knowledge spaces for indigenous communities.


  1. Tena koe Puawai, my thesis is about this very topic. I completed a research placement within the Matauranga Maori team in 2011 to investigate te reo in collections management practices. I’m completing the thesis now and happy to discuss. Please see further information on ‘Objects can speak: Indigenous language and the object in Australian and New Zealand museums’ at

  2. Couldn’t agree more. Puawai Cairns and indigenous heritage keepers keeping it 100.

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