Decolonise or indigenise: moving towards sovereign spaces and the Māorification of New Zealand museology

Decolonise or indigenise: moving towards sovereign spaces and the Māorification of New Zealand museology

Sustainable indigenised practice in colonial museum models – is there such a thing? Kaihāpai Mātauranga Māori | Head of Mātauranga Māori Puawai Cairns explores the question in this adaptation of a speech given at the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property in Rome, 31 Oct 2019.

I am always searching for better ways for the museum that I work in, to work harder and better for the Māori communities that surround us, reflecting on my own experiences working as a Māori curator, curatorial manager and as a trustee for museums across Aotearoa New Zealand.

Māori museology: Know your purpose

Working in museums as an indigenous person is no easy feat. It is taxing, your triumphs can feel bittersweet. For every win that you may be able to get from a system that is not set up for you, there are numerous deferrals, declines, and dismissals. But you persist because you know your purpose, individual or collective. My purpose is to create a sustainable environment for the team I manage and the teams who support us, in order for mātauranga Māori – Māori knowledge and knowledge systems – to flourish inside and outside the museum.

Within that statement are a number of things to consider. What is a sustainable environment? What are the unique features of our specific museological practice? What does flourishing look like?

In asking these questions, I seized on the imagery of growing, blossoming, gardening, imagining the museum as a place of desiccation and, dare I say it, decay. It is my job to enrich and nourish the ground so that my team and our purpose can grow and succeed. To this end, the terms ‘decolonisation’ and ‘indigenisation’ are only a means to a more farsighted horizon, they are not our goal, but present possibly better ways of achieving a different system and environment for indigenous people within heritage institutions.

Indigenisation and decolonisation

But let me start properly with indigenisation and decolonisation. I have written a number of blogs (links at the bottom) explaining some of my unease with the notion of decolonisation and the inherent danger for indigenous people in decol, where the coloniser remains at the centre of a process that is supposed to centre the colonised. I have had a long held resentment of the theory of decol because of this, which, as I wrote, placed an expectation on me to modify and change while the colonial system remains the same.

To help me and my team come to grips with this uneasiness, I created a series of talks which I originally called ‘Throwing Fertiliser At Your Feet’, which subsequently became the Fertiliser Talks, where we grappled with ideas like decolonisation and indigenisation.

In one of the first talks, I invited respected Māori scholar Dr Moana Jackson to help us think. The instinct to create the Fertiliser talks was based on a very Māori impulse to wānanga, or to create space for focused discussion. We have a wonderful proverb within Māori culture: “He aha te kai a te rangatira? He kōrero.” What is the food of chiefs, it is speech.

In these talks, we tackled indigenisation and were given a gift by Moana when he said that his preference as a term for indigenisation was reMāorification. We decided to run with this – it was a license to start a conversation about practices in our museum that did not start with the colonial experience: it built through it, beyond it, and in spite of it. ReMāorification was the promise of a created space where we, as the indigenous people, could determine the space, the content, the practice, according to our own autonomy and independence.

Eight people pose for a photo
Te Papa staff with Dr Moana Jackson, fourth from left, 2018. Te Papa


So what does Māorification look like in a museum?

It’s good that you ask! Here is a list:

  • To recognise the unique kinship bonds that exist between objects, people, and our histories – and the obligations that come with this recognition
  • To care” for collections and stories – developing, interpreting, managing – incorporating how Māori cherish objects for their cultural and spiritual value
  • To create exhibitions drawn from these collections which incorporates Māori ways of thinking and which searches for “ways in” to the museum for the community to tell their story on their own terms
  • To understand the source communities play a role in how these objects are managed and how their stories are told 
  • To respect there are different worldviews which inform how stories and objects are valued
  • To recognise that the value of an object is intrinsically linked to the value of the story and the ongoing participation of its people
  • To humanise the Māori relationship (tactile, spiritural, kinship) with our objects and that this is a process which requires compassion, patience, and empathy​.

There may be other things that others would argue should also be placed on this list, but I think these are most helpful for this presentation.

‘Engaging with a museum can fill some communities with suspicion’

In short, I aspire to help conditions where Māori aspirations can grow in the museum, to ensure our practices recognise our people, their inherent dignity and the sometimes painful and traumatic processes of reconnection with histories and sacred objects.

Engaging with a museum can fill some communities with suspicion. They are sites where historically not many good things have happened for Māori. But Māorified museology can help build pathways into the museum and portals in to influence its practice.

But what happens when it goes all a bit awry? How do we prevent the indigenisation/Māorification of practices within museums to become a reproduction of the extractive nature of colonisation? What can happen in a museum system that does not sufficiently support a sustainable eco-system for indigenous people?

Group of Māori welcome visitors onto a marae
Opening pōwhiri for Ko Rongowhakaata: The Story of Light and Shadow, 2017. Photo by Tim Onnes. Te Papa

Decolonising can be colonisation at its most insidious

Across the heritage and museum sector, I have seen Māori people burn out because there aren’t enough of us employed to sustain the ideal practices that come with serving Māori communities, as well as serving the bicultural aspirations of our museums. I have also seen across organisations where Māori are asked to be participants but are not resourced as partners.

There is a phenomenon I have also observed which I’ve nicknamed isolation sickness, where single Māori are brought into teams of non-Māori for specially created positions usually to help with cultural awareness – a panacea for all things culturally ignorant – and they become the person who has to not only become the ‘native Wikipedia’ for that team, and do their own job, but accommodate micro-aggressions, structural racism, and operate in isolation from a wider sense of connected Māori community within the organisation.

It sets Māori up for failure when they are isolated, disconnected, and expected to have superhuman knowledge of their culture on tap. Again, it is that funny thing when a step which may be seen as decolonising mimics colonisation at its most insidious.

Indigenisation can only be successful when there is an equitable distribution of power and resource, when successful indigenisation is just as critical a mission indicator as visitor metrics or sponsorship relationships. ReMāorification (or you could say Māorificiation, as we could argue that museums which weren’t Māori to begin with can’t be reMāorified) is a process of conscious restorative growth, sympathetic to the resources available and mindful of the requirement to ensure these are sustained and nurtured.

Indigenous staff are not an inexhaustible resource

In this time of heroes like Greta Thunberg trying to save us from ourselves, it should not be such a leap to understand that while we grapple with humanity’s horrendous impact on the land and Papatūānuku, our Earth Mother, I can see the same patterns of unfettered consumptive instincts in the some of the notions of decolonising and indigenising in heritage debates.

We have to understand the true costs of these aspirations on those who are expected to service them and respect and nourish their sources, which means caring for indigenous staff. Ensuring they are not alone. Ensuring they are allowed to remain connected to their cultural practices. Understanding that they are not an inexhaustible resource.

And we have to remember we are obliged to protect these emergent practices by indigenous people in museums, as they may be the very thing that ends up keeping museums and heritage organisations alive for the future.

Sovereign spaces

I began exploring the term ‘sovereign space’ a few years ago, dissatisfied with biculturalism and the ongoing centring of the dominant European culture in Aotearoa New Zealand. I was frustrated that the bicultural structure that Te Papa was built on – even though it had opened the door for many more Māori stories than had been seen in museums before – was still facilitated by a very Eurocentric system of ideas.

I wanted to create a term which helped me understand a space of independent thought and sovereignty in museums. In Māori we call this mana motuhake, and in keeping with the alliteration, I coined sovereign space. I wanted a theoretical and actual space that prioritised Māori and our ways of being.

I first raised the idea of sovereign space in a presentation I gave to Goethe-Institut in Jakarta in 2017. In my mind, sovereign spaces are spaces that do not demand resolution – they revel in ambiguity and mess. They are imagined spaces of indefinable creativity and independence.

General view of the marae
Rongomaraeroa, 2014. Photo by Michael Hall. Te Papa (79636)

The marae, the heart

When thinking through the sovereign space concept, I was inspired by the deeply Māori site called the marae. And in that beautiful alignment of thinking and doing, an upcoming project that I am working on with my team at the moment is the redevelopment Te Papa’s marae, our iconic gathering space, Rongomaraeroa. Rongomaraeroa was developed and created by our first Māori co-leader, Cliff Whiting, as a ritual gathering space for all New Zealanders but framed first as a marae.

In Māori communities, our marae are the heart of our practices and rituals as Māori people. They are where our great meetings, funerals, celebrations, marriages, take place. They are the physical record of our genealogy, and the spiritual place that symbolises our sense of belonging to land and people.

When Te Papa was built, a marae was designed for inside the museum so we could continue to practice these rituals. All marae are built on the ground and yet Rongomaraeroa was built on the fourth floor of the museum, which prompted Cliff to give it the joking moniker ‘The marae in the sky’. Rongomaraeroa was intended to be a site where the Māori futures were pondered, where the collision between customary art and contemporary art was blurred and indistinct, where critical issues facing Māori were to be discussed at length in word and in song. It is a space of challenge and of working together.

Conserving Rongomaraeroa

So I have been holding workshops across Te Papa, to bring people on board for a proposed refurbishment of the marae, the first since it was built in 1998. The big challenge is for the museum to remember that while it is a marae in a museum, it is not a museum space. It does not comply with the regulations of the museum if that interferes with its function as a marae.

We are exploring what conservation looks like on the marae, and challenging what we believe is permanent. I just recently found out that Te Papa was built to exist for 150 years, it is a space filled with long-wearing materials such as hard granite and concrete columns, as far from Māori architectural concepts as you can probably get. Our customary houses, made of wood and plant fibre, were not meant to last for 150 years. When they were no longer needed, they were buried or burned. Our houses had organic life spans.

Cliff Whiting paints a being-built marae
Cliff Whiting working on the marae, about 1997. Photo by Norm Heke. Te Papa

By investigating the refurbishment of Rongomaraeroa, we are examining with the original artists who were brought on to the first iteration of the marae project by Cliff: what does the future state of the marae in Te Papa look like? It is an exciting, terrifying, and challenging conversation which pushes back on Eurocentric and museum-driven notions of permanence and preservation.

The marae is our most sovereign space. It is where our language is the first language of encounter, our protocols and rituals dictate what happens on the marae and the order in which it happens. I am grateful that Rongomaraeroa gives us a chance to explore what sovereignty and sovereign spaces looks like in museums in a very Māori context.

So where to from here?

I only have a small team, to try and do all we need to do for the development of Māori museological practice within Te Papa. We have ambitious aspirations for the future. And while it may seem anti-climactic, decolonisation and indigenisation – as I said earlier – are only tools to us to help us get there, they are not the be all and end all of what we would like to achieve.

Ultimately we are searching for a future where lived experiences of being Māori, where our relationship to our material culture, is respected and honoured in museums on our own terms. We are searching for mana motuhake – for our own cultural autonomy – within the museum realm. But it is the mere fact that conversations like these today help to enable ideas that have been waiting in the wings, within indigenous communities who have been searching for ways in to the institution.

Don’t stop bringing these discussions to the surface so you can help these ideas, these seeds, find the light they need.



  1. Thank you. The further I read, the more interesting it was. ❤️

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