Decolonize my Heart from Tahltan Nation Artist, Curator and Educator Peter Morin. Read more about this artwork here.
From Moana Jackson and David Garneau’s opening keynotes to Ngāti Whātua o Ōrākei leader Taiaha Hawke’s closing words, this year’s Museums Australasia was the first time I had seen a conference bookended by indigenous challenges for positive change. Moana’s reference to author Patricia Grace’s statement that ‘books are dangerous’ was a key point as he calmly took us through his thoughts on how those with ontological power are the masters of all things. Through this thought he asserted that museums can also be dangerous; who are they naming and who are they silencing? David picked this up with an uncannily parallel keynote where he presented the ways in which museums have been complicit in colonisation, not just through the usual avenues of looting, plunder and theft, but through the undermining of contemporary society by deeming colonised cultures, peoples who have lost mātauranga and reo, inauthentic in comparison to the didactic ‘authentic’ on display. The opening keynotes framed my view for the rest of the week and caused me to assess each presentation through the question: what are museums doing for my people?
Local vs. Global
The idea of a global museum was upended, in a good way, for me with Boon Hui Tan’s keynote. The most important aspect of Boon Hui Tan’s keynote for me was the distinction he made between ‘local’ and ‘global’ as explained through the Singapore biennial. The simple innovation of employing 36 regional curators, rather than one superstar international curator, to curate the festival reiterated the importance of local knowledge to the sector. By employing curators with decades of experience, spanning the breadth of the country, the depth of issues and experiences displayed through the artworks were arguably more diverse and this is where I found the most powerful message in his talk: local is how we see ourselves and global is how others see us. Would an international curator be able to look beyond well-known artists to see how communities see themselves? Local curators expand how others know us, or as Lisa Reihana said in the Provocations plenary, “Believe in up-and-coming artists, they are the community.”
When Boon Hui Tan shared his views on the fleeting successes brought by touring blockbuster exhibitions, Twitter latched on with people sharing his opinion that though blockbusters are responsible for spikes in visitor numbers, they do not necessarily result in return visitors. I wonder however, can the same be said for local touring blockbusters? Namely, can the same be said for the Air New Zealand exhibition that was previously at Te Papa and Auckland Museum and is off to Canterbury Museum next? In conversation with another conference delegate we wondered whether or not the exhibition would make it to smaller centres, and given that it is the national airline and serves many smaller centres, does it have the duty to do so? Further, to differentiate it from a global touring blockbuster, is there scope for it to tweak its content to allow it to speak to each venue individually, to draw people back to the museum?
Tuakana – Teina
As we state in the header for the Tuakana section here on Tusk: “A Tuakana is someone for us to learn from in a reciprocal way. Tuakana inspire us and make the sector a welcoming and supportive place.” Nina and I were part of a panel titled “Strengthening our sector – leading and developing people for the future” that also featured two emerging Australian women, Emma Williams of Albury Library Museum and PhD candidate Alex Christopher, who work and study in the sector in Australia. The panel was chaired by director of the Dowse Art Museum (and long-time Tusk advocate) Courtney Johnston, and I applaud Courtney for starting the panel by asking those in attendance to put their hands up if they were in senior management. It was gratifying to see so many hands shoot up but, in retrospect, a lot of those hands belonged to Australians. By my recollection, only two of the people present in the audience were New Zealand directors. I understand there were other sessions on and that directors are pressed for time however, I wasn’t the only person to notice this. The emerging cohort of people entering the sector are good at carving out our own spaces but to ensure we are able to maintain these spaces, we need support from the top, we need the reciprocity. Emerging museum professionals were a strong force throughout the conference starting with the preceding mini-conference, and I felt that the sheer numbers of EMPs present was a really empowering presence for all.
The guiding concept of mana taonga was explored through a panel featuring indigenous and non-indigenous kaimahi for Aotearoa and Australia. Educator Tereora Crane of Te Awamutu Museum described his work as “being propelled by the mana of the taonga”, probably one of the most beautifully simple descriptions of working with taonga I’ve heard. The panel was an example of how indigenous kaimahi need to be intersectional in the way that we work, or as Janeen Love of Auckland Museum said “I am Māori and then I go to work.” This is a sentiment (though possibly not exactly what Janeen meant) I relate to as a Māori worker, and alluded to in the presentation I did with Bridget Reweti at Kāhui Kaitiaki: having to work within a belief system that might not be mine whilst also having to ‘do’ Māori things for co-workers when they are unable to. This is no easy ask of Māori in the sector, not least of all because it should not be assumed that simply by being Māori you know how to do a karakia, have a back catalogue of waiata, can translate or can teach others Tikanga 101.
When thinking of the mana that taonga hold, it was interesting to hear Jilda Andrews of National Museum Australia say that the life cycle of taonga have been interrupted by long-term thinking, which I took as referring to the way in which taonga are isolated from communities and preserved in a perpetual state of living. Coupling this with a comment made by Elizabeth Merritt of the Centre for the Future of Museums during her keynote about the idea of deaccessioning ‘lazy objects’, I don’t recall where the original reference came from, and can’t confirm if Elizabeth agreed with the process, but the proposition of deaccessioning collection objects that weren’t being ‘used’ did not go down well on Twitter. This idea works even less when ‘object’ is replaced with ‘taonga’ as there is no such thing as a ‘lazy taonga’. You can have taonga that are dormant or that don’t have people around to animate them, but never lazy. These two views were a good reminder that museums are sites of cultural compromise and multiple worldviews need to be negotiated whilst always interrogating whether one is being prided over the other. Indeed, if taonga were to become dormant it us up to people to make them, as Albert Refiti of AUT said, ‘sing again’.
This year was the first time I had made it to the Kāhui Kaitiaki hui and it was a paradigm-affirming experience. Having a supportive space for indigenous kaitiaki to speak to one another enabled us to share kōrero that we don’t, or can’t, share elsewhere, it is a space where we can test challenging ideas. There was so much loss and heaviness coupled with this support that we were all left empowered to make positive change. One other gem I took away from Boon Hui Tan was that we give too much space to colonialism and that we need to “let colonialism die, leave it to dust.” This is a radical concept given how much colonisation has defined colonised peoples but I think he has a point, if we refuse to give it our energy, could we then use the energy on something more invigorating?
The presentation from Bridget and I looked in part at how varying work environments have been successful or not, specifically we talked about our experiences working in bicultural structures. We have both experienced being in bicultural institutions where the position we are in is in the “non-Māori” side, this has resulted in us both feeling not just culturally isolated, but also feeling that the structure itself didn’t presume that Māori would be working on the non-Māori side. What then does this point to in terms of expectations of Māori capabilities? Will Māori always have to work in ‘Māori’ roles? I share David’s dream of a critical mass of indigenous people working in roles throughout the sector but question whether this will this be achieved while we work in an imposed structure that increasingly feels like it exists to tick a box? Airing the frustrations of these experiences aren’t easy for non-Māori to hear but it is important that they hear it and I was reminded of this when a Pākehā sector colleague approached me after our talk and simply said “I’m here”. Her assertion was about more than her presence at the hui, it was a reminder that allies are important, that having people who are willing to listen to our frustration and pain, and who want to be part of making the sector a better place for kaitiaki are invaluable.
The hui this year involved indigenous kaimahi from Australia, Canada and the Pacific and I can’t stress how important it was for us to connect with all these people. As we move forward as a roopu, we may need to think about how we can use our space to create space for others. It was devastating to see in the final plenary at the main conference that one of the chairs was empty, and to then hear from a Pasifika colleague that they need more support. With this metaphor in mind, there is more to be done than just creating space, we need support structures to enable people to want to be in those spaces and to want to sit in, as the woman who commented from the floor said (aroha mai, I don’t know who she was), “the chair that will not be empty in the future.” We need to create space and support people who step into it.
Museums can be dangerous
As independent scholar Bob Janes says, museums cannot be complacent in thinking that “complex histories absolve museums of responsibilities in complex futures” but can they be, as previous director of the NMA Dawn Casey says, “agents of social change”? Can they be more immediate in their reactions to social injustice? Can they do more? In his closing words to the conference, Taiaha stated to all who were present that museums were complicit in the spread of colonisation and they are thus being called upon to help rebuild colonised cultures. Beyond being a mere call-to-arms, Taiaha said that Ngāti Whātua were there to help museums do so. To be able to offer their assistance in this way was mind-blowing but surely this is a prime example of leaving colonialism to dust: iwi collaborating with museums to reclaim some of what has been lost. This is what the sector is capable of, this is how museums can be agents of social change: by providing avenues for cultural redress, by being reactive to societal injustices and by giving spaces to people who have not had enough space in the past.