Minding the gaps

One of the first things I did when I got into my new role was workshop the way that I would collect, I wanted to ensure that anything that was collected was done so in a holistic way. What this would mean in practice was that I would collect a taonga, establish a whakapapa to the existing collection, collect the kōrero from where the taonga came, and what was crucial to me in particular, collect a digital accompaniment. I’ve since come to find that collecting the digital accompaniment, for social history objects in particular, is relatively new ground in Aotearoa. However, in my mind it is central to reflecting contemporary society, as we do after all, live in a digital world. As a quick example, around the time that I started it was announced that the Ministry of Health was cutting funding to the creation and dissemination of wahakura, and the fallout was all over social media. The decision has since been overturned. When I got into the collection store it became apparent that there were no taonga that could tell us how our tipuna slept as babies, and as we searched for taonga that told us about their lives as tamariki and rangatahi, we saw that again, there was little in the collection to reflect that. The collection tells us little about women, people of lower status, takataapui, and everyday life. As I spent more time with the collection, these gaps in representation, and consequently in knowledge, became more and more evident.

To slightly digress, at Museums Australasia and Kāhui Kaitiaki this year, visiting Metis academic David Garneau interrogated the etymology of the word ‘curate’, taking us back to its Latin roots in which it means ‘to heal’ (and other stuff). Curator and artist, Bridget Reweti, further unpacked this for me and we spoke together about how revolutionary it is to think about the mahi in that way. Consequently, this has been one of the most influential whakaaro in terms of developing my practice and how I think digital collecting can heal the gaps in knowledge. The internet is the great democratising tool, it is at your fingertips and through it you have the ability to create your own communities based on whatever interest or whim you may have. It is an online avenue to learning te reo Māori, weaving and other Māori skills. It is an instigator and fuel for the fire in your belly that burns when you see the monstrosities levelled at indigenous brothers and sisters.

Part of what we have done so far at Te Papa is talk to other institutions who collect born digital. In particular, National Library has been really generous in sharing what they collect and how they do so. Their mahi is very broad as they have a mandate to collect any website that ends .nz, but they are mindful of the corners of the internet that are kaupapa-specific, and take sway from their curators as to what they could collect outside of the .nz mandate. As someone with a particular interest in collecting social history, much of what I want to collect takes place on social media, a realm with its own issues (mainly copyright) and one that hasn’t been collected to a great extent in Aotearoa so far. What this means is that we will trial approaches to find what works for us while being mindful that what we do end up collecting will need to be kept in perpetuity, something of an oxymoron in the constant advancement of digital technologies.

To look at it in terms of who it represents, the internet provides a broad and deep snapshot of contemporary Māori life. The accessibility it affords us to understand our people as we are right now is unsurpassed. It is therefore imperative that we find ways to record how we are living online, and it is through this representation that we may avoid some of the gaps in knowledge that were perpetuated by our collecting forebears.

Matariki Williams

* cover image is a portrait of me by my husband, it now exists only in an online format.