Recently, as part of a placement for the Museums and Heritage Studies program at Victoria, I participated in community discussions surrounding Te Awahou Nieuwe Stroom. I looked over my notes taken at these meetings, trying to find a discussion which related to neutrality, and found nothing. Te Awahou offers its associated communities space to tell their own stories, in a way that precludes neutrality.
Te Awahou is a collaborative project between the Foxton community, Horowhenua District Council, Te Taitoa Māori o Te Awahou Trust (representatives of nine hapū of Ngāti Raukawa ki te Tonga and six kaupapa Māori organisations based in Foxton) and the Dutch Museum Connection Trust. The space is not intended to be a museum, although some of its displays will have elements of one. It will house a non-traditional library, contemporary art displays, meeting rooms, educational facilities, cafe, retail shop, and while it will not have a collection, it intends to loan objects for display.
To me, neutrality implies a stepping back. It transforms institutions from arbitrators of good and bad ideas to spaces where ideas can be contested. It requires letting multiple voices express conflicting perspectives to encourage discussion and mutual understanding. This neutrality is a form of inclusivity, but it is not the only one relevant to GLAM institutions.
Neutrality was meant to allow a more inclusive participation in traditional institutions. These are the institutions which have traditionally had a strong voice in cultural discussion. For this reason, any discussion which focuses uncritically on neutrality is a discussion which provides another avenue for traditionally dominant institutions to express their aims and ideas but may exclude newer institutions.
Te Awahou encourages participation and inclusivity in a different way. It gives the associated communities a permanent space to express their evolving understanding of self; their histories, presence and continued development. It will also give people in these communities space to realise their creative potential, allowing them to better realise their own mana and develop their sense of identity. I think a mandate for neutrality would be counter-productive at Te Awahou, because it would get in the way of giving the communities control over the space.
For this piece I am relying on my own definitions of neutrality and inclusivity. I was not at MA16, so I am not part of the discussion surrounding neutrality which emerged there. Inclusivity, on the other hand is a very important concept to me and many of my friends. We participate in events called “burns” which originated with ‘Burning Man’ a festival originally held in San Francisco. You are encouraged to follow a set of values at burns, one of which is a form of inclusivity tied to self-expression - creating a space where people can express themselves without judgement. Because of this I have been given a lot of space to think about inclusivity and have been lucky enough to see a variety of different strategies for inclusivity trialled with varying levels of success.
Te Awahou retains an authority which precludes neutrality. Definitive boundaries need to be drawn around the communities represented, though this was done in conjunction with local people. At the meeting for the Foxton community space, a non-traditional library, there was a request that this space include a Ngāti Raukawa perspective, because the story of Ngāti Raukawa people in Foxton is not the same as the story of all Ngāti Raukawa people. This will not, however, merely tell the stories of Māori in Foxton, which has a long history of bi-cultural integration. Stories such as the marriage of Thomas Uppadine Cook and Meretini Te Akau are an important part of the town’s history. There was also a request to include the history of Chinese New Zealanders in Foxton. There is a desire to include all relevant people in this space. Neutrality would imply allowing anybody who self-identified with Foxton some representation in Te Awahou, while the inclusivity expressed at the community meeting is more about identifying the appropriate groups to represent.
The Te Taitoa Māori o Te Awahou space, called 'Piriharakeke: Generation Inspiration Centre', needed to establish the tribal boundaries and groups that would be included in the exhibition. A solution of ‘inclusivity’ was arrived at after discussions with key hapū advisors and tribal leaders, given the social/political complexities of the past and current concerns in a Treaty of Waitangi Claims Settlement era. Even though Te Awahou maintained its role as arbitrator of who to include in the space, they are sure the arbitration process was reflective of the group they wanted to represent.
Once the people who will tell the stories have been decided, the discussion turned to how they would tell these stories. Strategies to convey overarching themes to visitors who were entering with no prior knowledge, and deeper understanding to visitors with an established knowledge base were discussed, along with ways to ensure different groups within Ngāti Raukawa Ki Te Tonga – hapū, children, artists, those who have left the region – could engage in meaningful, positive ways. Despite providing a space for one community to express itself, Piriharakeke will offer something to visitors from outside that group.
The term 'inclusivity' never came up in the community meetings, however, the importance of the concept was driven home at an earlier hui. This hui was part of the discussions around who to include in the space, and inclusivity was encouraged to avoid difficulties addressing separate hapū that may contest each other’s rights. It is also my interpretation of some of the aims and intentions articulated by participants at the community meetings. As I said, inclusivity is an important concept to me and it is one which I am constantly thinking about.
A conversation about neutrality is a discussion about a certain strategy to encourage inclusivity in GLAM institutions. It is not the only strategy which can achieve this, however, and if we are limiting the discussion to neutrality it limits which institutions can participate, excluding innovative, new institutional models for cultural centres. Neutrality, therefore, needs to be discussed as one of numerous strategies which can create an inclusive cultural sector, rather than as the way to encourage more inclusive institutions.