Ideasroom

Taonga: The original social distancers

Museum-held taonga became accustomed to a lifestyle of restriction long before Covid-19 forced us to isolate ourselves from one another, writes the University of Otago's Jamie Metzger 

Being in Level 1 of lockdown in Aotearoa New Zealand has enabled our museums and art galleries to finally open their doors again after sitting dormant for weeks. But reopening to the public won’t remove lingering uncertainties for the cultural sector. Despite the announcement of budget funding initiatives, $18m for Te Papa and a $2m Museum Hardship fund, our museum and heritage sector is facing significant financial pressure and staff layoffs seem imminent.

During the Covid-19 lockdown, the museum sector was quick to adapt, reimagining new ways to deliver their experience online. From blogs, recreating famous paintings, colouring-in pages and jigsaw puzzles, museums used their powers to offer solace, distract, and to give audiences some digital relief from the pandemic’s harsh realities.

While doing my own daily mindless scrolling rituals, there is a meme doing the rounds that got my attention. The caption reads, ‘Y’all tired of being isolated? Imagine that’, alongside images of caged animals. 

As a curator Māori, I saw space in this meme for one more. Perhaps now is as good a time as any to bring up the ‘elephant’ in the museum bubble; recognising taonga as our original social distancers.

The term taonga today is broadly defined as a treasure, but to the tāngata whenua of Aotearoa they are so much more than that. It is difficult to describe to Pākehā the deep sense of connection Māori feel towards taonga. They are treasured ancestral belongings. They are timetravellers through generations. They are powerful sources of kin-identity and belonging. But one of the most important things to understand is that taonga aren’t inanimate objects, they are living ancestors.

For whatever reason, questionable or otherwise, taonga have found their way into museum collections in Aotearoa and across the world. Traded, gifted, looted, stolen, promised, confiscated, purchased and acquired by tools of the colonial machine.

Now they are ‘owned’ by these institutions. Upon entry they are assigned a catalogue number, distilling their mana, tapu and kōrero down to a series of numbers. Their prestige is derived from their Pākehā collector rather than their iwi or tūpuna. It is not uncommon for taonga in museum collections to have no information attached to them. They are the unprovenanced ones, but they didn’t become lost on their own.

For whatever reason, questionable or otherwise, taonga have found their way into museum collections in Aotearoa and across the world. Traded, gifted, looted, stolen, promised, confiscated, purchased and acquired by tools of the colonial machine.

Since their acquisition, museum-held taonga have become accustomed to a lifestyle of restriction. They are well versed in enforced social distancing. Museums have found glass cases, elevated plinths, use of gloves when handling and only displaying about 1 percent of their collection at a time particularly effective.

Museums have been making small steps towards recognising their Eurocentric tendencies. Policies like Te Papa’s Mana Taonga offer pathways to connect taonga with living communities. Māori staff are becoming more visible in institutions. ‘Decolonisation’ is the word on everyone’s lips and repatriation is very on-trend this museum season.

But museums have only really dipped their toes in the bicultural pool; they aren’t swimming just yet.

Māori have always understood the idea of collective health. Te Ao Māori is a holistic way of looking at the world where people, environment and taonga are all interconnected. These matrix of relationships is expressed through the Māori customary concept of mauri.

Mauri is an energy within everything and everyone around us, including taonga. It is like a radio frequency, mauri connects us and also tells us when something has become imbalanced. Some of us are in tune to the mauri station, others are picking up a bit of static and for many, they lost the frequency generations ago.

Taonga have ways of telling us when the mauri has become unbalanced. They speak to us through our negative social, health, housing and education statistics. Māori are still the marginalised, disenfranchised, dislocated and incarcerated.

For kaitiaki working in museums, mauri is an implicit part of their mahi. They understand its purpose and how to engage it. They know that when the mauri of a taonga is protected and nourished, it is felt by its descendants.

As we enter a time of reflection during the Covid-19 alert levels, we have a chance to redesign the museum experience. When reconnected with their whenua, people and narratives, taonga have the ability to provide us with new pathways of healing. Museums that have been understood as a colonial enemy now have great potential to transition into new sites of restoration and Māori wellbeing.

These challenging times call for courageous and innovative thinking for the museum and heritage sector to survive. Māori have always been looking beyond the horizon line; how can museums harness their spirit of innovation? The key can be found within the taonga that lie dormant within them.

How long are we going to let taonga be in confinement for? When will they be liberated from their museum bubble? They have nothing but time – we may not.

Jamie Metzger has worked in different collection roles in museums for the past eight years, and is a Kāhui Kaitiaki representative on the Museums Aotearoa Board. Here she explores how Aotearoa’s lockdown experience relates to taonga held in museum collections.

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