Like most countries colonised by the British, the Māori people of New Zealand had a bit of a rough go of things, to say the least.
Today, this influence still heavily exists, whether that be in the prevalent everyday racism in New Zealand, or in the way that you can still see important Māori artefacts on display overseas in a context far removed from their original. Like many cultures, the Māori people lost control of countless numbers of their objects years ago.
I often feel torn about this issue, as I am both Māori born and raised, and a history lover who has always been fascinated by museums. I even currently work in a museum in the UK, although it is by no means anything to do with curation.
The first time I visited the British Museum, objectively one of the most notorious examples, I was 18, and fresh off the boat from New Zealand. I was in awe of the magnificent architecture, and the history nerd in me was incredibly excited about how I could find objects from just about every country in the world. Nowadays, these feelings are a little more mixed.
Half of me is simply glad that you can go there, and learn about so many different cultures. And for free, as well! It’s incredible. There’s a global audience that is exposed to Māori artefacts from New Zealand, which probably wouldn’t have happened otherwise. I’ve always loved history, and the more access the everyday person has to different ideas and cultures, the better.
On the other hand, they came to be a part of the collection in a very different time, during the height of the British Empire. Everything down to how these objects are displayed and written about is from an undeniably British, not indigenous perspective. They may describe the objects on a surface level but are unable to fully grasp how the context and relationship with other objects influence the true meaning. Also, it brings up the question of how most of the objects were
stolen procured for the collection, and the ethics of keeping unfairly gained objects and profiting off them.
Many of the common arguments about restoring original ownership simply boil down to the fact that people are scared of change, and they don’t want objects that have been proudly on display somewhere for their lifetime to move somewhere else. Or perhaps they believe that other cultures won’t be able to respect and display the objects like the British do, an argument which is heavily rooted in racism, as it forgets museums can exist outside of Europe. It also reinforces the colonial idea that objects must be on display for people to appreciate and learn about them.
Another argument is that some people feel is that if the British give everything back, then the museums will be empty. Which may have some truth on a very surface level, but in reality, have they never heard of touring exhibitions? Or having objects loaned out to other museums? Virtually every museum has a collection that has vast swarths of objects that have never been on display, because of the sheer space requirement they need. Imagine where instead of being limited to just one museum’s exclusive use, objects could simply be shared across museums all over the world.
It’s not all bad. Although most cultural institutions still have a bad tendency to provide non-answers when confronted on this topic, the conversations are still beginning to be heard. In 2017, the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, England returned Māori remains back to New Zealand. Even the British Museum has done the same for a limited number of remains since 2004.
There’s a Māori meeting house (traditionally the heart of a village) by the name of Hinimihi somewhere in Surrey that was sold and shipped over to the UK in the late 1800s. It had been left abandoned after the Tarawera eruption destroyed its original North Island area. At first glance that doesn’t sound great… but over the years it’s become almost the centre of the UK Māori community.
During WW2, Māori soldiers used Hinimihi to recover when the site was used as a military hospital. In the 90s, carvers all of the way back in New Zealand worked on making new carvings to help restore the building. Today, the Māori Ngāti Rānana community in London uses it often for official purposes. So in that case, it’s quite nice that it’s been reclaimed, and there’s a cultural home away from home for Māori people.
I like the idea of restoring the ownership to their indigenous cultures… but it’s up to the owners what they do with it. In the case of Hinimihi, ownership was given back to Maori people, but they’ve chosen to treat it respectfully, and for now, they’ve kept it in England.
I saw an exhibition once in London celebrating the Polynesian culture, supported and loaned items by various Pacific Island groups, which I very much enjoyed. I found that having the influence of the indigenous cultures meant that the visitors and I could respectfully learn more about Pacific culture.
They respected the Māori concept of ‘tapu’ by providing bowls at the entrance to wash your hands, which I was very appreciative of. An area of significance to Māori, most commonly an urupā (cemetery) or a museum, is ‘tapu’ (very loosely translated as sacred), and once you leave this area, you must make yourselves ‘noa’ (common) again by washing your hands. Fun fact: the word ‘tapu’ is more well known in its anglicised form, taboo, which is now commonly used in the English language.
My favourite part is how they waived the usual entry fee if you held a Pacific Island or New Zealand passport, meaning it was free to these who could relate the most.
In a third example, this year I’ve been lucky enough to visit the latest Nature Photographer of the Year exhibition in both its home at the London Natural History Museum and on tour at the Auckland Museum. It was an interesting, but welcome experience seeing it twice in entirely different contexts.
When I saw it in New Zealand it was still fundamentally the same, but they had changed some aspects to fit the New Zealand context while still keeping the feel of the original (such as having many bilingual displays in both English and Māori, which I was pleasantly surprised by).
This was a great example of why touring exhibitions should be the biggest development in museums in the future, because it means that ultimately the creating party will be in control of how it is displayed, but it can be adapted to its local context while still keeping faithful to the original meaning.
In many ways, it’s similar to how the internet has allowed us to have a more global, shared ownership of everything. Instead of exclusively owning access to something, you can just use your nearest device and log onto the internet from anywhere.
Restoring ownership back to their indigenous cultures is, simply put, the right thing to do. In fact, in many cases, a culture may be willing to share their knowledge anyway which we have seen in the examples above. However of course, the indigenous owners fully understand the objects they are showing, and most importantly are given a choice. In many cases, they might even stay where they are, albeit with updated display cases.
And if they decide to move the objects back to their home country? Just because the colonial owners are currently displaying them now, doesn’t mean that if they return to their original owners people will no longer be able to learn about that culture. Who better to know how to display the right combination of objects in a respectful way than the indigenous culture that they represent? In the cases where it is disrespectful to show certain objects – things such as human remains, which have different connotations in different cultures, come to mind – the original culture can treat them correctly. Just because you can’t see an object in person, doesn’t mean you can’t learn about in other ways.
I don’t believe that any museum should ever stay static, so I believe that in the long run, opening up their collections to these conversations will only be a good thing. By doing so, they can ensure they’re more inclusive, and also that people everywhere get a chance to learn.
Everyone should have access to learning, and restoring ownership is a great way of helping this goal, because often the original owners want people to learn about their culture too! And if the original way of displaying doesn’t work, then at least the original owners can think of a better future for the items than keeping it in a sterile, out of touch glass display cabinet.
Some further reading, if anyone is interested.
- A compelling article by a friend, examining how cultural narratives affect our understanding of an object https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/ishango-bone-exploring-how-colonial-narratives-affect-samuel-harris/
- Why the National Trust is trading in its Maori meeting house for a newer model https://www.apollo-magazine.com/hinemihi-maori-meeting-house-national-trust/
- Some great podcasts to learn about New Zealand history are the RNZ Aotearoa History show, and also the History of Aotearoa New Zealand (yes, they have incredibly similar names!)