Highlights from MA17: He Waka Eke Noa – Museums of Inclusion

By Tamara Patten, National Services Te Paerangi

Two months into a 12 month sabbatical from my role at Te Papa, Museums Aotearoa Conference 2017 provided me with a valuable opportunity to reconnect with colleagues and keep my head in the game.

This year’s conference theme, He Waka Eke Noa – Museums of Inclusion, was a cracker. Over three days from 22 to 24 May it allowed for intense reflection and discussion on how successful museums and galleries are in achieving the goal of being fully inclusive spaces, and what we can do to make our institutions accessible to everyone.

It was appropriate that Te Manawa in Palmerston North was our host museum for a conference with this kaupapa. Te Manawa is leading the way in terms of inclusive practice, and this was recognised when they won the inaugural Arts Access Aotearoa Museum Award for NOA Open Studio.

Learn more about Te Manawa’s NOA Open Studio

Read about all the winners and finalists at the 2017 ServiceIQ New Zealand Museum Awards

Charlotte Museum pop-up exhibition alongside the newly opened Topp Twins exhibition, Te Manawa

It’s difficult to come up with a highlights package from a conference which featured so many thought-provoking conversations, but in the interest of keeping this article under dissertation length, here are a few of the high points.

The keynotes were both outstanding this year. Stella Duffy kicked off the programme with a presentation touching on her background working in the arts, and how she came to be Co-Director of Fun Palaces. Fun Palaces is an international scheme in which community members come together for a festival of events and to share arts and sciences knowledge and skills – anything from landscape painting to brick laying to debugging computers. GLAM sector organisations participate by providing a venue and organisational support, whilst also stepping back and letting the community run the show.

Stella sums it up best herself:

‘If we genuinely want culture to be accessible for all, then we – the culture-makers – need to get out of the way, stop thinking we have the answers, and start trusting the people to create culture BY, FOR and WITH all. We need to hand it over.’

Learn more about Fun Palaces

The second keynote was Glenn Iseger-Pilkington, who has the mammoth job title of William and Margaret Geary Curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art and Culture at the South Australian Museum. Glenn spoke on the complex subject of cultural inclusivity in galleries and museums.

I found Glenn’s talk challenging in the best of ways. He delivered a wake-up call related to the cultural violence museums can perpetrate against indigenous cultures – through incorrect or incomplete narrative, omission, or inappropriate treatment of cultural treasures. Glenn illustrated this with reference to his own personal experiences as an Aboriginal man. Growing up he found that his own culture was missing from local museums – there was no place for him there.

Glenn reminded us that simply collecting and displaying indigenous art does not equate to inclusion. Further, museums and galleries at times add layers of ‘otherness’ or exoticise cultures by showing them within a curatorial narrative only, removing human or cultural narratives. We can do better.

Glenn Iseger-Pilkington’s keynote culminated in a waiata

Both Stella and Glenn stressed the importance of museum staff stepping back and relinquishing authority. Museums and galleries must provide places for diverse stories to be shared, and find spaces for the invisible – supported, but not controlled, from the inside.

Later, Ngahuia Te Awekotuku’s talk on imagining an inclusive Māori museum reinforced Glenn’s messages about finding a place for indigenous people who are alienated from their own culture, and furthered it by critiquing the Western framework that has created a division in value between what is perceived as ‘art’ and what is perceived as ‘craft’.

It was also great to hear from representatives from Te Awahou Nieuwe Stroom, a cultural centre in development in Te Awahou | Foxton, set to open later in 2017. Te Awahou Nieuwe Stroom is a partnership between Te Taitoa Māori o Te Awahou Trust, the Dutch Connection Trust, and the Horowhenua District Council. It was interesting to learn more about the realities of collaboration on a long-term cultural centre development project. The project provides a good case study for others entering into similar developments.

Learn more about Te Awahou Nieuwe Stroom

NSTP’s Victoria Esson (l) with representatives from Te Awahou Nieuwe Stroom

For me, the pinnacle of the conference was the session entitled Including Sexuality and Gender Diversity: collecting LGBT histories. This was the conference’s only session dedicated to kaupapa of this kind, and the room was packed. Chaired by Siren Deluxe of Auckland Museum, this session included talks by Siren herself on imagining a New Zealand sexual heritage collection. As Siren says, ‘if sexuality is foundational to identity, and museums are in the business of collecting identity, then museums must turn their curatorial gaze to collecting sexual identity.’ Louisa Hormann reported on her project researching LGBTQIA histories at Te Papa via a collection from Chrissy Witoko’s Evergreen Coffee Lounge, Dr Miriam Saphira of the Charlotte Museum spoke on the whys and hows of establishing New Zealand’s only museum dedicated to lesbian history, and Jess Mio of MTG Hawke’s Bay talked about ways museums can move beyond the gender binary and make museums safer and more inclusive places for all people, regardless of gender.

During this session presenters and participants shared insights, experiences, and some very personal stories. I have never before felt such a sense of community and understanding at a museum sector gathering. I’d like to see more sessions like this at future Museums Aotearoa conferences.

Drag performers Ruby Dax and Rex Everything lead a rousing rendition of YMCA at the Inclusive Party, supported by Diversity NZ

This conference challenged me and made me reflect on my strengths and weaknesses as a museum professional more than any other conference I have attended. Museums of Inclusion provided a reminder that we can always do more. We must always be open to ways to improve our practice, in order to push our doors further open and welcome more people in.

Finally, many thanks to Museums Aotearoa, who granted me the half bursary that enabled me to attend MA17, and to my whānau at National Services Te Paerangi who allowed me to share their accommodation.