Museums and galleries: enhancing diversity in exhibitions and thinking

By Ian Wards, Museum Development Officer – Special Projects, National Services Te Paerangi

Museums and galleries: enhancing diversity in exhibitions and thinking

A panel discussion hosted by National Services Te Paerangi and Museums Aotearoa.

New Zealand Diversity Forum 2013

Chaired by Courtney Johnston (Director, Dowse Art Museum), with Puawai Cairns (Curator Contemporary Māori Culture, Te Papa), Vera Mey (Assistant Director, St Paul St Gallery) and Wen Powles (International Strategy Advisor, Te Papa), the panel discussed their experiences of working to broaden the thinking of both visitors and fellow museum workers, in regard to Pacific and Asian communities and cultures.

A key theme was the inadequacy of terms like Māori or Asian, which attempt to homogenise diverse peoples. On this theme Vera Mey showed a slide of Oriental flavoured noodles, asking what is ‘Oriental flavour’? (What would ‘European flavour’ taste like?) Providing a Chinese perspective, Wen Powles pointed out that some Chinese arrived in New Zealand in the 1860s, while others arrived last week. People labelled Chinese or Pacific Islander can come from hugely different cultural, linguistic and socio-economic backgrounds.

Panellists were not suggesting a whole new realm of terminology, but more subtly a need for greater awareness and empathy from within the greater museum/gallery world.

Vera Mey also discussed the interesting example of the video, Cinderazahd: For Your Eyes Only, exhibited in late 2012 at The Dowse Art Museum. The video featured unveiled Qatari women getting ready for a relative’s wedding. Film-maker Sophia Al-Maria asked that only women view the film. Outraged editorials and articles in Wellington newspapers followed. Vera noted that being excluded, for once, could be a good learning experience for New Zealand males – who may seldom think about the subtle and not so subtle exclusion women, elderly and minority cultures might experience in this country, on a daily basis.

So how to apply this thinking in museums?

Puawai Cairns discussed the Mana Taonga policy of Māori curators at Te Papa and how it has a strong focus on building and maintaining relationships with Māori communities throughout Aotearoa. Puawai emphasised museums should not be static cultural bubbles, but that the walls of the museum should be more transparent – bringing communities into the exhibition development process, letting taonga come from, and go back to their communities.

Courtney Johnston noted how museums can often be seen as holding the truth about history, but that increasingly historical narratives from different cultures and differing individuals within cultures are challenging our stock narratives – showing that there are no singular defined histories, but rather varied interpretations, experiences and memories.

Puawai Cairns also talked about the contrast between the experience of taonga in museums and that found in the home or home marae environment. At home you may touch, eat near, sleep on or in taonga – and interact with taonga as part of a local cultural and environmental context. By way of contrast, in a museum you look at it through a glass case, with interpretation provided. She also asked, where can young Māori see themselves reflected in museums?

Wen Powles felt it was important to have front of house staff from a variety of cultural backgrounds, reflecting the diversity of our society, but also welcoming in their familiarity. Wen pointed out that upon entering a museum in another country you are always drawn to things from your own cultural background. This is also the case for New Zealanders in New Zealand museums. Objects don’t have to be grand; even small every day things can enhance a visitor’s sense of belonging in this respect.