Outside perspectives at MA18

By Emma Philpott, Content and Resource Adviser, National Services Te Paerangi

You can usually rely on a Museums Aotearoa Conference to share some excellent examples of good practice from a broad sweep of New Zealand museums, and hear from a few great keynote speakers from the museum sector inspiring us to think bigger and do more. But not MA18.

Held from 20-23 May 2018, in the crisp air of an autumnal Ōtautahi Christchurch, the conference took a deliberate step away from holding a mirror up against museum practice. Instead the organising committee curated a conference of outside perspectives through the theme of Outside Insights.

National Services Te Paerangi Iwi Development Adviser Paora Tibble presenting at the Service IQ Museum Awards. Photographer Nancy Zhou, courtesy of Museums Aotearoa

A Sunday afternoon whakatau marked the start of the conference, followed by the Service IQ Museum Awards at Christchurch Art Gallery. In the main sessions, held over two days at the Isaac Theatre Royal, we heard a challenging indictment of domestic violence, learnt how tangata whenua connections were built into regeneration design in post-quake Canterbury, and heard from community groups under-represented in our museums.

The final day split the conference into trips and workshops, and there was a wide range of options, including a field trip to Okains Bay and Akaroa, tours of the Christchurch rebuild and focused specialty sessions from curatorship to good governance.

To synthesise all of that and angle the reflection back into the walls of our institutions, I wanted to share a few threads that stood out to me from the conference:

“Nothing about us without us”

Josie Ogden Schroeder, CEO of YMCA Christchurch, said this in the context of youth programmes run by the YMCA. She stressed the importance of programming being led by the participants in it, but to me it resonated as key to any meaningful partnership.

Josie Ogden Schrodeder talks about YMCA programmes. Photographer Nancy Zhou, courtesy of Museums Aotearoa

Furthering this, Ngāi Tahu’s Takerei Norton gave attendees a taste of the Kā Huru Manu cultural mapping project, which shows original names of places, travel routes and kai gathering spots across the South Island. Takerei provided just a very small taste of the huge body of knowledge captured by Ngāi Tahu researchers to date.

Takerei ended his talk with a call to action: “If your institution has information pertaining to Ngāi Tahu, we want it – we want to put it on our own databases and websites – we don’t want you to do it, we’ll do it ourselves.”

Check out the Kā Huru Manu digital mapping project

Museums can do better

In a sobering opening keynote presentation Tā Mark Solomon challenged communities and whānau to reduce New Zealand’s family violence rates. He called for museums to take the lead in discussing this issue in a public forum.

The willingness of Canterbury Museum to host the Bristlecone Project exhibition (displaying portraits and stories from male survivors of childhood sexual abuse) was highlighted. Mark asked the audience to consider what else they could do to raise this issue.

Find out more about The Bristlecone Project exhibition at Canterbury Museum

Other challenges came through the panel discussion He Wānanga: A conversation about repatriation in New Zealand where there was a show of hands from audience members who were aware of human remains in their institutions’ collections. The point being made was that this was not just a conversation for the panel but everyone at the conference to take part in.

He Wānanga: A conversation about repatriation in New Zealand panel discussion. Photographer Nancy Zhou, courtesy of Museums Aotearoa

Whanganui Regional Museum’s Kaitiaki Taonga Māori and Kaiwhakaako Māori Awhina Twomey also called out museums for keeping and displaying taonga taken from gravesites without any acknowledgement of how and where they were acquired: “At least acknowledge that they were someone’s daughter or someone’s son. That’s the basis of where we’re coming from.”

Everything in context (of communities)

Talking about the future of museums as Aotearoa transitions into a post-settlement world, Sasha McMeeking (Ngāi Tahu) suggested museums need to be aware of their place:  “[A museum is] just a paddock. Iwi Māori have an entire world where this paddock is just one part.”

Sasha McMeeking on stage at Museums Aotearoa. Photographer Nancy Zhou, courtesy of Museums Aotearoa

Sasha said there was still a place for museums as a place for ideas, education, experience, identity and continuity. “Museums should be broadening and provoking.” She called for us to rethink what the museum looked like and where taonga was displayed.

Creative organisations working in Christchurch also shared their experiences of wrapping culture into a post-quake city, often in makeshift places.

Furthering this thread of thought, it’s worthwhile considering how you reach your communities – whether it’s where you tour your exhibitions, how you share content online or who you work with to make connections into the community.

Silliness is okay (and the robots are taking over)

In a keynote presentation accompanied by hand-drawn slides, science communicator Elizabeth (Loo) Conner from The Kinship spoke about the disconnect she observed between science and art.

Along with suggesting we should look at the world in brown and gold rather than black and white (digging through the ‘brown stuff’ until you get to the gold), she also said that the secret of good science communication is actually to be a bit silly.

Science communicator Loo Conner, The Kinship (with NZ sign language interpreter behind left). Photographer Nancy Zhou, courtesy of Museums Aotearoa

From a science puppet show for adults which demonstrates the mating rituals of albatross (from a Kinship show at Te Papa), to letting conference attendees loose in your museum at night to solve a mystery (one of our evening activities thanks to Canterbury Museum!), or a conference powerpoint primarily made of cat memes (courtesy of Ciaran Fox), a dose of silly might just be in order as we look to the future.

Which brings us to the final keynote speaker. Kaila Colbin from Singularity University talked fast about the fast pace of technological advances and how we should really be all kept up late at night worrying about the robots taking over.

Meanwhile… some amazing work is also happening in New Zealand museums

There was a great atmosphere at the opening night’s Service IQ Museum Awards, and some really noteworthy projects awarded from strong nominee lists. Congratulations to all award winners, including the below that I wanted to highlight:

  • Museum Project Award winner: Te Awahou Nieuwe Stroom, in Foxton
  • Exhibition Excellence – Science and Technology winner: Kaikoura Museum for New Normal – The Kaikoura Earthquake Exhibition
  • Exhibition Excellence – Art winner: Hastings City Art Gallery for #keeponkimiora, with Edith Amituanai and Kimi Ora Community School
  • Inaugural Mina McKenzie Award winner – Awhina Tamarapa for her “significant contribution to the embedding of Matauranga Māori in New Zealand museums”

You can find the full list of nominees and winners on the Museums Aotearoa website

Many of the winning projects were the result of organisations partnering closely with communities, working outside the walls of their museum, challenging themselves to do better, and sometimes just being a little silly.

From the beginning of this year’s conference, it’s a great closing reminder that we can, and should, still look to our peers for inspiration as well.