“…without it, it is lonely.”
This was one of the most striking statements made by Paora Tibble, a Māori Language Writer (currently a tribe-museum liaison officer) for the Te Papa Tongarewa National Museum of New Zealand, in a presentation overflowing with striking statements; the type that force your mind to sit up and take notice, hungrily holding on to each one as it opens new trains of thought to follow. The 2016 NAI/INNZ International Conference was full of memorable discussions and presentations, but I would like to focus on two particular interpreters that brought to the forefront the concept of objects as living, dynamic creations that have active relationships with the culture and people from which they came. Tibble’s excellent session – “Whakakōrerohia Ngā Taonga │ Giving Voice to Objects” – began with him passing around a heavy, carved paddle-like object that has been intimately linked to his family for generations: it is passed over each of their bodies, generation after generation, after death. All of a sudden what was an interesting and beautiful cultural artifact became an also intensely personal one: you could see the reaction in the room as many people instantly became more deferential, even skittish, about holding it, touching it, and so very carefully passing it to the next person. The moment he shared his story with the audience, that object came to life, complete with a whole family of relatives that were tied directly to our speaker. Tibble interpreted the object’s living connection by introducing us to its best friend: its own story. He also reminded us of a vital facet of interpretation: connecting communities with their treasures. He spoke of a Māori representative that traveled to museums around the world and – with their agreement – handled the artifacts in their collections, breathing into the musical instruments, giving them life again.
Puawai Cairns – Senior Curator of Māori in Te Papa – also had a living object tale to share. Her lively and deeply insightful keynote speech “The Politics and Practice of the Free Radical: Curation and Interpretation in the Contact Zone” gave us a glimpse into the pressures of being a museum professional with the unique relationship she has as a member of the Māori community with the museum and its artifacts. Cairns spoke of running tours through the archival collections where, per professional standards, it is understood that in the visitors are only rarely permitted – and only wearing protective gloves – to touch the objects they see. This philosophy came into direct conflict when a Māori guest recognized one of the artifacts as belonging to her family’s clan and immediately began touching it, rubbing her hands and cheeks on it, because this was what was respectfully done by her community standards. Cairns was at that moment caught in between her role as a curator and her role as a Māori, and in that instance recognized that what was appropriate was to give the Māori perspective primacy.
Partnership comes from mutual respect, and making sure that the people who have a personal and cultural connection to museum objects are empowered to speak for themselves requires an awareness of what that respect means for everyone involved. Interpretation does its mission no good if it attempts to restrict the people behind collection artifacts to “informants” and “source material”, or to focus too heavily on standardized methods over ones that incorporate the perspectives and approaches of the people who gave that artifact its story. How could your own interpretive work develop if instead of perhaps seeing an object as an inert piece of matter with no meaning other than what is ascribed to it, it is understood as something that has an inherent life and narrative of its own, and it is patiently (or perhaps not so patiently!) waiting for its friends and relatives to breathe it all back out into the world?
*For more information about the work of Puawai Cairns at Te Papa Museum: http://blog.tepapa.govt.nz/author/puawai2011/ and http://www.radionz.co.nz/national/programmes/teahikaa/audio/20175145/maori-men-of-world-war-i-te-papa-curator-puawai-cairns
*For a recording of Paora Tibble reciting the story “Kiore Whispers” : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4-rM0GGydNg