The Auckland Museum seen at night.
Auckland War Memorial Museum. (Photo: Getty Images/Steve Patterson)

ĀteaMarch 4, 2024

‘PC snowflakes’ and a new lighting protocol: Inside an Auckland Museum board meeting

The Auckland Museum seen at night.
Auckland War Memorial Museum. (Photo: Getty Images/Steve Patterson)

Despite being called woke and PC snowflakes by opponents, the museum intends to centre te reo Māori me ōna tikanga and mātauranga more deeply in its operations going forward.

Annual plans don’t typically garner media, political or public attention, nor many submissions during consultation. Tāmaki Paenga Hira/Auckland War Memorial Museum’s annual plans usually pass through with little comment or attention. Its draft 2024/2025 plan, however, laying out the museum’s pathway to its 2029 centenary, is different. 

Act party MP Mark Cameron called the plan divisive and disrespectful. “Auckland War Memorial Museum’s plan to transform into a tikanga-led ‘social impact organisation’ stinks of the politically-correct mission creep that already besets too many of our public institutions,” Cameron wrote. He called the museum expanding repatriation “a massive own goal”, and said the plan’s “gibberish” transforms the museum “into a woke political organisation”. 

So what is actually in the plan? It says that to uphold Te Tiriti o Waitangi and biculturalism, the museum must disrupt colonial narratives in favour of further elevating te reo Māori me ōna tikanga and mātauranga plus tikanga Māori.

Cameron’s statement referenced a paywalled Newstalk ZB article (free on the Herald) “Auckland Museum to shift from ‘colonial museum’ to ‘Te Tiriti-led Museum'”. The article’s tone suggests that Tāmaki Paenga Hira’s annual plan radically reinterpreted its remit – but at a February 29 hui, museum board members rejected that suggestion. They said that recognising te ao Māori in their latest annual plan simply builds on their pre-existing foundation of celebrating our indigenous culture. 

One of two public submitters present, Dr Roger Lins from the Auckland Museum Initiative, said the plan “stands on the foundation of what you’ve been doing for at least 10 years.” The plan backs up the board and Lins’ points. “In the last few years,” it reads, “we have progressed a number of initiatives which form the foundation for becoming a tikanga-led museum.” Examples include the Māori/Pasifika-led textile project Te Aho Mutunga Kore and revitalising Te Toki a Tapiri (the last surviving great historic war canoe) by replacing its bindings and lashing with authentic materials. Revitalising the waka taua is led by raranga experts from the five iwi associated with the taonga. 

The intricate whakairo of Te Toki a Tapiri. Such exquisite whakairo was reserved for the most prestigious waka. (Photo: Kinder, John/Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki)

At the hui, the board approved its draft annual plan – but what does it explicitly say about the museum building upon its pre-existing Te Tiriti and tikanga obligations? Tāmaki Paenga Hira will “move to disrupt our colonial narratives in line with our commitments to Te Tiriti o Waitangi. This builds upon the bicultural foundation,” reads the plan’s strategic framework. It says this strategy represents the museum today and who it aspires to be. The plan also approved Auckland War Memorial Museum becoming more informed by te reo Māori me ōna tikanga and mātauranga. In his written submission, Lins said these approaches represent “a clear and powerful vision for the museum.” 

Other Māori initiatives in the plan include:

  • Creating two annual summer scholarships for tauira Māori and Pasifika 
  • Developing a repatriation policy which upholds Te Tiriti and redresses past injustices by returning kōiwi and taonga
  • Expanding their Matariki celebrations
  • Exploring warfare’s impact on Māori
  • Giving Te Aho Mutunga Kore dedicated funding and staff
  • Learning from iwi about te taiao 
  • Partnering with tāngata whenua to authentically represent te ao Māori and care for and conserve taonga
  • Redeveloping the ageing Māori court before the museum’s centenary
  • Strengthening their Māori workforce 
  • Undertaking an indigenous-led ecosystem management plan in the Kermadecs

At the meeting, the board discussed the plan’s wording about how it could overcome the colonial narratives which have thus far dominated the museum. Initially the plan’s wording mentioned that the museum was keen to move on from colonial narratives, but that was changed to “disrupt” colonial narratives. After public consultation, the museum’s planning committee chair, Penny Hulse, suggested removing the word “disrupt” to avoid inflaming annual plan opponents. CEO David Reeves suggested changing it to “interrogate”, but board member Rachel Tūwhāngai said that was too strong. David Williams, an emeritus professor in law at Auckland University and a Waitangi Tribunal member, wanted to ensure the plan “keeps specific references to Te Tiriti”. Ultimately, the board agreed the wording could be decided later. 

Te Tiriti o Waitangi is housed in the Archives NZ building.

Reeves explained that slight modifications would be made, but there would be “no radical u-turn”. Minor wording changes were as far as the board were willing to go to incorporate feedback from public submissions. Hulse, a former deputy mayor, explained that because there were “57 submissions out of [a city of] 1.7 million people”, their views didn’t represent a large enough mandate to necessitate the museum taking a “step back.” 

Of the overwhelmingly elderly Pākehā submitters, more opposed the plan than supported it. 26% cited concerns over Te Tiriti, with some calling it irrelevant. One said, “there is absolutely no need to be Te Tiriti-led. It’s a museum for all of NZ. Stop the activism… and be a museum.” Many submitters echoed Act MP Cameron’s statement, saying Tāmaki Paenga Hira leaders were woke, politically correct snowflakes who lacked impartiality. “It’s a war museum! Not a woke museum,” one wrote. “Sack the pathetic woke activists,” said an elderly woman who’d never visited Auckland Museum and didn’t plan to. However, not all submitters were against the annual plan – for example, a rangatahi Māori from Manukau said Te Tiriti was important. 

Submitters were invited to present feedback in person, with two doing so, the aforementioned Lins and Bill Rayner from the elderly advocacy group Grey Power. They both broadly supported the plan. Within the sector, “there are winds of change,” explained Rayner, who thought alongside centring te ao Māori, the museum should still uphold its other commitments, like being a war memorial. 

Although the Māori parts of the Tāmaki Paenga Hira annual plan received media and political attention, they were not the plan’s only proposals, nor the only kaupapa submitters mentioned. Many public submitters discussed the museum’s decision to cancel the Fantastic Beasts exhibition over concerns about Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling’s anti-trans stance. A submitter wrote, “Drop the rainbow… be a museum”, while another said, “This museum is for ALL New Zealanders, not zealots, Trans Activists and Racists.” 

In the aftermath of Posie Parker’s visit to NZ, the museum decided against showcasing a hit J.K. Rowling associated exhibition after she was criticised as being anti-trans. (Image: Tina Tiller)

Regarding the annual plan’s other motions, Auckland Museum will introduce a more sustainable three-year funding model. It will also change its policy for lighting up the museum’s exterior after they found themselves in hot water for a pro-Israel lighting display as Israel was bombarding Palestine. Staff mental health was also discussed at the hui. Director of people and organisation Catherine Smith said that museum staff, particularly kaimahi Māori, have experienced increased mental health concerns of late. Smith explained there has been a “very deep impact of how this political swing to the right has had on tāngata whenua staff.” It was agreed that the government’s rhetoric has emboldened people to attack the museum and its employees. 

As 2024’s first Tāmaki Paenga Hira board hui wound down, a stirring waiata could clearly be heard in the second-floor meeting room from the ground-floor’s ageing but still captivating Māori court. 

This is Public Interest Journalism funded by NZ On Air.

Keep going!