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A protestor abseils down a multi story version of the Treaty of Waitangi at Te Papa, defacing it.
Image: Te Waka Hourua.

ĀteaDecember 11, 2023

A brief history of complaints about Te Papa’s treaty exhibit

A protestor abseils down a multi story version of the Treaty of Waitangi at Te Papa, defacing it.
Image: Te Waka Hourua.

A protest at Te Papa today was not the first against the museum’s Te Tiriti exhibition.

Around midday today, a multi-storey Te Papa display of the Treaty of Waitangi in English was defaced by protestors. One man abseiled down the face of the exhibit, which is part of Te Papa’s permanent Signs of a Nation exhibition, and used spray paint and an angle grinder to cover up the Treaty’s English text. Nearby in the museum’s lobby, other members of Te Waka Hourua unfurled banners onto the steps which read “tell the truth” and “kōrero pono mai” while another of its members used a megaphone to explain their cause. 

The protest group Te Waka Hourua considers itself “a collective of Māori climate justice defenders and Tangata Tiriti allies”. A media release from the group said the protest was an act of redacting information which they believe “misleads visitors to believe it is an accurate translation of Te Tiriti, which it most certainly is not.” 

Te Papa spokesperson Kate Camp said: “This display shows English and te reo Māori versions of the Treaty,” and though the museum respects the right to protest, they were “disappointed that the group has damaged this museum display”. The protestors noted that they “tried all other means” to communicate their concerns, “from email correspondence with the board, one-on-one conversations, to petitioning.” 

Today was not the first time Te Waka Hourua has protested this exhibit from inside the museum. In October 2021, Te Waka Hourua and climate activist group Extinction Rebellion protested the Signs of a Nation exhibit, standing in front of it with their own signs. “Te Tiriti has not been represented honestly, or with integrity,” said Te Wehi Ratana from Te Waka Hourua at the time. “Visitors to Te Papa may not know that they are looking at two different documents: Te Tiriti o Waitangi, which is the internationally recognised version, and the Treaty, the English version.” Much like today, the protestors took banners into Te Papa, which read “sovereignty was never ceded” and “colonisaton = exploitation = climate change”. 

A year later, the group launched an online petition for the display to be changed, with the title “Te Papa: Tell the Truth about Te Tiriti o Waitangi”. The petition gained just shy of 800 signatures last year and since today’s protest several more signatures have been added. 

Te Waka Hourua spokesperson Haimana Hirini today said “the miseducation around Te Tiriti has resulted in a population who are ignorant of the promises made to Māori, leading to fearfulness and division.

“This is why it is so important that our national museum provides clarity and displays an accurate translation for all New Zealanders to be able to read and understand.” 

A protestor takes to that exhibit with an angle grinder.
A protestor takes to that exhibit with an angle grinder. (Photo: Te Waka Hourua)

A 2022 Official Information Act (OIA) request to Te Papa about the Signs of a Nation exhibition, its conception and reception revealed that the museum consulted a Māori advisory group in the early 1990s about exhibitions. While much of the meeting notes are redacted, it is noted in the planning stages that “the Treaty of Waitangi will be a major exhibition area and will be treated in an integrated way with directness and sensitivity”.

A 1994 memo to then CEO Cheryll Sotheran from the “conceptual leadership team” referenced remarks understood to have been made by the Māori advisory group: “We have all made a personal commitment to assisting the museum to achieve its goals in biculturalism and have striven to ensure a bicultural perspective in the exhibition concepts,” read the note. The note then points out the “small size of the Māori staff team” and the “huge range of tasks they face” within the museum. “All too often, exhibition concepts have been developed in discussions which have not been able to involve Māori staff… this is true even for such essentially bicultural exhibitions as the Treaty.”

In 1998, once the museum (and therefore Signs of a Nation) had been opened, there was one official complaint made to the race relations conciliator. The complaint suggested that the exhibition, which portrayed early British movements in Aotearoa as well as displaying the treaty, would “encourage anti-white feelings” due to the narrative of violence and aggression.

In 2006, a letter from Network Waitangi Whangārei – a tiriti education organisation – to then CEO Seddon Bennington urged the museum to swap the large English text in Signs of a Nation with Sir Hugh Kāwharu’s modern translation of the Māori language text. “Many visitors to Te Papa will leave the museum with the impression that Māori ceded their sovereignty to the Crown – literally writ large in the English text in the Signs of a Nation display on level four – without knowing that the Māori text opposite is not a true reflection of this, despite being juxtaposed as if it were.”

Director of history and pacific cultures Claudia Orange responded at the time, noting the labels below the large texts that specify the differences in the texts. She also pointed to a console that holds three copies of the Treaty – the Māori copy first signed at Waitangi, the English copy and the Kāwharu translation of the original Māori tiriti. Thus ended the discussion at that time.

Orange in 2014.
Orange in 2014. (Photo: Norm Heke/Te Papa)

Fifteen years later in 2021, Orange, now a dame and head of research at Te Papa, received an email from a “Whangārei city councillor” with the subject heading “Te Tiriti Exhibition”. The email was short, but referenced a letter from “some years ago”, presumably the 2006 correspondence. “I noted that displaying the signed version in Te Reo and the English version in English was misleading. At the time you said there was no money to rectify this…

“How much would it cost to remove or remove and replace the tall display?”

Orange responded: “You are no doubt right. Labels make clear the te reo Tiriti but the impact of the present presentation does not capture the significance of te Tiriti.” She then promised to raise it “with the leaders team soon”. There is no further correspondence within the OIA material.

After today’s defacing, level four of Te Papa, where the abseiler repelled down from, has been closed and The Signs of the Nation display will be closed until further notice. “Our focus is on the safety of everyone in our museum, and on the protection of the taonga in our care,” said Camp. Police have arrested several people related to the incident and are expected to provide more details later this afternoon.

Update: at 4:46pm on Monday December 11 Police notified media that twelve people were arrested following the protest. Eight of the protestors were arrested then escorted outside, formally trespassed and released without charge while the other four have been charged for various offences. A 29-year-old man has been charged with intentional damage, obstructing police, and breach of bail, a 53-year-old woman has been charged with intentional damage, and a 46-year-old man and 52-year old woman have been charged with breach of bail.

This is Public Interest Journalism funded by NZ On Air.

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