Cavalry from the Parthenon Frieze (part of the Parthenon marbles), British Museum. Image: Marie-Lan Nguyen

A Māori at the British Museum

Currently studying abroad, Miriama Aoake is coming face-to-face with international museum ethics and the exploitation of tangata whenua for taonga.

On the first floor in the northern wing of the British Museum there is a tiled urupā with glass tombs. Past the gift shop, through the twin doors and left at mo’ai (whanaunga from Rapa Nui), I saw my reflection in the headstone. Either from exhaustion, homesickness, or both, I collapsed on my knees and wept. I used the tears to wash my hands. I said a karakia under my breath. Two old women stood in front of me, inspecting the cabinet of static objects. “They were quite resistant. Such a pity – all gone now.” There, on the floor of the Living and Dying gallery, a stranger pronounced the death of Māori in the presence of a live one.

The museum was closing and I was kicked out. I came back to the grave a week later. There were no weeds to pull and the flowers hadn’t wilted. There was no embrace. I stared at the tomb and the tomb stared back.

At home, we are ghosts too. The obelisk atop Maungakiekie remains a memorial to Māori. We are the disobedient child that never learns. We’re supposed to be seen, not heard.

For the past three months, I have studied the museums of London. Exposure to marble busts, the Rosetta stone and sarcophagi of Egyptian nobility should feel like an honour. But it doesn’t. Museums continue to operate as national archives for colonial booty. In these circumstances, it is impossible to divorce appreciation of art from the context of violent imperialism under which they were acquired.

There is one sign, once inside the gallery, for our Torres Strait and Australian first nations mob. The sign is a disclaimer, warning visitors that imagery of their tīpuna who have passed is displayed with a 360-degree view. The sign is almost invisible and easily missed, only noticed after the fact. Their glass tomb sits adjacent to the Māori casket. In this gallery, the museum demonstrates that indigenous visitors are at best unexpected, at worst, unwelcome. I learned quickly criticism was not welcome. I was encouraged to check my response at the coatroom. I had to wonder if George Nuku’s plastic kōwhaiwhai panels was throwing subtle shade at these fullas.

Beyond Room 24, the top attraction on the colonial theft tour is the Parthenon Marbles. Ownership continues to be challenged, resulting in the longest known state custody battle. The Ottoman territory claimed Greece with a 400-year military occupation. To secure a victory against France in Egypt, they gave Lord Elgin, a British diplomat and hellenophile, an incentive. Lend us some troops and we will ensure the Sultan grants you a firman, a legal document granting permission to loot the Parthenon. Shortly after the first victory, Elgin had his firman.

Greece’s appeals for repatriation have been largely ignored. Britain has remained somewhat elusive as their justification has evolved. The firman is the heart of Britain’s legal claim, yet the only copy that remains is an Italian translation some have speculated is fake. Settler anxiety seems to etch at the fringes of the legality each time the claim is contested. This anxiety is evident in Aotearoa, too, each time a claim is filed with the Waitangi Tribunal.

The consistent defence the British Museum proffers is the universalist approach. Museums are centres of education which expose many to diverse histories they may not usually have witnessed were they housed in their original locations. They showcase human potential and its achievements. As the number one tourist destination in London, this response is somewhat expected. Britain is nothing if not protective of its economic investments.

This carved pare (lintel) is thought to be from the Hawke’s Bay and was taken to England in 1867. It is now part of the British Museum collection. Image: British Museum.

Museum ethics parallels the inclusiveness of tikanga in practice. Nurturing whanaungatanga is imperative. This is where Te Papa succeeds. It fosters a working relationship with Māori to ensure we benefit from sharing our dynamic histories. The British Museum has a penchant for neglecting such duties. Since 2013, the British parliament has ignored the Greek appeal to have UNESCO mediate the debate.

Indigenous methodologies are not a homogenising practice, but an inclusive framework which should be welcomed and adopted. Our perspectives restore equity to formerly exploitative relationships and ensure history has a healthy pulse. Premature death of culture is easily avoided.

The Greek claim is easily understood within this context. The Parthenon marbles are a taonga. At the time of their removal, state power was unfairly vested in a foreign empire who auctioned them to the highest bidder, without permission. Greek agency was abrogated and denied. The marbles are the prototype for imperial collectivism and cast a long shadow across the commonwealth. The British Museum needs to embrace and engage with criticism and foster relationships where possible. If the marbles are to escape a live burial, Britain must abandon its overt paternalism and return them to their Athenian heart.

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