Te Papa's Toi Art gallery. Image: Michael O’Neill

Biculturalism in our national museum can’t be a one-way conversation

Puawai Cairns, head of mātauranga Māori for Te Papa museum, writes about what biculturalism can and should mean in an institution like a museum. 

“Institutional biculturalism is often applied like makeup: it can create the appearance desired by both the wearer and the viewer, while beneath the surface the ravages of time remain. In the case of museums, the inherited ideologies of the western museology may be covered for public consumption, but after the performance, when the makeup is cleaned off, the old face remains as it has always been, the face of colonialism.”

When David Butts wrote these words in his unpublished dissertation Māori and Museums: The Politics of Indigenous Recognition 15 years ago, Te Papa was only five years old, a bright and shiny model of bicultural museum practice, heaving with new visitor-centric offerings. But was it an institution with newly applied makeup that merely provided better camouflage for colonial desiccation?

Museums Aotearoa have asked if I can write something about biculturalism to preface the preparations being put in place for the next conference in 2019, which is going to focus on the big ‘B word’. I’ve struggled with what to call this piece, so I’m writing about all the titles of biculturalism, and all those papers that are still to be written about this makeover sometimes gone wrong.

I had intended on giving this piece a suitably conference-y title like Biculturalism: a dissatisfactory inheritance, referring to the fact that sometimes biculturalism feels like a garment that has been handed down, like an awkward third-hand jersey that you don’t quite fit (Biculturalism: the unwanted hand-me-down).

I got caught up on whether this jersey should be termed a dissatisfactory or unsatisfactory inheritance. So I searched to find out what the difference is and Google spat this cheerful paragraph back at me:

“A sense of incompleteness, which leaves one feeling unsatisfied

A sense of wrongness, which leaves one feeling dissatisfied”

I mulled over the sense of incompleteness and dissatisfaction (Biculturalism: just enough to eat so you don’t starve). When is biculturalism bicultural enough to be satisfying? Is it when we have 50/50 equitable split or power between the Treaty partners? When there are more exhibitions nationwide that give more coverage of Māori stories and worldviews? When all your staff are bicultural (capacity, whakapapa etc)? Or when there is just enough of a presence of one Treaty partner in an institution to appear bicultural (as per the David Butts quote above) while not necessarily having a 50/50 partnership (Biculturalism: it may not be pretty but it gets shit done)? The vague expectations of biculturalism make it everything and nothing, it becomes the grand promise that never delivers a grand shift.

I reflected on the times biculturalism has actually helped me get shit done, remembering a moment when I cited biculturalism and our institutional obligations to it, in an exhibition meeting that advocated for more Māori representation. The strategy worked to a limited extent – I was able to add ever so slightly more Māori content – but it was not the ideal outcome. My arguments had to hinge on what value Māori content brought to a national conversation for non-Māori visitors, convincing decision-makers that non-Māori visitors would not be alienated by ‘too many’ Māori stories. In a bicultural framework, wouldn’t this also work the other way? That the other partner would have to make arguments that too many non-Māori stories would not alienate Māori audiences (Biculturalism: is it a one way discussion)?

There is also a sense of wrongness within a bicultural framework because it can disregard that other, older relationships exist – such as our whakapapa relationship and loyalty to Pacific people, who become either a voiceless part of the bicultural partnership or are placed in false opposition. Biculturalism locks you into a dialogical relationship, sometimes at the cost of more nuanced kōrero outside this binary (Biculturalism: it can be an exclusive conversation).

There is an anxiety that comes with being a bicultural partner and it chews at the heart of most Māori who work within a bicultural framework. By dint of our numerically lesser status within institutions, we become the bicultural Wikipedia, our opinions representative of the cultural other. This results in an ever-present anxiety, a fear that if you miss an email, miss a meeting, don’t agree to an invitation to be part of a steering group/expert panel, there will be no bicultural (read: Māori) opinion expressed. So you have to be on the ball, hyper-vigilant and, as a result, usually strung out (Biculturalism: there is no out-of-office-auto reply). This also exists with the requirement to carry out cultural protocols, to teach and educate the bicultural partner about te ao Māori while also navigating the demands of te ao Western workplace.

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Ehara i te mea pani, me haehae (it is not enough to wear it as painted adornment, it should be carved)

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I want to talk about what biculturalism can be, as opposed to this partially achieved social contract. Biculturalism is a system that requires constant advocacy from both partners, to protect the integrity and promise of the partnership. It cannot exist if one party is exerting all their efforts to realise the aspirations of the other without a mutual agreement that this will be returned in kind. To fully determine a bicultural relationship is not decolonisation, it is not an appeasement, and it is not mana motuhake – it is keeping a promise. Biculturalism is a framework that requires allies, accomplices, compromise and respect. Just as we learn from the story of tā moko when the practice shifted from painting on to the skin to scarification, if an institution has adopted biculturalism as its driving framework, it is not enough to only wear it as a temporary face of make up, it should be carved into its structure, as an irrefutable and undeniable statement.

But once this is done, the challenge that we must answer is if we still believe that biculturalism is the best system to help us navigate where we want to go? (Biculturalism: terminus, or just a train stop before somewhere else?)

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 This article was first published in Museums Aotearoa Quarterly, December 2018.


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