One Question Quiz
Janaye Henry spoke to Te Papa’s head of mātauranga Māori, Migoto Eria (Image: 2 Cents 2 Much)
Janaye Henry spoke to Te Papa’s head of mātauranga Māori, Migoto Eria (Image: 2 Cents 2 Much)

SocietyJuly 27, 2023

Is there such a thing as an ethical museum?

Janaye Henry spoke to Te Papa’s head of mātauranga Māori, Migoto Eria (Image: 2 Cents 2 Much)
Janaye Henry spoke to Te Papa’s head of mātauranga Māori, Migoto Eria (Image: 2 Cents 2 Much)

New Zealand loves museums. There’s one for virtually anything you can think of. But if you saw something of yours in a public museum, wouldn’t you want it back?

The tumu whakarae chief executive of Te Papa, Courtney Johnston, knows that museums aren’t inherently good. Shortly after becoming the youngest chief executive in the national museum’s history, Johnston told Te Herenga Waka “Museums are not neutral. Museums are a colonial construct, they’re a power construct, a political construct, and they have a history of repressing voices and treating some people very poorly.”

Those poorly treated people have been indigenous communities the world over, whose traditions, taonga and even people have been taken, put behind glass and displayed for their ancestors to pay a ticket price to view.

Aotearoa’s museums are no different, and many Māori have an understandable wariness of any public display of “history”. But as the national museum, Te Papa’s senior curators are trying to make up for lost time in changing how museums operate within a bicultural (or multicultural) society.

“The most useful thing I learned at university was there is no one history and no one truth, and everything has to be looked into to understand the power dynamic behind what you are seeing,” said Johnston in 2020. But is there any way for a national museum to ethically record Aotearoa’s history?

In the season finale of 2 Cents 2 Much, Janaye Henry spoke to Te Papa’s head of mātauranga Māori, Migoto Eria, about the ethics of collecting cultural items and putting them in a glass case. Eria manages a group of Māori creators and everything that pertains to mātauranga Māori at Te Papa.

“In the late 19th century there was a huge market for taonga Māori both here and abroad,” said Eria. The Pākehā collectors would often know each other and swap items for display in different venues around the world.

“Is ‘collectors’ sometimes a nice word for ‘thieves’?” asked Henry.

“Mmmm… maybe.”

Is there a way for iwi now to retrieve items from the national museum that belong to them?

Yes, but it’s not a straightforward process, said Eria. “The first thing you’d have to do is have a united front, perhaps have a spokesperson, also have somebody who is a providence researcher, someone who is absolutely certain and meticulous.” Despite Te Papa wanting to be helpful and supportive in these instances, “it’s very complex. It’s never, ever straightforward.”

Perhaps the most meaningful and overdue “returns” have been of ancestors themselves. Part of Te Papa’s mandate includes being the authority that negotiates the repatriation of Māori and Moriori ancestral remains on behalf of Māori and Moriori. Since 2003, they have helped in the returning of almost 800 tūpuna Māori and Moriori from international institutions.

In June, six toi moko (mummified heads), 95 koiwi tangata (skeletal remains) and kōimi t’chakat (skeletal remains of Moriori) were repatriated from a number of German institutions. Just this month, more than 100 kōimi t’chakat Moriori were repatriated from the Natural History Museum in London.

The remains included “skulls, mandibles, other parts of the body and a small number of complete skeletons, which were taken from Rēkohu (Chatham Islands) for collection, trade and research,” according to Te Papa. Alongside the international repatriation momentum, local institutions like Otago University, Tūhura Otago Museum, Canterbury Museum, Whanganui Regional Museum and Auckland War Memorial Museum have also been working together to return ancestral remains to Te Papa, where they’ll be held and eventually returned to their homeland, Rēkohu (Chatham Islands).

At the time, Te Papa’s co-leader Kaihautū Māori co-leader Arapata Hakiwai said the repatriations were only getting started. “We hope this momentous repatriation encourages other institutions around the world to follow suit.”

While repatriation of ancestral remains will continue to be a core pillar of Te Papa’s work as Aotearoa’s national museum, head of mātauranga Māori Eria knows the real change to how museums and society view our history will continue to evolve. “It’s really important for us to always be succession planning and making sure that we become obsolete,” she said. “Someone should be gunning for my job right now… to not only maintain but further develop how it is that we interpret our knowledge and further invite our people to understand their history.”

Watch all six episodes of 2 Cents 2 Much here.

Keep going!