Imagine a different way of looking and thinking about the taonga currently residing in our museums. i have been posting about my belief that taonga should be given back to their owners or descendents. The various taonga were created as part of a continuious line of whakapapa that still exists today. But rather than strip the museums why not consider this approach.
The empowerment of maori communities in association with their wider communities and the institutions, could be a win-win-win scenario.
It would be a win for maori communities by strengthening mana. The structural changes that would need to be needed, could be coordinated with the institutions, local communities, even government and used as the catalyst to drive community and local maori development. Training, apprentiships, planning and management could all be built in to that development. For example if a taonga was given back then it would have to be received correctly and given somewhere to live. All of those areas need to cover both maoritanga and good museum proceedure. And that is a point. If the taonga are given back then they are given back. Their kaitiaki will determine what happens. Some may be fearful that taonga will be unavailable for viewing but how many are visited now? It is about respect and trust.
Maori communities may decide to develop other opportunities. There is no doubt that the welcoming home ceremonies could be magnificant. Bringing the wider community together in shared rejoicing. It could be done – we all want to be involved and one of the barriers to engagement is the feeling of them and us. When communities learn about the heritage of their area, the taonga and the tangata whenua, the connections increase and strengthen - distrust, stereotypes and fear break down. Nothing happens overnight and it is already happening out there to some extent.
But what advantages could there be for the institutions themselves?
Nothing stays static and museums and their attitudes to their charges and the public is a typical example. Just think of the difference that Te Papa has made. Love it or hate it – it is different and an example of a different way of looking at the whole area. My idea is just a little further along the line. Devolving the way we think of museums from single buildings in the centre of cities to a more community based approach. Taonga held in the areas they came from, with the people who they came from.
Reasearch could still be carried out where the parties have negotiated and agreed. Some research could be done at the community level thus increasing the experience of the researchers and givng them insights that they would not normally get because they lack the cultural context. Agreements would be good for everyone and create goodwill and more opportunities for learning.
Many current taonga will not be able to be repatriated because it is simply not known where they came from. This could be sorted out at a pan-maori level with the institutions. Good practice would continue to be carried out and the museums and institutions would continue as is, but stronger.
Museums do tread a fine line amongst all of their various tensions. They do research, protect, display, manage, catalogue, interact with the public, interpret and try to remain financially viable. It is a big ask. This initiative would create big publicity which would be good for the museum. Big publicity means more people interested, which means more grants, donations, and visitors. Creating strong mutually beneficial realtionships with iwi would have no downside.
When you think of all of the taonga currently in institutions and how much is on display or being researched compared to how much are just locked away in drawers and boxes – well, who knows? The institutions could probably repatriate 5 taonga to every iwi and not even have to touch their displays. and why not? Imagine the goodwill. It would be a brilliant coup that would mean the world to maori and would be good for this country in so many ways. We could start with one and test it out.
I love big museums, there is so much gravitas, I've always loved them. I don't want them to go, but i do think they can continue to evolve. Connecting with communities strengthens all parties. I've barely touched on the economic benefits but they are there. Even the government and all of us win.
Most importantly of all, the taonga are back home, where they belong.