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Extract: Refocusing Ethnographic Museums through Oceanic Lenses

Friday 16 October 2020 12:35pm

Schorch for webRefocusing Ethnographic Museums through Oceanic Lenses, by Philipp Schorch, offers a collaborative ethnographic investigation of Indigenous museum practices in three Pacific museums located at the corners of the so-called Polynesian triangle: Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum, Hawai‘i; Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa; and Museo Antropológico Padre Sebastián Englert, Rapa Nui. It features contributions from Noelle M.K.Y. Kahanu, Sean Mallon, Cristián Moreno Pakarati, Mara Mulrooney, Nina Tonga and Ty P. Kāwika Tengan.

The following is an extract from Chapter 5: Materializing German-Sāmoan Colonial Legacies.

More about the book

Materializing German-Sāmoan Colonial Legacies

with Sean Mallon and Nina Tonga

The mana taonga principle and policy at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa (Te Papa) was originally a declaration of Māori authority over taonga (treasures), and consequently a new way of thinking about the relationship between museums and Indigenous people by putting them at the center of museology.

The concept has been extended to other non-Māori collections in Te Papa, to other museums, and even globally. What happens, then, if a collection represents people of dual ancestry such as the Sāmoan-German descendants of colonial German Sāmoa? And what happens if a German representative is drawn into the orbit of a Sāmoan curator in their joint effort to materialize this common legacy?

This chapter discusses the project Materializing German-Sāmoan Colonial Legacies, which attempts to retell this larger story through a dual historical and contemporary focus as well as through a double German-Sāmoan/Sāmoan-German lens.

Historical objects in the collection and their associated stories allow for the re-historicizing of the past and are brought into dialogue with contemporary objects, such as art works, thus materializing the changing nature of the German-Sāmoan legacy in the present.

To retell a story that spans the globe, the chosen objects are inherently mobile—for example flags, stamps, coins, and postcards—and thus function as traveling media symbolizing and enacting the various connections. These objects build the material basis for an online narrative as a virtual and mobile expression of, and intervention in, the reshaping of the shared legacy.1

The chapter offers a description of, and reflection on the initiative’s process and outcome, revealing the resonances and dissonances and convergences and divergences that emerge through and impact the venture of co-collecting and co-curating.2

Mana Taonga at Te Papa

Mana taonga can be understood as a contemporary fusion of the ancient concepts of mana and taonga.3 It thus embodies a contemporary, historically grounded “Indigenous articulation,” a creative recoupling, or rearticulation, of constituent elements in response to global forces, rather than an inauthentic product of the “invention of tradition.”4

Te Papa’s mana taonga policy was initially framed by influential Ngati Porou leader Apirana Mahuika during the development of the new museum’s conceptual design in the late 1980s and 1990s.5 It states that “Te Papa recognizes the role of communities in enhancing the care and understanding of collections and taonga.”6 In this context, mana taonga means the power and authority (mana) that resides in and derives from cultural treasures (taonga).

The policy is therefore a declaration of Māori and other communities’ authority over Māori taonga and other cultural treasures, and consequently a new way of managing the relationship between museums and communities.

As a reversal of the common assumption that museums owned their collections, it puts Indigenous concepts and all communities at the heart of the museological enterprise. In doing so, the principle of mana taonga acknowledges and affirms the spiritual and cultural connections of the people to whom the treasures belong. This recognition accords rights and responsibilities, such as being actively involved in the care, interpretation, and display of taonga.7

The mana taonga policy at Te Papa is a contested terrain, however. Some criticism, for example, asserts that mana taonga in a government institution overrides the mana whenua (people of the land) or property rights of the local iwi (tribes) in Wellington because of the pantribal inclusion of many iwi within a national body, arguably amounting to an appropriation of Māori values that turns “tribal space” into “our place.”8

Other museums have developed different mechanisms. For example, the Auckland War Memorial Museum’s Māori Committee, known as the Taumata-ā-Iwi, recognizes the sovereignty of the local tribe in decision making.9 Mana taonga is also seen as the product of the biculturalism of the 1980s and 1990s, a government ideology that ameliorated Māori demands for independent development but that has in many cases been superseded by more autonomous arrangements, such as co-governance of cultural institutions or co-management of natural resources.10

Despite these debates and the diversity of museum practice around Aotearoa New Zealand, the concept of mana taonga as developed at Te Papa remains an important and potent fusion of customary and contemporary as well as Indigenous and non-Indigenous practices. Although framed in Māori conceptual terms, as a policy it actually empowers and facilitates collaboration with potentially any community in the management and use of its cultural heritage, such as Te Papa’s Pacific Cultures collection, which we discuss in this chapter, but also its New Zealand History collections.11

Mana taonga has also been extended to other museums, and even globally.12 The challenges and tensions of translating mana taonga from theory through policy into practice, however, have—despite being inevitably experienced by museum professionals—gained comparatively less attention in the literature.13

We see it as our task here to reveal some of the ambiguities and limits that arise and have to be personally, strategically, and productively negotiated as part of collaborative collecting and curatorial practice.

Mana Taonga and Pacific Cultures at Te Papa

Nina Tonga
As curators of the Pacific Cultures collection at Te Papa and being of Pacific Island descent, we have some specialist knowledge of the Pacific and its peoples, but it is not encyclopedic. We constantly draw on the knowledge and expertise of our Pacific communities to shape our collections, research, and exhibitions.

Collaboration with Pacific communities is wide-ranging and covers a spectrum of museum activities from governance to exhibition and events programming and collecting. Conversely, Pacific communities have also sought collaboration, using the museum collections and resources for their own purposes.14

A recent example of this form of community agency was a commission of a ngatu fuatanga (a type of decorated Tongan bark cloth) by the Otaota Fahina, a koka‘anga (ngatu-making collective) based in Mount Roskill, Auckland. In 2015, we were contacted by the koka‘anga, who offered to produce the first ngatu made from paper mulberry plants grown in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Te Papa commissioned the koka‘anga and in doing so, helped them realize this project and their aspirations to contribute a unique object to the Pacific collection and representation of Tongan material culture. This is one example of many, in which Pacific people are helping us create collections that better represent themselves and their communities.

In 2016, we explored the potential for Pacific people to be more directly involved in our collection development through co-collecting.15 Our approach was inspired by some of the collaborative work of our colleagues and the groundbreaking fieldworker program started in the mid-1970s at the Vanuatu Cultural Centre.16

We arranged our inaugural co-collecting project with Monaeka Flores, former coordinator of marketing and programs, and Kimberlee Kihleng, director of Humanities Guåhan (Guam), focusing specifically on the culture of Guam’s Chamorro people, including works by master carvers, weavers, and blacksmiths. Our collaborators took the curatorial lead and set the scope and selection criteria for collecting. This allowed us to put the principle of mana taonga at the core of our collecting by creating an opportunity for the Chamorro people to define their representation at Te Papa.

Our partners selected the art forms and artists to be represented in this co-collecting project. Throughout this process, the reversal of roles took some effort. On our part as institutional curators, this meant resisting the urge to influence the decisions our collaborators made, particularly when our curatorial advice was sought.

The power of our influence was made obvious during one particular studio visit when our excitement about an object influenced the artists and staff of Humanities Guåhan to reconsider including it in their selection. In that moment, we became aware of the difficulties of co-collecting and the practical application of mana taonga. Our presence and involvement inevitably added another set of pressures for our collaborators, who in addition to building a representative collection were also trying to meet our expectations.

Our role was also apparent in our second co-collection project, Materializing German-Sāmoan Colonial Legacies. For this project, we engaged Philipp, a German academic, to develop a collection that materializes the legacy of German colonization of Sāmoa from 1900 to 1914. His approach to this project attempted to use a double lens that refocused the historic colonial framing of German Sāmoa toward a revisionist view that emphasizes an Indigenous present.

This becomes clear in his reasoning and the selection of art works by contemporary Sāmoan artists, who offer critical voices and alternative representations of these histories. First, however, we turn to a detailed run-through of the project’s scene setting.

Setting the Scene for Materializing German-Sāmoan Colonial Legacies

Sean Mallon
In April 2016, Philipp approached and asked whether I could suggest a project he could work on relating to his research informing this book. His timing was good because the question of how we develop museum collections collaboratively with the communities we represent in the museum was driving our acquisition work.

In late 2015, I gave a presentation on the politics of co-collecting Pacific cultures in Aotearoa New Zealand at the Research Center for Material Culture in Leiden, The Netherlands, and Nina and I were in the process of developing a co-collecting project with people in Guåhan, which took place in May 2016.

Over several years, I had grown frustrated with a growing number of researchers coming to Te Papa and theorizing about our curatorial work without having any real understanding of it from a hands-on or practical perspective. I devised a project called Materializing German-Sāmoan Colonial Legacies, which would involve Philipp’s assembling a collection of objects representing the history of the German colonial period in Sāmoa and its legacy.

My aim was to position him at once as collaborator, curator, and German community representative so that he would experience the challenges of curatorial collecting and documentation and gain firsthand insight into our practice. My role was to guide the project through the museum’s processes.

Given other work commitments and the overall intention of the project, I tried to keep my distance wherever possible and let the project unfold. Much of the actual work was progressed by Philipp on his own. We met occasionally to discuss and troubleshoot any issues that arose.

The project involved five core tasks. First was researching the current holdings of Te Papa related to the German Sāmoa colonial period and their associated historical background. As a research baseline for the project, I asked Philipp to look at the representation of German Sāmoa colonial history in Te Papa’s collections and think about how to further develop it. I thought that an analysis of the objects in the collection would be a useful way for him to immerse himself in this complex history.

The second task was to improve the current catalogue records. I asked Philipp to select a number of objects and to prepare web summary content (catalogue entry data) that would appear on “Collections Online”—Te Papa’s publicly accessible web-based catalog. The purpose of web summaries is to summarize the history, significance, and provenance of objects in Te Papa’s collections, all of which are often in a diffuse form in the full nonpublic catalogue record. They are like expanded captions, a few paragraphs, and can stand alone or be grouped under a theme or topic, constituting an online narrative for the Collections Online website.

The goal was to provide experience of preparing collection-related research for presentation to online audiences. I sent several examples of types of web summaries from across the catalog as guidance because writing for audiences that use Collections Online entails various considerations and challenges that need to be taken into account. These include structuring and organizing ideas, ensuring economy of text, and providing basic museological data that describes the object and puts it in historical context.

This procedure would activate skills in the research, analysis, and synthesis of data, but also present tough decisions (with the audience in mind) about word count, readability, and what information to put in and what to leave out.

The third task was identifying suitable objects to acquire for the collections at Te Papa. It was up to Philipp to research, select, and source objects to expand the holdings related to the German Sāmoa colonial legacy at Te Papa. My hope was that this work would be informed by his research into the existing collection and the historical context of their production.

The key objective was a process of materializing history (see chapter 6) and creating a small archive or collection. The curatorial challenge was to work with limited resources, such as knowledge, research time, and availability of items, and—in a context of limited vendors and markets—to make choices and curate a selection of objects.

The fourth task was to present a preliminary collection proposal to Te Papa’s New Zealand History and Pacific Cultures Acquisitions Committee, which took place on July 19, 2016. Philipp discussed his selection of objects with the curators and offered justifications for their inclusion in the national collection. The selection was approved to proceed to a full proposal according to the procedures of the time.

The fifth task was to acquire the objects and prepare catalog records for them so they could be submitted as part of a full proposal for accessioning into Te Papa’s collection. This part of the process is in progress at the time of writing.

1. The online narrative brings together related and diverse information about a particular object, collection of objects or subject, linking a collection in significant ways. This information appears on the museum’s collection database-catalogue known commercially as the EMu Collections Management System. This is available only to staff. Selected information from this catalogue is also made publicly accessible on the museum’s website.
2. On the interplay of cross-cultural resonance and dissonance, see Philipp Schorch and Noelle M.K.Y. Kahanu, “Forum as Laboratory: The Cross-Cultural Infrastructure of Ethnographic Knowledge and Material Potentialities,” in Heller, Scholz, and Wagner, Prinzip Labor, 241–248.
3. On mana, Marshall Sahlins, Islands of History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985); on taonga, Patrick Vinton Kirch and Roger C. Green, Hawaiki, Ancestral Polynesia: An Essay in Historical Anthropology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001).
4. On Indigenous articulation, James Clifford, “Indigenous Articulations,” The Contemporary Pacific 13, no. 2 (2001): 468–490; on inauthenticity, Alan Hanson, “The Making of the Maori: Cultural Invention and Its Logic,” American Anthropologist 91, no. 4 (1989): 890–902; 228 and Eric Hobsbawm and Terences Ranger, eds., The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983); see also chapter 2.
5. Apirana T. Mahuika, “Maori Culture and the New Museum,” Museum Anthropology 15, no. 4 (1991): 9–10.
6. Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, 2005–2006 Annual Report of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa (Wellington: Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, 2006), 12–13.
7. Philipp Schorch, Conal McCarthy, and Arapata Hakiwai, “Globalizing Māori Museology: Reconceptualizing Engagement, Knowledge and Virtuality through Mana Taonga,” Museum Anthropology 39, no.1 (2016), 48–69; Conal McCarthy et al., “Mana Taonga: Connecting Communities with New Zealand Museums through Ancestral Māori Culture,” Museum International 65 (2015): 5–15; Philipp Schorch and Arapata Hakiwai, “Mana Taonga and the Public Sphere: A Dialogue Between Indigenous Practice and Western Theory,” International Journal of Cultural Studies 17, no. 2 (2014): 191–205; Arapata Hakiwai, “The Search for Legitimacy: Museums in Aotearoa, New Zealand—A Māori Viewpoint,” in Heritage, Museums and Galleries: An Introductory Reader, ed. Gerard Corsane (London: Routledge, 2005), 154–162; Arapata Hakiwai, “Māori Taonga—Māori Identity,“ in Art and Cultural Heritage: Law, Policy and Practice, ed. Barbara T. Hoffman (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 409–412; Arapata Hakiwai, “The Protection of Taonga and Māori Heritage in Aotearoa (New Zealand),” in Decolonizing Conservation: Caring for Māori Meeting Houses Outside New Zealand, ed. Dean Sally (Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press, 2008), 45–58; Conal McCarthy, Museums and Māori: Heritage Professionals, Indigenous Collections, Current Practice (Wellington: Te Papa Press, 2011); Conal McCarthy, Te Papa: Reinventing New Zealand’s National Museum 1998–
(Wellington: Te Papa Press, 2018); Huhana Smith, “The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa,” in Healy and Witcomb, South Pacific Museums, 10.11–10.13; and Huhana Smith, “Mana Taonga and the Micro World of Intricate Research and Findings around Taonga Māori at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa,” Special Issue, Matter in Place, SITES: Journal of Social Anthropology and Cultural Studies 6, no. 2 (2009): 7–31.
8. Paul Tapsell, “Taonga, Marae, Whenua—Negotiating Custodianship: A Maori Tribal Response to Te Papa: The Museum of New Zealand,” in Rethinking Settler Colonialism: History and Memory in Australia, Canada, Aotearoa, New Zealand, and South Africa, ed. Annie Coombes (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2006), 86–99. For an overview of iwi associated with the Wellington region, see Greater Wellington Regional Council, “Māori of the Wellington Region,” February 18, 2016,, accessed June 6, 2017.
9. Merata Kawharu, “Gilbert Mair and the Taumata-a-Iwi,” in Ko Tawa: Maori Treasures from New Zealand, ed. Paul Tapsell (Auckland: David Bateman, 2006), 154–181.
10. Arapata Hakiwai, “He Mana Taonga, He Mana Tangata: Maori Taonga and the Politics of Maori Tribal Identity and Development” (PhD diss., Victoria University of Wellington, Museum and Heritage Studies, 2014); Michelle Horwood, “Worlds Apart: Indigenous Re-engagement with Museum-Held Heritage: A New Zealand–United Kingdom Case Study” (PhD diss., Victoria University of Wellington, 2015); and McCarthy, Museums and Māori.
11. On Pacific Cultures, Sean Mallon, “Afterword—Pacific Voices in the Bicultural Museum,” in McCarthy, Museums and Māori, 248–253; on New Zealand History, Stephanie Gibson, “Te Papa and New Zealand’s Indian Communities: A Case Study about Exhibition Development,” Tuhinga: Records of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa 14 (2003): 61–75; Pushpa Wood, “Community Consultation: Te Papa and New Zealand Indian Communities: The Other Side of the Coin.” Tuhinga: Records of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa 16 (2005): 127–135; and Stephanie Gibson and Sean Mallon. “Representing Community Exhibitions at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.” Tuhinga: Records of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa 21 (2010): 43–58.
12. On other museums, McCarthy et al., “Mana Taonga”; globally, Schorch, McCarthy, and Hakiwai, “Globalizing Māori Museology.”
13. Sean Mallon, “Agency and Authority: The Politics of Co-Collecting,” in Schorch and McCarthy, Curatopia, 279–295; and Schorch and Hakiwai, “Mana Taonga and the Public Sphere.”
14. Mallon, “Agency and Authority.”
15. Stephanie Gibson, “Case Study: Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa,” in Collecting the Contemporary: A Handbook for Social History Museums, ed. Owain Rhys and Zelda Baveystock (Edinburgh: MuseumsEtc, 2014), 440–446; and Lynette Townsend, “Collecting Childhood—in more than one way,” Uni News, The University of Auckland News for Staff 44, no. 8 (2015), 5. 16. Lissant Bolton, ed., “Fieldwork, Fieldworkers, Developments in Vanuatu Research,” Special issue, Oceania 70, no. 1 (1999); Lissant Bolton, Unfolding the Moon: Enacting Women’s Kastom in Vanuatu (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2003), 44–50.