Over the past twenty years, Te Papa has attracted international attention and evolved into one of the most loved and most debated museums in Australasia. To celebrate this extraordinary achievement, its press has published an appetizing and easily-digestible account of how the iconic institution has evolved over the past two decades. “I cannot think of another national museum, built in the last forty years, that has been more globally influential in changing how these institutions represent the nation and, more generally, the indigenous peoples of the world,” writes Leicester University's Simon Knell in his Foreword to Conal McCarthy's Te Papa: Reinventing New Zealand’s National Museum 1998–2018. “Indeed, it is hard to think of another national museum that has so fundamentally rewritten the ethics of being a museum.”
McCarthy worked in a variety of roles at the National Art Gallery and National Museum from 1988–92 and Te Papa from 1996–2000, including education, exhibition interpretation, and public programmes. He has produced a handsome history of the museum’s origins, development, innovations, and some of the more controversial issues that have sparked national and local debate. As an academic who has researched and published widely on the subject of historical and contemporary Maori engagement with museums, McCarthy highlights one of the most important aspects of Te Papa’s legacy - its continuing evolution: “What I have tried to do with this book is provide a record, and show how the exhibitions, programmes and policy grew out of the time and place. Which is what those who work at Te Papa now engaged in the renewal of the permanent exhibitions are doing for their own times. History is made, so it can be unmade and remade.”
The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa Act of 1992 stated that its purpose is to "provide a forum in which the nation may present, explore, and preserve both the heritage of its cultures and knowledge of the natural environment." The founding concept was to provide a space for Kiwis in which to understand and treasure the past, enrich the present, and meet the challenges of the future. From its initial conception, however, Te Papa has also been the victim of this internal conflict - it is not only a museum that promotes indigenous culture and identity, but one which also houses a representative selection European art, as well as a vast collection of cultural and natural history artifacts.
Initial doubts and concerns about Te Papa being 'too Maori' did nothing to discourage attendance. Its first year's target of 700,000 visitors was met in just three months, one million came within five months, and the first year saw a total of over two million. Over the next few years, Te Papa became the most visited museum in Australasia and the Pacific. Such innovative attractions as interactive public spaces laid out like malls, the affectionate exploration of Kiwi Identity, and friendly visitor services from hosts welcoming people at the door to readable labels signaled a decisive shift away from the former National Art Gallery and National Museum with their stuffy image and small, elite audience. Ken Gorbey, one of the key people responsible for Te Papa's success, felt it was due to being firmly situated in the leisure industry. Its emphasis on customer services, strong brand presence, and lively marketing reflected a 'new museology' that envisaged the space in terms of a public forum rather than a temple, emphasizing solid scholarship and visitor-focused exhibitions, rather than a preoccupation with collections and connoisseurship.
In a recent Dominion Post interview, Chief Executive Geraint Martin made clear his awareness of past criticism, saying Te Papa's art collection was not fully appreciated when it was first established, and fully expecting it to reclaim its title of National Art Gallery - "A lot of people have seen it as a weakness and it has been a conversation … Rather than forever relitigating what it was or wasn't, let's see if we can address the issues that people have raised … I want this to be a really vigorous place, where people put Te Papa and art together." Similarly, Curator of Historical International Art Mark Stocker hopes that any lingering concerns about an imbalance between displays of art and natural/cultural history have been addressed with this month's opening of the Toi Art gallery and the phased replacement of older exhibits. The new gallery is spread over two floors and is certainly more theme-focused, largely as the result of a $8.4 million investment, including a grant from the Lottery Foundation and Heritage Fund.
Unfortunately, the initial result of all this well-intentioned cultural investment is sadly underwhelming. Considering the available resources, it is a decidedly hit-and-miss affair, mainly due to some highly questionable curatorial decisions. In their overweening wish to "push boundaries," Head of Art Charlotte Davy and Curator of Modern & Contemporary Māori & Indigenous Art Megan Tamati-Quennell have made a number of serious miscalculations by ignoring a basic rule - keep it simple.
The first thing visitors encounter is a big, brown, and stupendously ugly construction by Michael Parekowhai, squatting high above their heads as though about to take an enormous dump on the assembled groundlings below - a clear case of bigger not always being better. This coprophagic pachyderm (entitled Standing on Memory) overshadows the rest of his bizarre Detour installation, which anachronistically attempts to combine Parekowhai's own work with items of real distinction by Marcel Duchamp, Colin McCahon, and Christo Vladimirov Javacheff, among others from Te Papa's permanent collection. Having emerged unscathed from this mystifying melange of scaffolding, park benches, and hideously mucilaginous acrylic figures (splattered around like little excremental blobs and afflicted with such asinine names as Constable Bob Plum, Tiki Tour, and Hoodwinked), it comes as a considerable relief to find four other exhibitions by indigenous artists - some highly polemical, purposeful, and challenging, others reassuringly comfortable and conservative, and one simply a shoddy crowd-pleaser.
Pacific Sisters: Fashion Activists provides a much more successful sense of provocation. Working collaboratively across art, fashion, performance, music, and film, ground-breaking artists such as Lisa Reihana, Rosanna Raymond, Ani O’Neill, Suzanne Tamaki, Selina Haami, Niwhai Tupaea, Henzart @ Henry Ah-Foo Taripo, Feeonaa Wall, and Jaunnie ‘Ilolahia have described their output as the Polynesian version of Andy Warhol’s Factory. “Our work is a reflection of the 'spark' we have had as Pacific Sisters - finding our connections to our Pacific stories, peoples, lands, each other,” Ani O’Neill says. “We might seem a bit hardcore and serious to some, but we have a lot of fun - we like to laugh and play with words as well as frocks.” There are also several intriguing new works by Tiffany Singh, Janet Lilo, Jeena Shin, the BodyCartography Project, and Sopolemalama Filipe Tohi.
There is a rare and specialized skill in utilizing a gallery's walls to full effect. Instead of using the opportunity presented by these freshly-available areas to disperse previously inaccessible paintings, a red wall at the top of the gallery's staircase is crammed with roughly thirty historical portraits, none of which are given sufficient room to really breathe. This approach to Tūrangawaewae: Art and New Zealand is clearly intended to evoke a ‘salon hang' in the grand old manner of the annual Royal Academy shows, but while the Webber on the left, the Featherson/Beetham in the centre, and the Goldie on the right provide an interesting sweep, the portraits of John Greenwood and the Duke of Wellington should obviously be facing each other, rather than looking in opposite directions. The overall arrangement only serves to underline Te Papa's abiding paradox - if the main impetus behind the redesign was to open up more latitude for displaying works of art, why impose such a self-limiting restriction on the amount of disposable wall space?
On the plus side, Curator of Historical New Zealand Art Rebecca Rice must be highly commended not only for reviving three magnificent and rarely seen oil paintings - John S Copley's Mrs Humphrey Devereux, George Dawe's Duke of Wellington, and Wilhelm Dittmer's Maori Girl (the last two having undergone a meticulous process of restoration) - but also canvases by more familiar Kiwi artists such as such as Lindauer, Angus, McCahon, Cotton, and Lye. Some visitors will be equally reassured by Kaleidscope: Abstract Aotearoa (a gentle exploration of Pacific colours, shapes, and patterns), and can look forward to the promise of more frequently rotated exhibitions in a conscious effort to keep them returning.
Lisa Walker's display of jewelry, selected from a commercial career that stretches back over thirty years, is another matter entirely. Her collection of distracting trinkets and garish gewgaws, made from copper, pearls, lego blocks, cell phones, and egg beaters is self-deprecatingly labeled I want to go to my bedroom but I can't be bothered. Most of this trash is literally cast-off junk made from the pedestrian detritus she discovered strewn around the floor of her studio. This is how Walker has described the process of creating Carl's Off-Cuts, a necklace constructed from her husband's metal scrapings - "Those bits of aluminium came into my workshop - it probably took a couple of months for me to look at them and think about how to make something out of them and then just drilling holes and using a very simple loop to thread everything together, and then with a silver chain I made as well." Such a serendipitous approach to this risible, but popular rubbish possesses the dual advantage of being both cheap and facile in every sense. Hopefully, it will soon be relegated to the gift shop - where it will no doubt sell like hotcakes for exorbitant sums to credulous consumers who have a taste for such twee tat - and replaced by something of real artistic merit.
Many of Te Papa's basic design problems are structural, however, and cannot be remedied so easily. The casual observer could be forgiven for failing to realize that Jasmax Architecture's design was originally intended to symbolize New Zealand's history and changing identity. The north (Maori) face overlooks the harbour with a natural facade representing the sea, hills, and sky, while the south (Pākehā) side faces the city with a grid formation of coloured panels reflecting New Zeaand's European heritage of colonization and settlement. The wedge formation supposedly both divides and unites the two faces, which is where the Treaty of Waitangi is situated. Such convoluted symbolism is belied by the building's weirdly photophobic aversion to windows, which seals off access to the spectacular harbour views and imbues the entire edifice with a claustral, inward-looking aspect. Even though the area devoted to exhibiting art has increased by 35%, it still only contains under 5% of the museum's total art collection. A similar ratio exists with regard to the astonishingly rich reservoir of natural history relics, most of which are permanently warehoused at the top of Tory Street.
Faced with such an abundance of magnificent cultural treasures and historical resources, what should the casual visitor, poised on the thin margin between enticing and daunting, be encouraged to focus on most closely?
I always suggest they temporarily retire to the marvelous Te Marae and simply meditate on the full implications of the museum's extraordinarily rich heritage. Specifically commissioned to represent a multicultural approach, and not just the bipartite division between Maori and European antecedents, Te Marae neatly encapsulates McCarthy's theme of constant evolutionary progress. This spectacular space comprises a marae ātea (place of encounter) and wharenui (meeting house) and is the only area bathed in natural light. It both captures the essence of the marae experience for international visitors and serves as a showcase for contemporary art, music, and design. Like other marae, it is primarily about identity, embodying the spirit of multicultural partnership that lies at the heart of the museum. Everyone can enjoy the shared whakapapa (genealogy) and the mana (power) of the taonga (treasures) held in Te Papa's collections. All cultures are intended to feel at home here: not only can iwi identify and relate to their ancestors through the striking contemporary carvings, but it also invokes the broader legacy of Pacific culture in general. Carved ancestral images reflect the occupations and origins of newcomers over the last two centuries (farmers, educators, clergy, parents, artists), connected by references to pākehā, Asian, and Polynesian patterns and designs. There is even a prisoner featured amidst the convoluted carving, representing the dispossessed, disenfranchised, and incarcerated elements of the social fabric.
The name of the wharenui is Te Hono ki Hawaiki, which connotes the shared space of our spiritual origins. The concept of Hawaiki enables everyone to embrace Te Marae as a place in which to feel accepted. According to Maori cosmology, all people live in Te Ao Marama (the world of light), created when our ancestral parents, Ranginui and Papatūānuku, were forced apart. The floor of Te Marae can be seen as Papa (Earth Mother), with Rangi (Sky Father) above. As the children of Rangi and Papa established themselves in this world, they developed specialized autochthonous responsibilities - Tāwhirimātea for the wind, Tangaroa for the oceans, and Tāne for the forests. The wharenui itself can be seen as Tāne, the son who forced his parents apart, thereby opening a space for us to inhabit.
It is entirely appropriate, therefore, that this marae is situated at the confluence of these elements. Rongomaraeroa is the name of the whole marae, including entrances and pūwhara (lookout). When the elements combine, as when people come together, it can sometimes create turbulence. For this reason, it was necessary for the children of Rangi and Papa to develop protocols for meeting and ways of recognising each other. The protocols on Te Papa's marae were developed after extensive consultation in order to ensure their integrity and the flexibility needed to accommodate all iwi. With minor variations, these protocols have been passed down for generations and are used on marae throughout the country.
This respect for multiculturalism is evident in the approach of Pacific Collection Manager Grace Hutton, who has been employed at Te Papa since 2004, selecting, moving, and storing objects, and working with Pacific communities around New Zealand and in the islands. She also leads a Tivaevae quilt-making group that encourages young Pacifika women who want to learn the various traditional skills involved. The Pacific Collection is continually expanding and evolving, from the oldest items of Lepita pottery from New Caledonia, through material from Captain Cook's second and third voyages, to a pair of sneakers donated by a Samoan man who wore them when he walked the entire length of the country.
Appointed Te Papa's kaihautū in 2013, Arapata Hakiwai shares responsibility for strategic leadership with Geraint Martin. He heads the intellectual direction for Māori research and scholarship and has established important relationships with communities and institutions in the museum sector both domestically and internationally. Hakiwai, whose curatorial expertise and understanding of taonga is highly respected, has provided expert guidance in cultivating better relationships with iwi and is currently leading a research project to identify and create a digital database of Māori and Moriori taonga located in museums and galleries around the globe, with the aim of reconnecting them with their original cultures and facilitating their digital repatriation. He says Te Papa constantly consults tribes and performs a crucial role in helping Kiwis gain a better understanding of their cultural roots - "With so many Treaty settlements completed, many iwi are looking to create their own cultural centers and experiences. We're looking to find new ways to help iwi achieve their aspirations - for example, through technology to digitize and share iwi taonga. We're trying our best to be the best museum in the world."
Fortunately, the plastic arts are now firmly established as an essential element of any encounter with Te Papa, and the increased gallery space will permit plenty of fresh opportunities as the institution continues to evolve for future generations.