Conference Challenges Museums to be more Inclusive

Having just returned from the Museums Australasia Conference in Auckland, I am inspired – as always after such conferences – to stop and think about what we do, why we do it and how we could do better. The conference theme of “Facing the Future: Local, Global and Pacific Possibilities” included reminding us of the very imperialist roots of our discipline.

One keynote speaker, Boon Hui Tan (Director of the Asian Society Museum in New York), challenged us to become more aware of the Euro-American framework that we use, and recognise that this cannot simply be applied to other cultures. Tan also stated that “we give colonialism too much power”, we talk about it too much and focus on it too much. This is a refreshing view but not one I’m sure we’re ready for yet and, with the 250th of Cook’s arrival in 2019, it’s not a subject we can ignore. Tan challenged us to be aware of our biases and the frameworks we operate in, acknowledging that this is not accessible to all. It’s a wonderful challenge but daunting to try and address. How do you make the experience accessible for all cultural viewpoints? And how do you attempt to do so without alienating the existing audience that understands the current model?

This is talking about a multi-cultural approach while our industry continues to explore how to really engage with Māori communities and Māori stories. Museums in New Zealand have certainly come a long way but I don’t believe we’re there yet. Another keynote speaker, Moana Jackson – Director Nga Kaiwhakamarama I Nga Ture (Maori Legal Service), proposed that the entire framework of all displays in our institutions should be based in both Māori and Pākehā worldviews, rooted in the bicultural principles of our country. This is one aspect of what we’ve been discussing in our review of the 1931 earthquake exhibition.

We have, as an industry, moved away from the model of experts telling the public what to think – “THE TRUTH” – to a more collaborative and inclusive model, acknowledging that knowledge comes from many sources and in many forms and that truth(s) can be different. Our role is to provide information while being confident and comfortable enough to allow the viewer to reach their own conclusions. However exploring all viewpoints and letting every voice speak has its own challenges and is not appropriate for every exhibition and subject matter. The danger of ‘the neutrality of museums’ was also raised at the conference. If we’re so busy making sure we’re entirely inoffensive and inclusive, does this make a museum bland? Courtney Johnston, Director of The Dowse Art Museum, noted that we all have biases and the key is to be aware of them and understand them – to make conscious decisions.

Unfortunately we didn’t come back with any awards from the conference and, whilst we’re naturally disappointed, we know we were a strong contender. The winners in our categories were exceptional and justifiably received awards. Pin Wall did however receive a special mention but simply couldn’t win against two major museum building projects (a complete new museum in Kaiapoi and Te Kōngahu – The museum of Waitangi). Nonetheless we made it into the finals in all three categories we entered and I’m incredibly proud of the work the team here have done. I have no doubts that we’ll produce future award-winning programmes and exhibitions.

Tēnei Tonu one of the finalists for the Regional Taonga Māori award

Tēnei Tonu one of the finalists for the Regional Taonga Māori award

Laura Vodanovich – Director, MTG Hawke’s Bay

Published in Hawke’s Bay Today Saturday 21May 2016

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A Very Unusual Survivor of the Napier Earthquake

The 1931 Hawke’s Bay earthquake was such a significant event for the region, and the country, it’s important that the story is well represented at the museum. A review of the current gallery is underway and may well lead to a number of changes at some point in the future. Questions we’re asking include: are Maori stories told throughout the gallery, does the display represent the story of the entire Hawke’s Bay region or is it too narrow in its focus, how do we include information on the science of earthquakes, what information do we provide on how to prepare for and respond to an earthquake and so on.

To date we’ve only made small changes to the gallery. We’ve raised the lighting levels in response to feedback from visitors who found this gallery too dark. Of course light levels are complex within museums as we need to protect our objects. In this case we were able to safely raise the light levels, while still maintaining a sombre mood in keeping with the subject matter.

The other change was the conversion of the Annex Gallery to a small theatre. This enables the Survivors’ Stories film to be shown on a continuous loop, so it’s always available to view in conjunction with the gallery. There’s been a significant amount of positive public feedback on this. Many visitors note the film as one of the highlights of their visit alongside the First World War gallery, Lalique exhibition and Nigel Brown.

The most recent change is the installation of a mere pounamu on loan from Auckland Museum. Unfortunately, information about the original owner and maker of the mere is unknown, but we do know that it’s a survivor of the 1931 earthquake. The mere had been placed by its owner, Emily Brabant, in storage at the Napier Bank of New Zealand for safekeeping. The fires that swept through the city following the earthquake caused the colour of the mere to change to a pale milky green and destroyed the tag with provenance information that was attached to its handle.

We do know is that the mere was one of three gifted by unknown Rangatira (Chiefs) to Māori Land Court Judge Herbert Brabant around 1900. Brabant gave one mere to each of his three daughters, Catherine, Rosetta (Rose) and Emily. Auckland Museum records note that “following a celebrated land case, the Māori Chiefs concerned presented Judge Brabant with three mere, one for each of his daughters.”

We’ll continue our work on reviewing the 1931 Earthquake gallery and make further changes as budget, resources and timing allows. As always, we welcome feedback, ideas and thoughts from the community along the way.

Mere pounamu, collection of Auckland War Memorial Tamaki Paenga Hira [16457]

Mere pounamu, collection of Auckland War Memorial Tamaki Paenga Hira [16457]

Laura Vodanovich – Director, MTG Hawke’s Bay

Published in Hawke’s Bay Today Saturday 14 May 2016

Poems and albumen photos portray colonial life

This week’s been action packed with lots going on, starting with our free day on ANZAC with almost 2,000 people coming to visit the museum and take the opportunity to see what we’ve been doing. We received lots of complimentary feedback from those who came and I certainly know that many took the opportunity to enjoy a barista coffee on the day. We hope those of you who came found the experience enjoyable and to see you back again soon.

Also this week we were named as finalists in three categories for the Museums Aotearoa awards. Two of our exhibitions are up for awards, ‘Tēnei Tonu’ (our tāonga Māori gallery) for Regional Taonga Māori and ‘Talanoa’ (recent contemporary installation art project by John Vea) for Regional Art. We’re also a finalist for the Best Museum Project with ‘Pin Wall’, the large and beautiful porcelain artwork installed on the marine parade side of the building. Particularly pleasing is the fact that we’re the only museum to make it into three final categories and I’m exceptionally proud of the team for the work they have put in. We are all holding our breaths to hear the final results in May.

Last night we opened our newest exhibition ‘Young Country’ which combines historic photographs, reproduced using original techniques, and new poetry. The photographs feature people and scenes from all over New Zealand taken by Railway employee William Williams. These are placed together with poems written in response to the images by contemporary poet Kerry Hines. The project was developed by Kerry, underpinned by her doctoral research into Williams’ photography. She uses the photographs as a starting point for her poems, which were further inspired by a whole range of 19th century sources; from etiquette manuals to records of murder trials. The result is an imaginative glimpse into colonial life that is sometimes light and humorous and at other times evocatively dark.

The exhibition also offers a rare opportunity to view albumen prints. The process is time-consuming and complex, involving the use of albumen found in egg whites (hence the name) and results in rich prints. The photographs were painstakingly reproduced using the original techniques by photographer Wayne Barrar, resulting in images that are visually appropriate to the time period in which the photographs were taken. Wayne will explain this process during the floor talk on Saturday, along with Kerry talking about Williams’ photography and her own poems. It’s a beautiful exhibition with images and poetry to touch the creativity in us all. There’s also a magnetic poetry wall where you can try your hand at creating your own poem to leave for other visitors to read.

All in all quite a lot for a single week and one which reflects some of the varied nature of our work. We have lots more planned for the year and will continue to work on making you proud of your museum.

Tēnei Tonu exhibition. Photorapher David Frost.

Tēnei Tonu exhibition. Photorapher David Frost.

Laura Vodanovich – Director, MTG Hawke’s Bay

Published in Hawke’s Bay Today Saturday 30 April 2016