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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