The museum as a book, Tim Walker

Take These With You When You Leave: Treasures of the Archive
Georgina White
MTG Hawke’s Bay
ISBN 9780992259600

Architecture of the Heart
Lucy Hammonds and Douglas Lloyd Jenkins
MTG Hawke’s Bay
ISBN 9780992259624

Ūkaipō – ō tātou whakapapa: The Identity of the Hapu of Hawke’s Bay
Migoto Eria
MTG Hawke’s Bay, $49.00,
ISBN 9780992259617

The challenges of in-house museum publishing are numerous. Museums are not typically well-resourced, and the decision to focus time and (usually ratepayer) funding on publications inevitably comes at the expense of the same resources being directed to other museum projects or programmes. At the same time, the number of individual visitors to museums is generally small, and the percentage who will buy a book smaller still – meaning the economics of ultra-niche publishing and its efficacy in reaching wider audiences are uncertain at best. As a former art gallery curator and museum director, I was keen to understand what fresh approaches MTG Hawke’s Bay (formerly the Hawke’s Bay Art Gallery and Museum) would bring to this vexing area, under the directorship of published author Douglas Lloyd Jenkins.

These three publications were produced by the MTG team to accompany the exhibitions developed for the grand reopening of the museum in 2013. Following an $18 million redevelopment project aimed at significantly improving the storage and exhibition of its wonderful 100,000 strong collections, it is fitting that the suite of opening exhibitions put the collections, built up by local people over many decades, centre-stage. All three publications take this very literally: they are object-centred and theme-based. As a result, they might be described as curatorial rather than authorial in approach, being either the published adjunct to curated exhibitions (Architecture of the Heart and Ūkaipō), written by the exhibition curators, or, in the case of Take These With You When You Leave, a publication built around a curated selection of items from the museum’s large and rich archive. As publications, their sense of narrative concept, thread and momentum grows out of, rather than determines, the selection and arrangement of collection objects and images.

The three publications also share a focus on cultural history. As a collection-based institution with collections ranging across social history, Taonga Māori, archives, decorative arts and fine arts, it is refreshing to see a suite of exhibitions and publications that are located confidently in the idea of cultural history. In seeing value in the connections and overlaps between Māori, fine art, social history and decorative arts items, the MTG view avoids the more endemic approach of seeing these categories of items and the histories, people and stories they tell (and tell of) as separate. In terms of exhibition goers and book readers, this is an area rich in narrative interest and opportunity for engagement.

In Take These With You When You Leave, author Georgina White has carefully worked through the over 50,000 items held in the MTG Hawke’s Bay archives (including personal papers, photographs, rare books and public documents) to identify “objects which seem to me to get under the skin of nineteenth and early twentieth century Hawke’s Bay; objects that reveal not only what happened, but how it felt to be there”. It is for the local community to judge her success in this, but there is no mistaking the care that has gone into both the selection of items and the well researched and written stories that surround and at times connect them. The combination of title and cover image (a watercolour of a 19th-century sailing ship) initially triggers an apprehension that this is just another stock-standard museum approach to stories about 19th-century European migration to New Zealand. Thankfully, this is misleading, and the author has crafted a nuanced compilation of informative and engaging stories around the selected objects.

While the chosen object-centric format inevitably delivers a series of vignettes (arranged under the chapter headings of “Essential belongings”, “Vivid impressions”, “Samples of splendours” and “Grand plans”), White orchestrates narrative threads and links as she goes. She artfully links sections on the 1863 Meeting at Whakairo Pā, the 1866 Occupation of Omarunui and the 1869 Siege at Mohaka through the changing presence and role of Donald McLean (playing a number of government roles), before introducing local station manager and collector, David Paton Balfour, in the latter section as a narrative baton carrier who reappears in the first section of the following chapter. This approach works well and goes some way to ameliorating the inevitable sampler character of the publication, making the sum of a series of interesting sections into a more cohesive narrative.

Architecture of the Heart, a well-illustrated publication designed to accompany and document the large exhibition of the same name, is the most substantial of the three titles. Its curator/authors, Hammonds and Lloyd Jenkins, focus on a central theme – the ideas of home and house – and how they exist and evolve, change and remain within New Zealand society. I was fortunate to see the exhibition, a thoughtful and beautifully arranged selection of items from MTG and other New Zealand museum and private collections. The exhibition was distinguished by its openness in approach and selection, with Hammonds and Lloyd Jenkins challenging the traditional canon of who and what work is important. This declared and highly successful aspect of their curatorial agenda saw some major examples of leading fine artists’ works sharing the gallery with Taonga Māori, a wealth of New Zealand craft and object art, and beautiful examples by under-regarded local and national artists and makers. Driven both by the holistic nature of the curatorial inquiry, and Hammonds’s and Lloyd Jenkins’s own aesthetic preferences, this approach, which relaxes, stretches, questions and opens up the canon of New Zealand art for deeper and wider conversations and thinking, is to be applauded.

In common with Ūkaipō, the publication sits somewhere between being an exhibition catalogue/record (the exhibition has now ended) and a book that investigates in a scholarly or logical way the ideas generated by the exhibition. Working off the exhibition’s paintings, images and objects, liberally illustrated throughout the publication, the authors riff across a host of diverse strands of theory and discourse, ranging from Alex Calder’s thinking on a Pākehā sense of turangawaewae, to a call for a greater level of scholarly focus on the motif of the lone house or building in New Zealand landscape art. The text is stimulating and peppered with astute observations, excellent research and fresh insights. As authors, Hammonds and Lloyd Jenkins focus on drawing a number of compelling strands together around central themes and ideas, but it’s less clear if these ever quite cohere as a book capable of standing on its own aside from the exhibition. At times, Architecture of the Heart has the sense of being an extended exhibition text – an amalgam of introductory wall labels, extended object labels and perhaps the text of the curator’s floor talk. The curators own this dilemma as a central focus, describing the publication as “a collection of ideas drawn out of considering the sum of the collection’s parts” and describe its excitement as lying in “the unravelling of stories which are tied up in the critical mass of collected cultural material”.

Ūkaipō is the most distinctive of the three titles in form and approach. Again, it closely echoes the structure of the exhibition of the same name (still on view), bringing together a range of perspectives, stories, expressions and manifestations of the concept of ūkaipō. In her introductory comments, curator and editor Migoto Eria begins what becomes the publication’s process: uncovering and layering understandings and expressions of ūkaipō – “our identity, our home ground, our upbringing, our mothers”. From the outset, the publication is rich in individual voices: “‘Bring your babies home to be raised on their whenua’ was what my koro said to my mother before she had us,” Eria tells the reader, before offering her view that “ūkaipō is a seamless and continuous notion of mana whenua”.

As Ūkaipō unfolds, other layers of meaning and expression of the concept are introduced through contributions from Mere Whaanga, Kiwa Hammond and Amber Logan-Riley. Interspersed with these are images of the taonga around which the exhibition is built, including whakairo, pounamu, kākahu, the spoken, sung, printed and chanted word, and still and moving images. For the reader who is open to what can at first feel like an amorphous format and approach, this iterative structure allows space for the sense of deep conversation and reflection necessary to engage in a greater appreciation of a fundamentally Māori world view. The juxtaposition of local Māori newspapers and broadsheets, mōteatea (traditional chants), video stills from a community action project in response to the Lange government’s devolution policies in the 1980s, the Te Reo songs of the late Hirini Melbourne, and a marvellous series of evocative black and white photographs of unknown whanau Māori, creates a series of overlapping assertions, questions and permissions. For those many readers without the ability to reference the exhibition it supports, however, Ūkaipō may well prove somewhat frustrating and elusive. Long sections of images of exhibition items, with no context aside from the barest of descriptions (eg: “tare Māori, Māori costume doll”) may end up being more effective as a record of the exhibition for the museum itself, than as a valuable resource for those in the wider community not connected directly to the project.

This returns us to two questions relevant to all three publications and museum publishing in general. In recent decades, the notion of an exhibition as a “book on the walls” (with objects overwhelmed by unduly long text panels) has been increasingly dispensed with. This shift has been driven by the awareness that, if communication and engagement are sought, this approach is ineffective in the experiential spaces of the museum or art gallery. But what happens when publications become “exhibitions in a book”, with a similar failure to pay due attention to the processes of translation from the gallery to the printed page?

The second question relates to the challenge of museum publishing itself. Because all three titles relate to the collections of MTG Hawke’s Bay – and to local people and stories – it is perhaps inevitable that through their pages we are at times introduced to different facets of the same people, the same items, the same stories. As a reviewer, I have read all three and can see the rich connections, ellipses and absences in their collective “unravelling of stories … tied up in the critical mass of collected cultural material”, but most people will not. Who are these handsome books – well executed and carrying information, perspectives and images of interest and value – for? Are there other ways museums can publish; ways that might respond in a more generative way to the learning, participation and engagement needs and aspirations of their wider communities?

 

Tim Walker is a strategic arts, culture and tourism consultant.

 

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Posted in Art, History, Maori, Non-fiction and Review
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