The art of display, Paul Thompson

Exhibiting Maori: A History of Colonial Cultures of Display
Conal McCarthy
Te Papa Press, $69.95,
ISBN 9781877385339

Mana taonga mana tangata. Exhibiting Maori is primarily an academic book. Originally published by Berg, an imprint of Oxford International Publishers, its style reflects that. Its natural home is as reading for students and scholars in disciplines such as history, anthropology, ethnology, visual and material studies and, of course, Maori. It will be of real value for anyone working through Curatorial Studies 101, but does it give the museum worker new tools or interested museum goers and general cultural consumers fresh insights?

McCarthy traces the progress of Maori material in New Zealand museums from humble specimen, indicating a superior sort of primitivism, to the elevation of art, with its concordant spiritual dimensions. As Marcel Duchamp demonstrated more than 90 years ago, when he displayed a urinal as art, context and intention are all. Since then generations of intellectuals have amplified and argued the idea. McCarthy’s bibliography demonstrates he has covered the field, and includes the continental heavyweights Foucault and Bourdieu.

But McCarthy is not just a theoretician: he worked in museums before moving to academia. Combined with his own knowledge of te reo, this means he has access to perspectives not available to many scholars. Thus the complexity of messy reality intrudes and makes for a more nuanced analysis than would come from a work based purely on academic and English language sources.

This background has led McCarthy to the idea that Maori have certainly not been passive in how their culture has been displayed in museums, galleries and at exhibitions. The tangata whenua have been active participants with their own agendas or, to use the appropriate sociological term, have had “agency”. It is observable that museums change over time (albeit at glacial speed), and Maori have variously cooperated with those changes or, when they didn’t mesh with their own needs, resisted. This is a more subtle view than the politically correct one of a few years ago, when museums were considered by some to be monuments to colonial oppression and subjugators of indigenous cultures, displaying works as evidence of European superiority and consigning the “native” to a romantic past. There was seen to be a fundamental opposition between museums and the natural Maori desire to control the representation of their own culture.

Exhibiting Maori takes these themes of agency, agenda and action, and anchors them to the core concept that meaning itself is dynamic, and changes. These changes are tracked over the historical period in New Zealand and woven into a coherent whole without excess jargon. This combining of a post-modernist with a post-colonialist approach is not as straightforward as it may seem.

There are many interlocking sets of meanings and assumptions. Pakeha and Maori each have their own world views but these are not necessarily consistent across their respective cultures, and also change over time. As well as a range of cultural suppositions, there are related connections and influences that produce new and hybrid forms. There are overlaps as well as spaces between. McCarthy’s practical experiences, Maori language skills and personal contacts have no doubt contributed to his well-realised analysis of these complexities.

One of the clearest examples of these shifting tides runs cross-culturally, through the ways the term taonga (or treasures, as many translate it nowadays) has evolved. Widely used, it has become a portmanteau and politically useful term. Maori valued taonga as manifestations of associations and relationships. In contrast, Pakeha have often viewed art objects as items that exist in a rarefied space and have their own intrinsic qualities of beauty that do not necessarily need an accompanying supporting narrative. So while Maori may regard a toki (adze) as significant because it is imbued with the mana of the ancestors, the current Western rationale for its display would concentrate on its formal qualities as an object.

As well as addressing the bigger picture, the book also has some fascinating excursions, such as on the use of wax mannequins in exhibitions because they were cost effective or because live Maori were unavailable or unwilling to participate.

The book, like the exhibitions it discusses, is also an artefact of representation and a bearer of meaning. It makes apt use of more than 80 photographs, but some, such as the group photo of Maori at the 1906 Exhibition in Christchurch, and Ngata leading the haka at Waitangi in 1940, are too detailed to be reproduced this small to any effect. Overall the design is flat, but this is forgivable in an academic book where content is given greater mana than form.

The publishers, Te Papa Press, are known for their high production values, as exemplified in their magisterial Icons Nga Taonga, but Exhibiting Maori was produced in the UK, probably to Berg’s specifications. While academic books are often expensive because of smallish print runs (or is it a captive and institutional market?), the price of this one seems high for the quality of its production. This may be because of costs in England or because Berg charged a lot for the rights. But, with subject-matter of interest to young Maori cultural workers and artists, its cost may impede accessibility.

I may be somewhat naive in regarding museum publishing as being more than an exercise in cost recovery, or, as Te Papa puts it, “commercially positive”. There is a tension between communication and commerce, but for a publicly-funded institution, with an avowed purpose of educating as well as entertaining, the emphasis in this particular case should be on the former.

Why? Because Te Papa, with its bicultural imperative, is a current marker in displaying Maori culture. Exhibiting Maori, which also charts the road to Te Papa, will be essential for future writing on New Zealand museum and cultural matters and could also deepen the museum experience for informed visitors. McCarthy’s uncovering of an unexpectedly rich and complex history is a start; there remain questions of memorialising and modernity, perceptions and presentation to be further explored.


Paul Thompson developed the Treaty of Waitangi exhibition at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, and is currently Director Emeritus of the wholly imaginary Museum Photon.


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Posted in History, Māori, Non-fiction, Review
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