Working together, learning together: How experiences of working with iwi shape more than collection management practices

Whanganui Regional Museum, NZ

This paper draws on the Sharon Dell’s long experience working in research libraries and museums that look after documents and objects of particular significance to Maori. It discusses the effect that working alongside tangata whenua has had on collection management practices and, in the case of Whanganui Regional Museum, on the structure of the organisation itself.

During Sharon’s time as Director, its governance was changed from a volunteer-based incorporated society to a community trust with a two-house governance structure giving equal partnership to the iwi and hapu of the Whanganui region. At the same time, collection management policies and practices were developed that more clearly reflected iwi values and aspirations.

Tena koutou

First, you might ask why there is no power point, and there was a temptation to divert you with luscious photographs of the taonga about which I will be speaking, but you will see why I chose not to later.

Second, the story I am going to tell you is as much a personal one as it is professional. I want to talk about a range of experiences of working with taonga and with iwi that now inform my personal and institutional practice.

I am now the Hocken Librarian, but from 1995 to 2008 I was Director of the Whanganui Regional Museum, and prior to that I rejoiced in the title of Assistant Chief Librarian and Keeper of Collections Alexander Turnbull Library, having started work there some 20 years or so previously. One of my jobs was Maori Materials Subject Specialist. During that time I did an intensive Maori language course, many weekend wananga, and four years doing all the Maori language papers at University that I could, from introductory to honours level. With a growing competency in Te Reo Maori (at least as it was written in the 1800s), I set about listing and indexing manuscript collections and discovering their extraordinarily rich and largely hidden contents.

I was also helping the people who came to the Library to do research and find links to whanau histories. I was perhaps a little bit too pleased with myself, and in my enthusiasm I would gush about our treasures, thrust whakapapa books, the original of Te Koooti’s notebooks, letters from Te Ua Haumene and other important rangatira into people’s hands and wonder why they did not always seem to be as interested in them as I was.

was thankful that I was able to employ assistants over the summer holidays. They were fellow students, steeped in culture, and generous enough to put me straight. What I had not appreciated, was the reality of what I knew intellectually, that this was material with huge spiritual value and more than that, power. People needed to be prepared, sometimes with prayer and ritual, before confronting them. These colleagues were helpful and so were readers when they commented on some seemingly trivial management practices (for example reusing old folders – from the Boys Brigade archives labelled Waikato Battalion and putting material from another iwi into the inappropriately named folders) that affected Maori researchers. Common practices of filing letters alphabetically by writer meant there was an uncomfortable juxtaposition in some folders.

One of biggest things to learn was that if people do not say anything, it does not mean they are happy. If researchers and visitors are not using our collections and facilities, there may be really good reasons, hidden reasons that indicate that our environments and practices operate as cultural barriers.

When I first went to Whanganui to the museum in 1995, on the day of my interview the occupation of Moutoa Gardens/Pakaitore had just started, and it finished the day after I started the job. This was a protest about longstanding grievances that made headlines around the world and split Whanganui and still influences it today.

The Museum was run by an incorporated society and had been for one hundred years; it was in transition from a volunteer-run to a professionally managed institution. I was tasked with reviewing the governance model, particularly in the light of iwi dissatisfaction. The Museum’s board had had Maori representation for a long time, it had put the ‘h’ in its name, and was working towards bicultural policies. But, Maori representatives were selected by the board and elected at an AGM – by as many as 23 members – of the society. We then asked those high profile iwi leaders to speak on behalf of all Maori and were surprised when they were reluctant or seemed ineffective.

Until relatively recently mokomokai (preserved heads) had been on display and it was common knowledge that previous curators had enjoyed tossing them into hands of unsuspecting tour groups.

There had been a bitter dispute with one hapu who borrowed back some portraits on deposit for an event at their marae and had decided to keep them in their meeting house. The Board had made legal demands for their return and a very fraught relationship had developed.

The Museum had a large collection of Lindauer portraits of Maori – some given to the city and some on deposit from local families. The Museum had published postcards of the portraits including some of those that were on deposit, without the permission of the families concerned. Soon after I arrived we received an injunction to stop selling them and we destroyed our stocks of cards and the guidebook that had also included the contested images.

One family in particular came to have meetings with me on several occasions about their concerns and as we moved into the serious process of governance change, it was members of that family who played key roles in liaising with iwi of the region and developing the model, running hui, and putting time into the transitional governance arrangements and then serving on the new trust board. It was precisely because they had serious issues with how the museum had operated, that they wanted to see change.

The long process of governance change culminated on 1 July 2001 when the old society merged into a new trust with a twohouse governance structure representing, on the one hand the iwi and hapu of the region with members mandated by those iwi and hapu, who were able to speak and make decisions on their behalf, and on the other a civic house selected by an electoral college of community stakeholders. A radical model we borrowed from the Anglican Church.

While governance change was happening we were also working on policies and developed Te Pou Arahi, guiding principles for the care of and access to the collections, and we tested out the policies with the kinds of requests and issues that came up in the normal course of our day to day work with researchers and others seeking permissions to use Maori material and images in various ways. It was interesting to see what happened and how the discussions with iwi representatives influenced our activity.

There is an assumption that everyone knows what heritage institutions, collections of memory, are about and agree that they are a good thing. It is hard to realise and understand that for some it is not a fundamental agreed truth that everything should be available to everybody to do whatever they want with.

We make assumptions that the models of scholarly discourse and academic freedom are commonly agreed. We make assumptions that the value of academic study is to society as a whole rather than to the individual. Some requests from students to use collection items were debated because gaining a degree was seen as being personal, almost a commercial advantage: a person will do better in life with a degree. We were sometimes surprised when requests from people wanting to use and photograph collections for academic research – say into weaving techniques – were not readily agreed to and that requests to have copies of images to illustrate a paper at a conference were not supported. So there you have it; that is the reason why I do not now automatically assume that it is okay for me to illustrate this presentation unless I have clear guidance from kaitiaki/guardians of the images.

One instance was particularly illuminating. We had a request from a fellow institution for one of the Lindauer portraits to be borrowed for an exhibition in Palmerston North. It was one of the portraits belonging to the family I have mentioned. We went through normal loan processes; a conservation report was commissioned, recommendations on packing and freight made, etc. On the iwi side – they had hui/ meeting about it. Their conclusion was that the loan could go ahead but that the portrait would not be crated as recommended, her face would not be covered, she would be driven from Whanganui to Palmerston North strapped into the front seat of the family car so that she could see out over the land in which she had lived.

Whew! What a challenge to our professional duty of care and our commitment to supporting what was clearly a different set of cultural values. I agreed, it belonged to them after all, but I had drafted a careful letter for their signature that made it clear what the Museum’s professional advice had been, absolving the Museum from any responsibility for damage should it occur. But while this was being negotiated a series of quite serious family problems occurred: a bad house fire, the death of a brother. The family came to see me and said that they had concluded that their ancestress did not want to make the journey and was making her will known to them through these horrible events, so the loan was off. What an illustration of what it really means when Maori say that portraits embody the spirit of the ancestor.

Soon after the governance change the Partington photograph collection came onto the market. This contained hundreds of portraits of Whanganui Maori taken between 1892 and 1908. It was launched like any other art auction and Whanganui iwi were horrified. There was a protest at the sale led by people like Ken Mair in his role as a radical spokesperson for Whanganui issues, but including some descendants who had been hurt to see, as they saw it, their ancestors put on the auction block. The sale was stopped and the Museum, iwi and the auctioneers entered into protracted and difficult negotiations that eventually saw the collection purchased by the Museum, on behalf of Whanganui iwi, with money provided from a number of sources but principally by the Whanganui River Maori Trust Board and jointly managed.

This would never have been possible without the relatively long journey developing the governance structure and the particular structure that requires the two houses to talk together and understand each other and reach agreement together. And it would not have happened without the journey of creating Te Pou Arahi that embedded iwi values into all collection management and access practices. Iwi leaders were sufficiently assured and confident that the Museum’s management would reflect their values.

As an example of the reality that these photographs represent a literal embodiment of the ancestors, Archie Taiaroa, a paramount leader of our region, went personally with Museum staff to Auckland to bring the collection home, a huge crowd gathered to welcome them and brought the boxes into the museum – with haka and tangi and they were laid on whariki/woven mats on the Museum marae and welcomed and talked about as if they were dead returning home. There could be no mistake about how they were regarded by iwi – they were dead returning home.

Another path we walked together was in developing policies around koiwi tangata – human remains. We thought we would test the governance system on something easy! Of course we looked at models from other institutions and the procedures they used, and the discussions that took place with staff and with our two houses on the board were illuminating for all. We decided to test our policy with an actual repatriation of a small group of remains that could be clearly identified as having come from a defined hapu’s land. In fact a hapu volunteered to be the test case – the very family who had so tested us with the loan of the portrait. I still consider it one of my personal best days when we returned the remains to the hapu and saw them quietly interred in a church graveyard.

The next opportunity to work together came when we were developing an exhibition based on the Partington photographs. This had always been part of the agreement with iwi but it took several years to get funding for conservation, scanning and cataloguing, and for the exhibition. It had a budget five times our normal annual exhibition budget. That budget allowed us to employ people to help identify portraits and gather stories about them and helped to employ a co- Curator from our iwi catchment, Che Wilson, who developed a very different exhibition (conceptually and visually) than the one we would have created on our own.

It was not always easy. One contractor did not finish the work and we could not understand why. I discovered much later that the root cause went back to something I said earlier about how academic research and scholarship is viewed. It happened that a staff member had decided to write a thesis about the Partington Collection and this contractor felt too uncomfortable to continue to supply information that they thought might be used to further someone’s academic career.

We were helped by fact that Whanganui iwi were well used to involvement in exhibitions. Te Papa was featuring the Whanganui exhibition Te Awa Tupua and the concept for ours developed from that. Che described it thus. Whereas in Te Awa Tupua, Whanganui iwi told the stories that they would usually tell on the marae in front of the meeting house. In Te Pihi Mata, we would create a meeting house to bring people into the heart of Whanganui – and there we could tell the stories that are usually told only in the house. It was a huge step; Whanganui iwi do not like to share their stories (they did not send taonga to Te Maori) and to be honest not everyone still agrees with what Che had done.

Te Pihi Mata – is a play on words. It means the startled upraised eyebrow – the surprise you might get if a camera goes off in your face. Matapihi is also the window, the window at the front of the meeting house, and it is the name of a place near the mouth of the Whanganui River, the entrance to our region. The exhibition was arranged in rooms – each room exploring a theme illustrated by the photographs.

It was a spectacular exhibition and we were proud to receive a Museums Aotearoa award for it in 2008. When it opened, most of the people who had protested at the sale were there to celebrate and support. Archie Taiaroa and local MP Tariana Turia spoke and I was moved again and again by the clear demonstration, and the eloquent articulation of the value of the path we had walked together. Tariana said, ‘We have been drawn here tonight, as the river flows from the mountain to the sea, captivated by the image of a window into the world of Whanganui … lured from Taumarunui to the mouth of the river, Te Matapihi, by the concept of a window to the past, connecting us to tomorrow.

As we gathered here tonight, we recall that the eyes are the window to the soul. This exhibition shows us that soul – the world of Whanganui it provides us with the unique knowledge through the aeons of time, that brought to us, the return of our tupuna.

We are guided along te takapau wharanui – the sacred mat – to feel that we are nestled in the heart of our tupuna wharepuni. It is precious. It is sacred. It is treasured.’

She also paid tribute to the staff, ‘Their endeavour to protect and preserve our ancestral photographs within the Whanganui Regional Museum is an inspiration to us all about the depths of respect we owe to our past. We must accept the challenge of building a shared understanding of where we have come from, to connect from the past to today, and on to the future.’

She was magic.

At my farewell from the Museum, I spoke about the highlights of my time there, the new governance, the return of koiwi, the opening of Te Pihi Mata. I reflected on how I had been aware from those earlier days working with Maori manuscript material and with Maori visitors that it was one thing to translate the words and know what they all meant. It was much more difficult to know what the words were saying. That through our work together I was more aware of how little I knew and was grateful for the opportunities to really understand what it means when we say that cultures think differently about issues.

Then in mid 2009 the Museum received a race relations award (www.naatiblog. com/2009/08/whanganui-museum-receivesrace). At the time the constitution of the new Auckland supercity was being debated and Tariana Turia (now co-leader of the Maori Party and a partner in a National government) took the opportunity to make a point. In a media release she said: ‘The race relations award that has been given to the Whanganui Regional Museum is a great example of how mana whenua seats can work in governance arrangements. The museum has worked extremely hard to create a genuine and meaningful relationship with tangata whenua of Whanganui and the award it has received shows that Maori representation is good for not only Maori but the wider community. I call on other groups which are charged with doing work in the interests of the public to look at this example and realise the great things that can come by having tangata whenua sit at the table with them.’

At a practical level, the museum’s arrangement with tangata whenua has allowed it to add significant value to its exhibitions, Mrs Turia said, ‘The museum is truly deserving of this award and I hope that other organisations can learn from its example.’

I was chuffed. I also reflected that just over a decade earlier it was Tariana’s hapu who had been in such a difficult dispute with the Museum over the borrowing and return of portraits.

I titled this paper Working together, learning together; how experiences of working with iwi shape more than collection management practices. What this showed me was it has been a two way process.

To conclude:

Ko ou hikoinga i runga i toku whariki

Ko tou noho i töku whare

E huakina ai oku tatau oku matapihi

Your steps on my whariki

Your respect for my home

Opens doors and windows


By Sharon Dell, Hocken Librarian at the University of Otago