Research – Auckland War Memorial Museum, Maori Collection

In 1999 I visited the Auckland War Memorial museum for the first time, along with other students from the Eastern Institute of Technology. While I was there I made the following observation.

Inside the Auckland Museum I took in the offerings of Maori artifacts in the frontispiece. Walking amidst the dim light restricted corridors of Oceanic art’s display cases, I entered the permanent ‘Maori treasures’ exhibition – lending my weight to an arm support that eased my transition between spaces and allowed me to balance awkwardly on a gradient aside a successive series of poutokomanawa (Carved Poles). These were carvings that seemed wholly divorced from any functional context I had ever seen them in before. The black matte steel supports and similarly painted shelves upon which the carvings were rested, seemed in essence to allude to the linear vertical edges of Hotere or perhaps posterized outlines of textural cloak weaves. There was in evidence some degree of effort on the part of the museum to present the traditional with the neo-traditional or contemporary as a progressing continuum of thought. However the contextual allusion appeared to direct itself better toward the bleak and temporary housing qualities of a social welfare home. I was standing there, aware of their detachment from their previous lives – on Marae or in Whare – realizing that they bared little semblance to functional participles of traditional Maori ideology – when placed on a shelf – and that supposedly there were objective museum directives at work, when I recognized an example of Ngati Porou carving. Identified by the form of the eyes, and confirmed by a supplicant title to be from my own Iwi (tribe). This is where I noted that anyone intending to look at the carvings would have to stand in the same lop sided stance that I was in, in order to view what in my understanding is a symbol of my own Maori identity. It seems almost surreal now but as I was thinking this, a couple of generic American tourists laden with gift shop plastic bags and wearing baseball caps trundled down the slope. They didn’t look at the carving that I had by now identified with, which pissed me off somewhat and I remember raising a discerning eyebrow at them as they waddled off in a centripetal direction toward the wharenui (Main carved house). At this point I realized that in an instant I had accepted how the carvings were displayed, associated my own history with the example provided and wanted some degree of reciprocated validation of its value, from these representatives from America. I’d fallen into the trap that the museum has for the naive viewer – the false impression that it offers more than just a contrived representation of a people (one that people and Marae reveal as false).  By mistakenly reading truth onto this space one reveals a people eclipsed by colonization. With artifacts left in fragmented debris for curators to aggrandize the auspices of museums. But maybe this is just one way that colonizations work. With subtle changes in context to alter the meaning of the text/objects supported, then after a little while you begin to forget the change and take things for granted. And it’d be easy enough to think that this is the way it was or is or should be, without questioning it all.

Years later as a Student at the University of Auckland I visited again. This time with the purpose of tracking down artworks that I had been told by whānau were in their collection. The works were by my tipuna Riwai Pakerau. I visited the museum a few times, meeting with curator Roger Neich and finding this work and discussing it’s storage and the influence of his work – mainly on the work of contemporary artists who had been visiting the museum for years, well before I did. On one of these visits I was permitted to film these works, which also involved seeing them in the context of their storage. The following video is some of the documentation that I took away with me.

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