History in progress – exhibiting “the nation” (1993)

by Raewyn Whyte

Voices He Putahitanga: A Social History of Aotearoa New Zealand was an exhibition installed in 1993 in New Zealand’s National Museum –  a local prototype of the current vanguard of museum practice elsewhere in the world — the “interactive museum experience” which provided opportunities for active engagement by visitors.  A work in progress, Voices was to be constantly under revision, and was to run for five years.  The visitor, it was expected, would return over and over to the exhibit and discover new perspectives, ideas,  re-visionings of what had been there before.

I found the exhibition fascinating, and it was certainly controversial.  Over a period of 3 years, I kept returning to see what had transpired. I am under the impression that  the project as a whole was  overtaken by events, and closed early – certainly it never appeared in the brand new and much expanded Te Papa Tongarewa: National Museum of New Zealand  when it opened on the Wellington waterfront in 1998, despite that being a stated intention. The new Te Papa was a much heralded site of interactive exhibits, but none brought with them the same level of contestation which accompanied Voices He Putahitanga.

In 1993, freshly arrived back in NZ after five years living and studying in Vancouver and New York, I was invited to respond to that exhibition for the publication MIDWEST.  The following is the commentary I wrote.

My section of the commissioned triplet of reviews published in MIDWEST, as cited below:
Raewyn Whyte, Brett Graham, and Ian Wedde Voices he Putahitanga  Midwest #3 May 1993 p12-16

A work in progress is perhaps the last thing you’d expect to see in the nation’s new flagship institution, the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.  Yet that’s just what you get in Voices He Putahitanga: A Social History of Aotearoa New Zealand, which opened in January for a five-year run as a potential prototype of the kind of large-scale, multimedia, long-running shows which the new institution will continue to develop after moving into its purpose-built premises in 1998.

Far from being a completed, polished exhibition, Voices He Putahitanga is constantly under review and subject to change.  Currently on display are nine of a planned fifteen “courts” to be presented in varying combinations over the next five years.  They span from time immemorial to the present day by leaps and bounds, touching down in successive epochs to establish through a combination of images and objects and spoken texts a series of references from which connections can be drawn to a larger history of the nation.  A familiar roster of sequential markers is included–visits by explorers from Kupe to Cook, the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, the “purchase” of the land on which Wellington stands, Te Rauparaha’s raids, the Nelson gold rush, women’s suffrage, World War II–each of them presented in a more dialogical way than is usual.

As the months go by, some courts will be replaced, some will be extensively revised and added to, and some will stay in place for the whole five years.  There’s no guarantee that you’ll be able to revisit a section of the exhibit that particularly intrigues you, nor that a juxtaposition which seemed particularly apt will be sustained; but perhaps there’s some consolation in believing that aspects of the exhibition which are exceedingly difficult to make sense of will eventually be made more accessible.

The exhibition is in part an outcome of the commitment by the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa to becoming bicultural in every aspect of its operations.  But becoming bicultural is no easy matter, since nobody is really sure what it is to be bicultural, how such an achievement might be measured, or even if it is actually achievable beyond a level of pragmatic adaptation to promote responsiveness to Maori concerns and aspirations.  There is, however, general agreement on the ideal:  biculturalism requires a commitment to creating a society which is equitable for both Maori and non-Maori, one in which Maori and non-Maori have equal standing, and in which it is both understood, and accepted, that the rationale which underlies change is founded in the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi.  Accordingly, biculturalism requires a conscious reconsideration of everything previously taken for granted, and changes to ways of doing almost everything in the light of new understandings.

The eight-member curatorial team of Voices He Putahitanga, (four men, four women, four Maori, four Pakeha) has taken this ideal on board.  It has reconsidered the institution’s conventions for the display of the nation’s cultural heritage and natural environment in the form of “New Zealand History,” and has sought to establish equality of Maori and Pakeha values, perspectives, authority, and responsibility for the selection of material for the exhibition’s courts.  At the same time, and in the light of postmodernist critiques, they have endeavoured to construct a new mode and politics of bicultural and gender-inclusive display, aiming to solicit the active engagement of visitors and open “New Zealand History” to alternate readings.

Almost every aspect of conventional museological practice has been questioned, revisioned, and reconstructed through strategic choices which imply a redemptive purpose and a belief that it is possible to transform the system of knowledge which History represents by having visitors to the Museum experience it Otherwise.

Displays in Voices He Putahitanga combine materials from the former natural history, colonial history, Maori culture, and European art collections of the National Museum and National Art Gallery, and integrate them to make available a wider interpretive context than was previously so.  Maori and Pakeha histories, discourses and cultural practices are given equivalent status, and redress is constituted by revision of the timeline of significant events in “New Zealand history.”  The narrative now begins with Kupe’s arrival on these shores in the waka  Matahorua, and includes the successive migrations of iwi from other territories of Te Ika a Maui as they displace iwi and resettle the Raukawa Moana (Cook Strait) region over some 600 years of the pre-Colonial period.  Recent discoveries at Wairua Bar are explored in particular detail. Feminist concerns have also been acted on, and Voices He Putahitanga actively places both Maori and Pakeha women at the centre of this new history as subjects, actors, and exemplars of cultural accomplishment.

Each display is focussed on the representative specificities of the life of one person or group of people, or one particular event, one particular object, elaborated by a proliferation of images, objects and sounds.  Most courts include recorded fragments of parallel commentary in a range of Maori and Pakeha discourses which are given equivalent explanatory power and legitimacy in accounting for aspects of life on this country’s shores over the past 1000 years.  Whakapapa runs parallel to Biblical explanations, archaeology and anthropology;  whakatauki  are equivalents to ethnohistory and cartographic explanations; karakia and waiata mark time beside biographical detail; and the intermeshing of these “voices” generally offers a whole, a context, which is more comprehensive than the sum of its individual parts.

The interpretive material which accompanies each section is much less descriptive and didactic than is usual in museum display, indicative rather than explanatory, directing attention to contradictory details which make apparent the contingent, relational nature of historical explanations.  The intention is to engage the visitor in conscious construction of a personal meaning from the array of objects and images presented, and indeed, to make any particular sense of what is presented at any moment does demand conscious attention to the material in front of you, particularly since the recorded material often ironically comments on or undermines conventional interpretations for the themes of each display.

Though it isn’t necessarily obvious, the curators have provided details within each court which enable a web of reference to be drawn across the exhibition as a whole, have provided a logic by which shared, parallel, and related themes may be drawn within the exhibition as a whole.  One such web of connections establishes a metanarrative of settlement in which pre-Colonial Maori and Colonial Pakeha are co-equally implicated, as two peoples, each with their own discrete histories, but with parallel patterns of settlement dependent on the dispossession of existing inhabitants.

The museum’s normal role is to ensure a shared understanding of our heritage, to pass on understandings of history which reinforce existing power relations.  The curators appear to believe that this role can be changed, that the museum can intervene, can help to make other outcomes possible.  The question they seem to have avoided asking is whether the redemptive impulse is something the Museum can actually effect, whether their intervention can ever be more than a dream.

Perhaps what is most “in progress” about the exhibition, is the curatorial understanding of biculturalism which is yet to be made evident for our consideration.

For all that they’ve revisioned museological practices and have posited a New Zealand History which has been read against the grain, it is far from clear how the curators envisage the present, let alone the future.  Though changes to the exhibition may continue to extend the timeline, at present there is nothing more recent than women’s experiences of World War II, other than a bank of television monitors tuned to Sky’s current repertoire, an installation which is not at all helpful in suggesting a critical utopian vision of what our society might become.

Though care has been taken to present Maori and Pakeha discourses and perspectives as having equivalent legitimacy and authority, nowhere are issues to do with the future addressed. And though various models of bicultural power relations are presented–Maori dominance, negotiated co-existence, Maori withdrawal in the face of Pakeha domination, and an integrated but Pakeha-dominated society — these suggest only a limited range of possibility.  Other alternatives are needed if he putahitanga, the wholeness which results through resolution of difficulties and contradictions, is ever to be established.

For all that has been questioned and reconstructed here, the question which seems yet to be considered is whether history can effectively be revisioned as bicultural.

Maori and Pakeha approaches to history have very different premises and assumptions, very different understandings of the role of the past in the present.  In Maori understanding, the past determines the present, talks in and through the present.  It provides the directions and models from which action is the present is shaped, and what must always be kept in mind is the contribution which the past is always already making as a frame of reference for the present moment.  In Pakeha understandings, by contrast, the present takes precedence over the past, and the past is retrospectively reinterpreted from the vantage of the present moment What must always be kept in mind is the current frame of reference.  These are fundamentally irreconcilable perspectives, always in tension, always integral to bicultural relations in Aotearoa New Zealand.


Some reading which may be useful in considering this exhibition:

  •  Partnership and Peace: Essays on Biculturalism in Aotearoa New Zealand  NZ Foundation for Peace Studies  1990
  • James Ritchie  Becoming Bicultural  Huia Publishers  1992
  • Minister of Maori Affairs  He Tirohanga Rangapu: Partnership Perspectives  April 1988
  • Te Urupare Rangapu: Partnership Response  November 1988
  • Richard Mulgan  Maori, Pakeha and Democracy  Oxford University Press  1989
  • Paul Spoonley et al  Nga Take  Dunsmore Press 1991
  • Ranginui Walker  The Meaning of Biculturalism  National Council of Churches  1986

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.