Friday, March 10, 2017

Finishing Well: May and June in New Zealand

Kaitiakitanga (n.): guardianship of the environment or culture; the kaitiaki ("guardian") is responsible for the physical and spiritual wellbeing of their charge. (Maori)

My last month and a half were spent in New Zealand, which was at once so familiar and so foreign that I found myself pleasantly unbalanced. I attempted to master the New Zealand accent with dismal results, visited The Shire to fulfill a lifelong dream, and got involved at once with the contemporary Maori arts scene in Auckland. Auckland artists are working to redefine the notion of “tradition” and “traditional” in their art, challenging the imaginary yet solid borders between modern and traditional artmaking. Needless to say I was all over that like white on rice. Unless it's wild rice, in which case I was all over that like deliciousness on wild rice.

Then I got to Wellington, the seat of government and artistic policy-making in New Zealand, and everything got really, really complicated. I had the pleasure of working extensively with people in and around Te Papa, the national museum of New Zealand, and hearing from people working in all levels at the institution. I came in flying half-blind, and the people at Te Papa were incredibly kind and welcoming to me, showing me the ropes and teaching me the vocabulary for conversations I didn’t even know existed.

Let's get some context into the picture. In 2011, the Waitangi Tribunal (a commission that deals with Maori claims relating to the Treaty of Waitangi—please look it up. I can't do all the explaining that is required to do that treaty justice, and it's really, really important) published what is known as the Wai 262 Claim, an inquiry into the place of Maori culture, laws, traditions, identity, and knowledge in New Zealand. In (really) short: who owns or gets to manage Maori culture? In the introduction to their inquiry, the Tribunal wrote:
"What we saw and heard in sittings over many years left us in no doubt that unless it is accepted that New Zealand has two founding cultures, not one; unless Māori culture and identity are valued in everything government says and does; and unless they are welcomed into the very centre of the way we do things in this country, nothing will change. Māori will continue to be perceived, and know they are perceived, as an alien and resented minority, a problem to be managed with a seemingly endless stream of taxpayer-funded programmes, but never solved." (source)*
The claim holds that Maori should control all usage of Maori images, because intellectual property laws protects individuals but not iwi ("tribes.") For example, images of moko ("tattoos") and tattooed faces on tourist and souvenir items are found deeply offensive by many Maori. I should insert here that great and terrible caveat, "not all." Not all Maori are offended by these practices, and some actively support the tourist industryI was once told that if you ask 100 people, you'll get at least 100 different opinions. But I digress.

Another very important example (and a personally embarrassing one) is the case of heitiki, which are small carved figures, usually of green stone, which have immense sacred power, and, in many cases, personal identities and histories. Not knowing this, I picked up a cheap heitiki keychain for my sister in Auckland. Cool and unique, right? Wrong. As their images are diluted and disseminated into the souvenir industry, original heitiki lose their power. So, my purchase unknowingly fed into continuing controversy and showed just how little I know. The keychain now holds an uncomfortable place of prominence on my shelf at home, a reminder to stay humble as I walk through new worlds.

So, where does Te Papa come in? Well. Because of its efforts to unify, represent, and educate both Maori and non-Maori peoples in New Zealand, Te Papa is held up as a sort of ideal by the international museum community as a “truly bicultural institution.” But, as one of the Maori curators I met challenged, biculturalism is a lofty and perhaps unobtainable goal. Te Papa therefore lends itself as a third space, where representatives of different iwi meet with each other and with non-Maori New Zealanders, and cultural events can be organized with the aim of education, inclusion, and open dialogue. Weighty stuff, eh?

Luckily, within the conservation department there seems to be a real awareness of the delicacy of the situations and materials the staff are dealing with. For example, there is the case of the oil painting portraits of iwi rangatira ("chiefs," the heads of Maori hapu, or "clans"). For preliminary treatment, it is not uncommon for paintings conservators to use saliva as a cleaning agent. The enzymes in our mouths are gentle but effective, and I've done it myself on several occasions to remove dust and other coatings from the surface of an oil painting. However, this practice is completely forbidden on the rangatira paintings—applying a saliva-soaked swab to the surface of that canvas would be equivalent to spitting in the rangatira's face. So, alternate and more appropriate methods of cleaning are used, and offense is avoided.

One conservator told me that at Te Papa they work in the conservation of values, and encouraged me to think not of capital-o Objects but of the people and values they represent. Indeed, the objects these conservators treat are often not "objects" at all, but ancestors and important cultural figures, complete with names, histories, and personalities, who should be treated with the utmost respect. So, the conservators at Te Papa have their work cut out for them. Cultural deference is shown to Maori conservators when developing treatment plans, unique methods are used when treating culturally significant Maori objects, and almost complete authority is given to iwi over objects with mana and tapu (“power” and “restrictions” respectively, in the simplest of translations.) It's a collaborative work  of respect in progress.

These measures are to me, a foreigner, at once inspiring and thought-provoking. I look at the efforts being made by the New Zealand government and it makes me reflect upon the United States’ treatment of Native American peoples and material culture in museums and in archaeological policy; concepts of artistic and cultural autonomy that are cemented in law in New Zealand are only recently emerging in the United States. At Te Papa, Maori and non-Maori cultural relations are navigated on a daily basis, with sacred Maori objects being at the center of those discussions. Nowhere else had I seen institutions use such culturally sensitive objects as tools for social change so deliberately. The complex implications of these conversations made me reconsider practices in the United States, where archaeological and ethnographic conservation still have much room to grow, and I felt a renewed call to action.

This is not to say that there aren't efforts being made at home, by any means. Here in the States we have the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington D.C. (which I visited for the first time in October and could not recommend more highly—if you want to see culturally sensitive objects being used deliberately as tools for social change, start here!) and the North American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA—another highly complex piece of law that I recommend you look up) which was enacted to protect Native American and Hawaiian grave sites and their contents, as well as to criminalize the trafficking of Native American and Hawaiian remains or cultural items. Repatriation is an ongoing and evolving process, and institutions across the country are reevaluating their place in the preservation of heritage; museums are beginning to respond to the need for diversity and inclusion, both in their collections and their staff. It's exciting stuff, people! I have got to get back into a lab! Maybe I’ll even go into policy—who knows? And why limit myself?

*This is an excerpt from Ko Aotearoa Tēnei: A Report into Claims Concerning New Zealand Law and Policy Affecting Māori Culture and Identity (2011), a publication which covers much, much more than just Wai Claim 262. If any of this material interests you, I highly recommend you read further.

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