Decolonising our practices
Week 4 looked at how we approached telling the stories in the gallery, but addressing the legacies of these histories in an institution like a museum goes much deeper than the public outputs.
In this section we’re looking at how we’re changing, and developing other practices within the museum.
Decolonisation is a word increasingly associated with museum practice. Within the sector there are seminars, conferences, papers, courses, individual and institutional actions. It is a big topic.
Outside of the sector, it is used by writers, artists and activists, and on social media, holding large institutions and societal structures to account over the legacies and violence of colonialism. There are different approaches to what decolonisation might look like, and if it is even possible.
For me at the moment, and in my work, I think of it like this:
The people of Te Moana nui a Kiwa feel the legacies of colonialism in the 21st century includes: curtailment of their language, land rights, food sovereignty, representation in government, educational attainment, racism, renaming of their lands, and that their ancestors are housed in museums in Europe. I feel that Pacific taonga are in European museums largely through processes of imperialism, and colonialism. They are mostly cared for, curated by, and visited by beneficiaries of colonial structures and legacies. Decolonisation means acknowledging this and addressing it, in our language, in our spaces and in our structures and policies.
So how are we changing?
Activation is about empowering taonga, people and spaces. In Pacific cultures taonga are integral to knowledge sharing and collective memory, but casing taonga in museums can make them passive, objectified, viewed, and interpreted by our visitors.
Activating gallery spaces means using performance, song, dance, art, voices, ritual, blessings, and protocols to create an environment where the taonga are part of a living dialogue and where visitors are not only viewing the taonga, but experiencing taonga as part of a vibrant living culture.
Pacific Encounters was opened with four blessings (Māori, Fijian, Mangaian, and Tongan) to activate the space and to prepare the taonga so that they felt powerful and happy in their new homes. These activations included prayers, blessings, speeches, kava ceremonies, dance and song.
The initial three blessings (Māori, Fijian, Mangaian) were personal moments for the people of Te Moana nui a Kiwa who had been involved in the development of the galleries. The Tongan blessing was during public opening and was celebrated by staff and visitors alike.
Training and Guidelines
The Museum commissioned four stakeholders, Jo Walsh, Natasha Vaike, Vanessa Majoribanks and Katrina Igglesden, to develop a training session on how to work with our Pacific collection and histories sensitively. The session is delivered by Jo, Natasha, Vanessa, and Katrina and includes languages, protocols, and wider context for the histories in the gallery, as well as their legacies. All staff are encouraged to attend the session, representing the visitor experience team, curators, learning and interpretation, marketing, publications, programming, conservation and collections.
The Museum is also developing a set of guidelines encoding how we should be working with stakeholders, and how we care for the taonga in our collection.
How we care for the taonga changes. We talk to the taonga, they are active in our work, not passive objects, and we don’t require stakeholders from Tangata Moana to wear gloves if they are handling the taonga.
The Museum is also adapting how it works with artists on issues like copyright of works and images, where the legal requirements don’t acknowledge ethical concerns around indigenous knowledge sharing and artistic creation.
Our aim is for the Tangata Moana to feel ownership of the gallery space, to feel comfortable there, and to care for the taonga appropriately. It’s a work in progress and we continue to learn and develop our practices.
© National Maritime Museum / author Sophie Richards