Let me just put out a disclaimer and attribution: I am not particularly well trained in issues Māori, and particularly not in best practice for displaying taonga. I’ve consulted with a few people in the preparation of this article, but especially Lloyd Carpenter, a Ph. D candidate the University of Canterbury who is studying the construction of heritage.
Pitt Rivers Museum is an ‘Anthropology and World Archaeology’ Museum, attached to the University of Oxford. The museum was founded in 1884 when General Pitt-Rivers donated around 20,000 ethnographic articles to the University, and since that time has continued to acquire objects through various means. It now holds about 300,000 artefacts. So far so familiar: the ethnographical museum founded by an upper-class Army General playing amateur academic, attempting to understand the world through the collection of material culture from the colonial fringes.
The problem with the museum is not its history–it was in fact on the cutting edge of museum practice for its time–it’s the fact that its organization and ideological principles haven’t changed much in the interim. One of the guides told me that it’s a ‘museum of a museum’; that’s pretty much right. It’s how museums used to be: boxes and boxes of stuff, taken from all over the world, all crammed together. (The panoramas show this more clearly than my attached photographs.) There is no place for cultural specificity here: each box is headed with a type of practice, such as ‘Treatment of Dead Enemies’, where you are just as likely to encounter artefacts from South America as Polynesia or the Caribbean. The assumption is an essentialist one: because all people are the same, fundamentally, and their practices fulfil a basic human need–the ‘pre-modern’ people are not advanced enough to have moved much out of ‘nature’, you see–artefacts from all over the world may be grouped together without any problems.
This principle also allows Pitt-Rivers and other historical donors to get away with very questionable practices. The display of shrunken heads from South America is a good example: at Pitt Rivers the heads are pretty much just hung there, with a description of the process of manufacture (never mind the fact that these were people that lived and breathed, but now have their corpses on permanent display). What is not mentioned is the specific cultural history of headhunting. In the New Zealand context–which I realize may or may not be applicable to the heads on display–colonial traders revived and in fact encouraged the production of such curiosities. Originally kept as a sign of respect for high ranking slain enemies and to gain respect amongst probable foes, the meaning of the heads changed significantly after the arrival of European traders: in order to satisfy demand slaves, not high ranking enemies, were slaughtered and tattooed with moko–that is to say that people died so that their heads could be exported to museums and private collections in the colonial centre. Yet the museum is silent upon the conditions of procurement; it’s not so much a case of denying colonial guilt, it’s that it doesn’t seem to be present in the first place.
But it is the specifics of the various Māori taonga on display that particularly worry me. It’s kind all just jammed together. It’s meaningless. It can’t have any educational function when all that you see is a cloak or a carving from a marae or a wakahuia; they’re just things to look at. And if there’s nothing really to learn about Māori history, culture or belief, then why bother, why not just return the ‘things’ to the iwi concerned?
In Māori terms, this is a significant problem. As Hirini Moko Mead argues, korero must be attached to taonga in order for the objects to be appreciated and understood. Lloyd Carpenter had this to say:
Artefacts are not taonga without korero, and without korero there is no wairua and no meaning.
This is all the more important because:
any museum holding taonga automatically is conferred in the role of kaitiaki, with an implicit requirement that cultural mores are observed and most importantly that a thorough working knowledge of tikanga is known.
I feel like this rather knotty series of Māori issues are not addressed in Pitt Rivers: the objects just speak too much of a cabinet of curiosities, and not enough of serious examination of how to respect taonga, how to take seriously the role of kaitiaki.
Many of the Māori items were donated by Mākereti Papakura, but not all. Most are not attributed to any one tribe or person (other than the European collector); it’s my bet that many of the iwi to whom the objects originally belonged, besides those donated by Mākereti, are unaware that their taonga is sitting on display. I’m more than willing to be wrong on that; but the question remains: how would (or do) the families feel about having the material memory of their ancestors shoved in the back corner of some museum in the UK? How much control do they exert over the memory of their tīpuna?
This is especially relevant to Māori. Taonga elude simple systems of financial exchange; they remain deeply rooted to the land and people of their providence. Regardless of how much was paid for them, whakapapa and wairua continue to inhere in taonga; its belonging is collective, and inconsiderate display amounts to a collective offence.
Then there’s the information cards themselves. For a start, I was taken aback that the cards actually say ‘the Maori’. There’s no macron, and using the definite article turns a living, active people into a museum piece.
The whole thing is like stepping back in time, and not in a good way. The museum originates from the fetish for the material culture of the non-Western other, which arose very much out of the ideology that ‘traditional’ cultures are about to die out, and therefore their existence must be documented before they are irreparably damaged. We had this in Christchurch at the Canterbury Museum, but all that is left of that world is the Haast Room, which is a living testament to the problematic historical providence of the museum. The surprise is that Pitt Rivers hasn’t similarly moved on since then: rather than reorganizing the displays culture by culture, in line with current museum practice, the objects are allowed to just remain, announcing that the colonial mindset hasn’t quite expired.
This is unfortunately the strongest educational function of Pitt Rivers: it is a material example of the long, warped afterlife of colonial ideologies. When I first walked in, I wasn’t sure if the entire museum was in fact vaguely ironic, somehow pointing the finger at the collectors who thought it was acceptable to just take things from all over the world (the stranger the better), stick a label on them and leave them in glass cases for school kids to press their noses against. But as I walked around I became more convinced that in fact it wasn’t ironic at all: people were genuinely fascinated by the pieces, blown away by the sheer amount of stuff, which just shows us the world. But it doesn’t show us the world, the past or other cultures at all: stripped of context, it just shows us the fantasies and fetishes of imperialism, whereby the Other may be documented, stabilized and essentialized without reference to their histories, traditions, customs and beliefs — that is to say without reference to their culture. The whole thing just doesn’t make sense to me: how can they get away with thinking that this type of museum is still acceptable?
One of the guides told me that Pitt Rivers isn’t too ‘politically correct’. I think the word he was looking for was ‘respectful’. Respectful to the families of people who lived, carved, weaved, and negotiated colonial encounters of trade and all too often subjugation and exploitation; respectful to vibrant and unique cultures that are, of course, very much alive today. Surely Oxford can do better.