To live up to its name, Our Place needs biculturism not biased culturism

BY SEAN PLUNKET
Last updated 11:41 18/10/2010

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Funny, isn't it, how what goes around often comes around.

This week's controversy over the "guidelines" for a backroom tour of Te Papa offered to staff from other museums is a perfect example.

In a nutshell, invitees were asked to refrain from taking part in the tour if they were pregnant or menstruating, due to a traditional Maori belief that some objects, particularly those used in battle, can have negative spiritual impacts on women in such conditions.

It was not a ban, as some media reported, more an advisory, which, given the likely bicultural awareness of those invited, will probably be adhered to.

That didn't stop many media describing the "guidelines" as a ban and also creating the impression that these items (taonga) were on general display in the museum, therefore suggesting that female members of the general populace would be subject to some scrutiny on entering what is a very popular free-of- charge public facility.

Both major TV channels were all over it. Close Up had an interview with Te Papa's Maori co-leader in which she and Mark Sainsbury seemed to talk past each other. Over on Campbell Live, reporter Whena Owen took the trouble to go down to Te Papa and filed a very straightforward piece explaining the issues. She interviewed the senior Maori curator at Te Papa, who talked about the need to cleanse with water while transitioning from one area of the museum to another.

It should also be noted that these backroom tours and the associated "guidelines" have been taking place at the rate of two or three a week for several years.

It would be nice to think the story would die there, but I have the feeling that it might not. For all the protestations that, in the end, the decision on whether to attend the tour would be left up to individuals themselves, I am left with the underlying impression that anyone who breaks the "guidelines" will be made very uncomfortable. Te Papa staff seem to accept the validity of the tapu superstition associated with the objects. Perhaps that isn't surprising, given the fiercely bicultural nature of the institution and their Maori heritage.

Te Papa is a far cry from its predecessor in Buckle St, where I used to scare myself silly looking at the shrunken Maori heads, play hide and seek among the mighty waka and transform into a pirate on the reconstructed quarterdeck of the Endeavour. It has been hailed internationally for altering perceptions about what a museum is and where it fits in society.

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For the most part, that is a good thing, but the menstruation/pregnancy issue suggests there are some downsides. Any institution which seeks to inform and encourage public awareness and debate must be careful not to lead it. If it does, it risks imposing views and values on society which it decides are acceptable rather than those which reflect society as it truly is.

It would have been more appropriate had the museum simply mentioned the tapu beliefs in its invitation to the backroom tour and left it to invitees to formulate their own response. As things stand, there are clearly a large number of items in the vault at Te Papa which will never be displayed publicly as long as the current mindset exists.

This is where the hypocrisy of the current issue arises. As Sainsbury mentioned in passing, Te Papa was more than willing to disregard the long-held religious beliefs and sensibilities of a large number of New Zealanders when it exhibited the Virgin in a Condom art piece back in 1998.

That exhibition caused a national outcry. Catholics protested and marched in the streets, Te Papa's foundation CEO Cheryll Sotheran received death threats and promises of eternal hellfire and damnation. John Banks, an MP at the time, tried to sue and the statue was kicked over by a protester.

But Te Papa stuck to its guns, arguing the public display of the work was an integral part of its role to generate debate and discourse.

Sotheran hasn't gone to hell, as far as I know - indeed she was a made a dame for her work at Te Papa.

I supported Te Papa's bold stand 12 years ago but cannot say I feel the same about this latest brouhaha. For Our Place to live up to its name, it needs biculturism not biased culturism.

Somehow I can't see it ever agreeing to exhibit a taiaha with a tampon.

- The Dominion Post

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