Te Papa tapu advice 'can be ignored'

A warning to pregnant or menstruating women to stay away from Maori artefacts at Te Papa is simply an advisory and women can decide to ignore it, Arts, Culture and Heritage Minister Chris Finlayson says.

Regional museum staff have been invited to go on a behind-the-scenes tour of Te Papa's private collections on November 5, but included in the conditions is a clause that states: "Wahine [women] who are either hapu [pregnant] or mate wahine [menstruating] are welcome to visit at another time that is convenient for them."

Mr Finlayson said he did not get involved in the day-to-day running of Te Papa, but he understood that the message was not an instruction.

"It's an advisory requested by the iwi, but it's for people to make up their own minds," he said.

The exhibit at the centre of the debate is the taonga collection. The collection is not open to the general public but interested parties can arrange to view it.

Te Papa spokeswoman Jane Keig said two or three groups usually visited it most weeks.

The collection contains artefacts, including weapons that were used in warfare and items used in special ceremonies. Many of the items in the collection are regarded as tapu, or forbidden, in Maori culture.

"Some of the taonga are associated with funerary rituals, some of them are associated with warfare and have been used to kill," said Te Papa's senior curator of Mataurangi Maori, Rhonda Paku.

"We are very aware, even today, those types of weapons are held in high regard and they have still have significant spiritual connection around them."

Ms Paku said pregnant and menstruating women were also regarded as sacred by Maori. "Maori culture acknowledges the very special childbearing role that women have and that spiritually in our culture, that's a significant role.

"We are the bearer of tomorrow's generation.

"It is about respecting the sacredness around that role culturally.

"When it comes into conflict, and potentially it can, with some of the strong influences of taonga in the collection, the two obviously may clash."

Deborah Russell, a prominent feminist writer on The Hand Mirror blog, said it was fair enough to respect cultural protocols, but Te Papa should simply have said that, rather than issuing "their mealy-mouthed request for pregnant and menstruating women to come back at a time that `is convenient for them'." She did not understand why Te Papa, which was funded by public money, was imposing religious and cultural values on people.

"It's fair enough for people to engage in their own cultural practices where those practices don't harm others, but the state shouldn't be imposing those practices on other people."

THE CASE FOR

Professor Margaret Mutu, head of Maori studies at Auckland University, says: "This is about respecting the beliefs of Maori people and in particular the beliefs of the hapu who have given the artefacts to Te Papa.

"From what I understand, those taonga ... are very powerful and have a strong tapu of their own. Women who are pregnant or who are menstruating are also tapu. We believe the two shouldn't come into contact with each other. It's bad news if they do.

"In my hapu, there is a restriction on women especially when they are menstruating. You can't go on the gardens, you can't go on fishing areas. As a kid, I was told if you go on those places we'll get no vegetables out of the garden or we won't catch any fish.

"A woman is very powerful when she is menstruating or when she is pregnant and her ability to produce the following generations must be carefully protected.

"Some people will say it's ridiculous, but if you live in the Maori world, you read things differently from Pakeha. Maori don't just live in the physical world; we also live in the spiritual world."

THE CASE AGAINST

Labour MP Trevor Mallard says people should boycott Te Papa's behind-the-scenes tour of sacred taonga.

The Hutt South MP says the notion that pregnant and menstruating women would be in danger from the taonga by making the backroom tour is idiotic.

"The idea that women are in danger from weapons in a one-off behind-the-scenes tour but not in a general exhibition says it all," Mr Mallard said.

He also said the Te Papa staff member who agreed to the advisory condition was an idiot and Arts Minister Chris Finlayson needed to intervene and sort out the issue immediately. "Anyone who condones such an approach by going on one of the tours lacks principle."

Hundreds of pregnant and menstruating women walked past sacred taonga at Te Papa in public exhibitions every week. He was aware of Maori women being permanently entrusted with caring for taonga at marae throughout New Zealand.

"Those women don't stop looking after the taonga just because they are having their periods."