President’s Column: October 2021

President’s Column: October 2021

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Recently (reading a very long novel in MIQ) the following sentence stood out ‘All … museums are powerhouses and we, who are so light, recognize the weight of everything that is housed there.’ (Nooteboom, Cees. 1998. Allerzielen. Amsterdam: Atlas, p.186.)

On Friday evening on TV you may watch The Repair Shop. Along with the formulaic predictability of it all, there is a sense of what the weight of an object might be. People come in with objects that mean something to them. They are often historical objects from previous generations and provide links to ancestors: grandfather’s radio, the teddy my aunt gave to me; but they are damaged. Once they are repaired, the owners feel that the objects have more weight than they had before. They have become museum pieces, links with a personal past and fit to serve as such a link for the future.

So what makes a public museum a powerhouse? Tate Modern on London’s Westbank was a literal powerhouse, as was the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney. But that is not the kind of powerhouse Cees Nooteboom is getting at. He sees museum collections as repositories of objects which have, like the kettles and clocks in the repair shop, weight in themselves but not so much personal weight as cultural weight.

That seems evident when you think of the price of $400,000 being paid for one of Napoleon’s hats recently. Many of Napoleon’s other hats are in museums. They are powerful objects by association.

Their weight also comes from the way they are collected. Museum curators have to think carefully about items for a collection. In doing so they collect items which have ‘weight’. They don’t collect your hat or mine, or fix dad’s old clock to show to his great grandchildren.

The author also seems to be suggesting, among other things, that museums are where we can recharge our batteries. That is important now when we have again been confined for a while. Museums are more than fresh air. Te Papa puts us in touch with our environment and our culture in a concentrated way. It represents the past of our islands from early on in the form of the display of the eruptions of Taupo, Haast’s eagle flying overhead and the shaking of the little earthquake house. It documents the arrival of our ancestors. It displays their art. Each item in the displays has the ‘weight’ it has because it has been selected to engage us. Sometimes we come across something in Te Papa which speaks to us personally. It has echoes which allow us to reassess our own past or present. Even when Te Papa is closed or we cannot get to it, we can look at its objects online.  There are a lot of hats to be seen. Not one of Napoleon’s hats, but there is a picture of Napoleon wearing one.

Image credit:

William Massey and Winston Churchill, 1914-1918?, City of London, by James McDonald. Te Papa (MU000523/002/0243)