Our Place Te Papa
National museums had an objective to tell us something about us as a nation. Nations are funny things. Some of them feel older than others. But many are quite recent, like Italy which used to be a set of competing states until the middle of the nineteenth century. In the late 18th century German philosophers started thinking anew about what it means to belong to a nation. Language was one of the characteristics they hit on. Herder was one of the first. He was German and thought that German speakers should be patriotic Germans. Why am I interested in this? Because these notions are still around. They are central to current debates about personal and ethnic identity. Some Ukranians speak Russian. Does that make them less than real Ukranians? Does it make them Russians? Should they be citizens of the Russian state?
In the Passports gallery on the fourth floor at Te Papa you can hear a number of European migrants to New Zealand talking English with the accents of their country of origin. Just behind the Passports gallery are migrants from Polynesia talking about their settlement in New Zealand.
It is worth sitting down and listening to them. One speaks in English but he can also speak Polish. Is he English or Polish? At this point he is a New Zealander. His national identity is not in doubt. He has lived here for many years and no doubt carries a New Zealand passport. But he is bilingual.
How does he feel about that? Some people feel deeply about the connection between the language(s) they speak and their personal identity, their ethnic identity or national identity. Some people don’t.
Some members of dominant communities feel threatened not just by the fact that others in their community speak languages they don’t understand but that this could be the beginning of a takeover by other ethnicities. In the Southern United States, Spanish speaking is regarded in this way by some of the non-Spanish speakers.
This month the Friends had the opportunity to hear Dr Grace Gassin discussing her work with the Chinese communities of New Zealand. Some of that work has been on attempts by the migrant communities themselves to maintain the many languages spoken in the communities of origin of those languages like Hakka and Hokkien.
So I think that Herder was mistaken in many ways. Here is bust of him in Riga. I am not sure whether he spoke Latvian.