It was standing room only in the Reading Room on level 4 for the first of 2019’s programme of curator talks intended to share deep knowledge and expertise.

Sean Mallon, Senior Curator Pacific Cultures, spoke to us first, with Small Things Matter: Experiments in co-collecting sharing examples of how the Pacific cultures team have been exploring new ways to engage Pacific communities to co-curate collections that better represent themselves for future generations of New Zealanders.

Sean explained how a shell picked up on a beach in Tokelau, and a drum made from a recycled British Paints can, activate the relationship between stakeholder communities and the museum who accepts them into their collection, and how this moves the collection beyond traditional ideals of what was acquired in the past, such as spears and masks, to represent Pacific communities. The shell and drum, like other examples Sean shared from workshops with various indigenous groups,  illustrate how seemingly mundane, or valueless  objects evolve from being simply an artifact to items of Mana Taonga. The shell story showed us how small things can contain big meaning once their stories are attached – not acquired as another natural history specimen, but to share a story of a man’s connection with his personal history. The value isn’t aesthetic but lies instead in the relationships which grow from the desire of Pacific community members to work in collaboration with curators to ensure that collections will reflect what is of importance to them.

Claire Regnault, Senior Curator New Zealand Culture and History, followed  with He Makana Aloha: co-collecting memory, legacy and indigenous identity through the iconic aloha shirt .

Her fascinating, colourful slides shared the result of how, in October 2017, Claire, Sonya Withers (Te Papa’s first Tautai Contemporary Pacific Arts Trust intern) and Native Hawaiian writer/artist/curator/scholar Noelle Kahanu together amassed 80+ aloha shirts for Te Papa to fill an identified collection gap. They have added contemporary, deeply local and representative shirts which range from vintage, tourist offerings whose designs include the annexation of Hawaii c 1960, through intensely toned florals not native to the country, to shirts from the ‘70s and ‘80s cultural Renaissance with reclamation of symbolic iconography. They raise questions of identity, commodification and branding. While the ‘tourist’ shirt can still be purchased, local designers like Sig Zane print sought-after small runs utilising patterns which hold personal stories and memories.  ‘Fashion’ has become an accessible way of preserving and sharing an understanding of themselves and their identity. There’s an intention behind this to accomplish something for the wearer, presenting native Hawaii with their own culture.

Both Sean and Claire referred to Mana Taonga. This is defined by Te Papa as  ‘a recognition of the power of taonga’ (any cultural items of significance or value) to communicate deep truths about our people, the role of communities in enhancing the care and understanding of collections and taonga, and the principle that guides our direction and approach to access and research’. A quote from the talk stated that ‘history does not just belong to the historians, or to curators’; Sean and Claire gave us a good understanding of how curators who are willing to decentralise their own role can enhance the collections of institutions by empowering and  centering  the communities involved.

Sharon Taylor-Offord

Member, Friends of Te Papa