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Museums as artifacts of colonisation (Opinion - Rangituhia Hollis)

Museums as artifacts of colonisation (Opinion – Rangituhia Hollis)

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Notes from a first vista to the Auckland War – Puehu Blog (17 Nov 2010) [sws_pullquote_right] At this point I realized that in an instant I had accepted how the carvings were displayed, associated my own history with the example provided and wanted some degree of reciprocated validation of its value, from these representatives from America. [/sws_pullquote_right] Inside the Auckland Museum I took in the offerings of Maori artifacts in the frontispiece.

Walking amidst the dim light restricted corridors of Oceanic art’s display cases, I entered the permanent ‘Maori treasures’ exhibition – lending my weight to an arm support that eased my transition between spaces and allowed me to balance awkwardly on a gradient aside a successive series of poutokomanawa (Carved Poles).

These were carvings that seemed wholly divorced from any functional context I had ever seen them in before. The black matte steel supports and similarly painted shelves upon which the carvings were rested, seemed in essence to allude to the linear vertical edges of Hotere or perhaps posterized outlines of textural cloak weaves.

There was in evidence some degree of effort on the part of the museum to present the traditional with the neo-traditional or contemporary as a progressing continuum of thought. However the contextual allusion appeared to direct itself better toward the bleak and temporary housing qualities of a social welfare home.

I was standing there, aware of their detachment from their previous lives – on Marae or in Whare – realizing that they bared little semblance to functional participles of traditional Maori ideology – when placed on a shelf – and that supposedly there were objective museum directives at work, when I recognized an example of Ngati Porou carving.

Identified by the form of the eyes, and confirmed by a supplicant title to be from my own Iwi (tribe). This is where I noted that anyone intending to look at the carvings would have to stand in the same lop sided stance that I was in, in order to view what in my understanding is a symbol of my own Maori identity.

It seems almost surreal now but as I was thinking this, a couple of generic American tourists laden with gift shop plastic bags and wearing baseball caps trundled down the slope.

They didn’t look at the carving that I had by now identified with, which pissed me off somewhat and I remember raising a discerning eyebrow at them as they waddled off in a centripetal direction toward the wharenui (Main carved house).

At this point I realized that in an instant I had accepted how the carvings were displayed, associated my own history with the example provided and wanted some degree of reciprocated validation of its value, from these representatives from America.

I’d fallen into the trap that the museum has for the naive viewer – the false impression that it offers more than just a contrived representation of a people (one that people and Marae reveal as false).  By mistakenly reading truth onto this space one reveals a people eclipsed by colonization. With artifacts left in fragmented debris for curators to aggrandize the auspices of museums.

But maybe this is just one way that colonizations work.

With subtle changes in context to alter the meaning of the text/objects supported, then after a little while you begin to forget the change and take things for granted. And it’d be easy enough to think that this is the way it was or is or should be, without questioning it all.


Rangituhia Hollis has a background in visual arts and bicultural social practice, and this interesting combination feeds into his moving image work which focuses on urban identity and relationships through the structures of gaming, animation and home video.

Rangituhia believes “we make meaning through our banal activities in real spaces”, and he looks forward to “getting close to the source of the old colonial British Empire to explore the implications of appropriating place”.

Rangituhia has recently finished his MFA (hons) at Elam School of Fine Art in Auckland. Recent shows include Ka wi wi, Ka wa wa at Tairawhiti Museum, Gisbourne, and Architecture for the Nation, the 2008 ‘new artists’ exhibition at ARTSPACE, Auckland.

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