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Beyond biculturalism?

Review of Museums and Maori: Heritage Professionals, Indigenous Collections, Current Practice, by Conal McCarthy (Wellington: Te Papa Press, 2011).

Photographed from a low angle and bathed in golden light, the monumental edifice of Auckland War Memorial Museum looms large. This image, reprinted on the cover of Conal McCarthy's Museums and Maori, signals how the monograph itself seems intended to be viewed. The book addresses itself to three discrete audiences: (1) students of museum and heritage studies (in the first instance, as McCarthy makes clear, those enrolled in Victoria University of Wellington's postgraduate programme of which he is director); (2) professionals affiliated with institutions which hold indigenous cultural collections; and (3) 'scholars who are interested in the relationship between museums and indigenous people' (p. 2)--with these categories identified at various points as encompassing international readerships.

From the outset, the book seems reasonably certain about its aims in relation to these market segments:
   [This] is a reader on the relationship between museums
   and Maori for students of museum and heritage studies
   so that they can familiarise themselves with literature on
   the topic that is hard to find, dispersed or out of print. It
   is also a handbook on biculturalism in practice for
   professionals, which can be referred to when particular
   issues arise in the workplace. In form and scope this
   book goes beyond either a collection of essential reading
   or a compilation of 'how to' techniques. Museums and
   Maori is a critical analysis of evolving museum practice in
   response to indigenous people (p. 20; italics in the
   original).


McCarthy tells us that the project was proposed and supported by its publisher and he makes explicit its intention to update and expand on Gerard O'Regan's 1997 survey Bicultural Developments in Museums of Aotearoa: What is the Current Status?. We are also told that the book responds to a call made by Laura Peers and Alison Brown in 2003 for research to fill gaps in the literature dealing with new developments between museums and indigenous source communities. (1) As McCarthy puts it, '[m]ost existing accounts of these topics are positive, tend to skip over problems and omissions, and do not deal frankly with failures that are perhaps even more instructive than successes' (p. 6). The professed ambitions of Museums and Maori, then, are large and unflinching.

The book reveals some good detective work in identifying and consulting obscure and unpublished sources: archival documents, media reports and a number of web-based resources are among those unearthed. It also marshals work produced by students in McCarthy's programme and includes reference to unpublished theses and conference papers. Its wider bibliography brings together a range of published volumes, articles and reports which cover broad terrain both nationally and internationally in the areas of museum and heritage studies, indigenous studies, history, art history and sociology. Particularly valuable are the numerous written sources--especially Maori ones--published and unpublished, historical and contemporary, professional and personal, which offer individuals' perspectives on museums and their relationships with Maori.

The interviews, though, are potentially the book's richest offering. McCarthy's research involved conducting more than 60 interviews, for the most part between 2008 and 2010, across 20 institutions between Auckland and Oamaru. The interview subjects themselves span virtually all main metropolitan museums and art galleries, a large number of provincial museums, a handful of educational institutions, and nationwide organisations like the Department of Conservation and the New Zealand Historic Places Trust. Those interviewed include present and former managers and directors; museum staff and consultants with responsibility for collection care, exhibition development, education, research, training, and so on; and academics and community leaders such as Hirini Moko Mead, Ranginui Walker and Piri Sciascia. In combination with written sources, the interviews inform the book's consideration of issues that include how museum professionals deal day-to-day with indigenous objects in their care, how tribal communities participate in museums, and the extent to which this participation meets the needs and aspirations of these communities.

Museums and Maori generates the beginnings of some important case studies, too. Separate short sections within the main chapters focus on particular institutions and people, marking out what is distinctive in the relationships and events described. These case studies support the book's key finding that the most far-reaching changes in relationships between museums and indigenous stakeholders have occurred not in the main centres bur rather in the provinces. This finding might have been less of a surprise to McCarthy, however, had it been anticipated as an extension of Peers and Brown's observation (cited on p. 6) that relations between museums and indigenous peoples have changed more rapidly in settler societies than in European metropoles. A stronger focus on geographical matters, in other words, might have made this the starting rather than the end point of inquiry, allowing for the development of strands of investigation dealing more directly with interplays between centre and periphery.

This gripe aside, the book leaves me with several concerns. I should make it clear at this point that I fall into category (3) of McCarthy's audience segmentation but have strong interests in categories (1) and (2), and that my thoughts may very well be--to quote Tony Bennett, in turn quoting Friedrich Nietzsche--'out of season'. (2) My concerns stem from the fact that Museums and Maori underestimates the intellectual capacity of all three of its audience shares: there is a real need for books which occupy this market space to model rigorous and exemplary modes of analysis for heritage professionals and for students who are, after all, the heritage professionals and scholars of tomorrow. The book's opening anecdote, for instance--in which McCarthy describes himself dithering at the door to the Maori Hall at the old Dominion Museum with a plate of hors d'oeuvres in hand, before being told to contravene tikanga 'with respect' by a gruff-looking Maori security guard--is followed by a strange and contradictory moral for a book which soon reveals aspirations as 'serious literature' (p. 6):
   What I learned from this incident was a feeling for doing
   the right thing according to the situation, and not to
   over-analyse it. This book seeks to do the same thing: to
   provide practiuoners from differing backgrounds with a
   framework to think critically about their practice in
   relation to indigenous peoples (p. 1).


In other places, too, the book's content and copy could have done with more careful editing. The critique of museums as instruments of colonial nation-building, we are told on p. 4 for instance, has 'obscured a long history of indigenous adaptation and exchange while inhibiting museum professionals' engagement with contemporary indigenous societies because of the dangers of theoretically correct 'isms', including essentialism and nationalism'.

In more ways than one--as will become clear shortly--this line is symptomatic of the book's troubled approach to theory. Its self-described 'theoretical framework' (p. 21) borrows James Clifford's concept of the 'contact zone' in combination with 'practice theory'--derived from the work of Sherry Ortner and others--and Peers and Brown's notion of the 'source community'. Clifford's is a great example to invoke, although I remain less convinced about the contributions of the other two strands of discussion; Clifford himself has plenty to offer on museum practice and on source communities. A theoretical framework should, however, consist of more than a couple of generalised citations (including some fairly shaky paraphrasing) in an introduction; again, this is a lost opportunity to model--for students and for others--the value of engaging in sustained and meditative ways with the work and ideas of others. Worryingly, too, for a book destined in part for a student audience, there are widespread problems with referencing. In many cases, the main text and footnotes in combination are uninformative: it is not made clear whether a text is being cited or is being used as an example in support of, or in opposition to, a point being made, and the interview material often remains inadequately signposted. (3)

A number of problems with terminology are also evident: 'former settler colonies' (pp. 2, 3 and 4), for example, rapidly become 'post-settler states' (p. 5; see also pp. 208, 233, 238 and 244). As has already been noted, the book refers to Clifford's oeuvre which itself forms an invaluable platform for ideas around settlement. The book's bibliography also names work by Nicholas Thomas, Annie Coombes and others, while recent publications by McCarthy elsewhere suggest his familiarity with a number of other important 'settlement studies' texts--many of which should ideally feature on an essential reading list for audiences of all kinds. (4) There is, as Museums and Maori perhaps inadvertently demonstrates, a real need for further work on the museum which foregrounds issues connected with settlement history. As much of the existing literature on settlement makes clear, however, these discussions will most usefully proceed on the understanding that, regardless of the wishful fantasies they frequently entertain, settler societies can never become 'post': this is precisely their defining quandary.

The problems outlined above point towards deeper issues connected with the book's avowedly anti-critical stance. Despite its assurances that 'practice' and 'theory' are 'mutually constitutive' (p. 19), Museums and Maori persistently pits practice against theory, promoting the idea that critical discourses dealing with the politics of display and representation, with museums as instruments of power and nation-building, and with biculturalism, are static, unhelpful and irrelevant. On p. 12, for example, we are told that '[c]ritiques of biculturalism still tend to be dominated by radical cultural politics, which has added more to the growing literature than to wider professional practice and tends to dismiss any attempts at liberal compromise or practical implementation with fashionable defeatism', (5) McCarthy's discomfort with radicalism, coupled with his appeals to common sense, practicality, pragmatism, liberal compromise and the reconciling of tensions, indicate that inspite of his intermittent musings about what may lie 'beyond biculturalism', he tends towards the more moderate end of the bicultural continuum. A little over halfway through the book, a Maori interviewee raises the spectre that museums may become 'past tense' (Peita cited on p. 145)--a version of the 'bogeyman' idea of the nation that has been described by Stephen Turner. (6) The book recoils from this prospect at this point, proceeding instead with a lengthy section devoted to institutional case studies: in this sense, the cover image of Auckland Museum is apt since it reflects the book's investment in the museum as an institution.

Many of the problems with Museums and Maori arise from its strain to serve simultaneously as a 'pedagogical', 'industry' and 'academic' book; in several ways its approach and style differ markedly from other work published by McCarthy. (7) As Jonathan Lamb has argued elsewhere, confusion around pitching can be one of the pitfalls when scholarly research meets trade press publication; the real art, he suggests, should be to present difficult ideas in ways which are accessible and engaging, yet which don't elide or dumb-down the issues at stake. (8) Rather than producing a 'monumental' survey of this kind, I would suggest that McCarthy might with the blessing of Te Papa Press--have done better to have focused more modestly on a selection of the case studies, much in the manner of Clifford's own work. Such an approach might have permitted McCarthy to have told some more carefully-developed stories and to have done more with the interview material, gathered from key figures like Walker, which only scantly features in the book's current format and which is often overwhelmed by historical contextualising. Re-orientation of the study in this way might have freed space for more nuanced consideration of issues surrounding Treaty settlements, state-administered conservation lands and iwi initiatives, and for grounded comparative work investigating the Australian, Canadian and Pacific examples which are presently invoked but not explored. By adopting such an approach, the book might usefully have addressed a number of key issues: To what extent have bicultural developments forestalled the development of iwi cultural centres in Aotearoa New Zealand? How does this reflect on the country's international reputation for 'progressive' museum practice? In what ways do western models of 'progress' themselves come unstuck in societies like ours? By adopting such an approach, Museums and Maori might have served as a landmark of a different kind, appealing to wider and less over-determined audiences. It might also have remained open--in large and unflinching ways--to what lies on museological horizons beyond biculturalism, and to irresolutions implicit in the ongoing history of settlement.

Notes

(1) See Museums and Source Communilies: A Routledge Reader, ed. by Laura Peers and Alison K. Brown (London: Routledge, 2003).

(2) Tony Bennett, Out of Which Past? Critical Reflections on Australian Museum and Heritage Policy (Nathan, Qld: Institute for Cultural Policy Studies, Division of Humanities, Griffith University, 1988), pp. 4-5. For alternative appraisals of Museums and Maori, see for example Peter Simpson, 'Taonga Maori in the British Museum', The New Zealand Herald (25 June 2011), http://www.nzherald. co.nz/entertainment/news/article.cfm?c_id=1501119&objectid=1 0734460 [accessed 16 October 2011].

(3) Some problematic examples from the 'Introduction', for instance, include footnotes 25, 36, 38, 39 and 52 on p. 23.

(4) See, for example, Conal McCarthy, Exhibiting Maori: A History of Colonial Cultures of Display (Wellington: Te Papa Press, 2007) and 'Objects of Empire? Displaying Maori at International Exhibitions, 1873-1924', JNZL, 23:1 (2005), 52-73.

(5) See also the positions outlined on p. 77 and pp. 230-1.

(6) Stephen Turner, 'Being Colonial/Colonial Being', JNZL, 20 (2002), 39-66 (p. 62).

(7) See for example 'Objects of Empire?' (2005).

(8) Jonathan Lamb, 'History and its Others: The Obstacle of the Past and the Impediment of the Beach', Journal of Pacific History, 42:3 (December 2007), 361-8.
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Title Annotation:'Museums and Maori: Heritage Professionals, Indigenous Collections, Current Practice'
Author:Boswell, Anna
Publication:JNZL: Journal of New Zealand Literature
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2011
Words:2267
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