‘Overwhelming’, is the word that sums up my experience of New Zealand’s national museum, Te Papa. It is all that it promises to be but I could not possibly comprehend everything that was exhibited in one visit. This museum reminded me that New Zealand is quite a different country to Australia both culturally and physically.
The indigenous people make a significant contribution to the unique persona of any nation. The exhibitions about the indigenous people of New Zealand, the Maori, opened a new vista to me. I became absorbed, slowly moving through each exhibit learning new words, different ways of living, histories unfamiliar to me.
As a newcomer I learned fragments about a history of migration, contact, conflict and learning to live together. I learned that in 1835 twenty-five Maori chiefs in the north met and chose a flag. A year later they united to form a confederation of tribes and proclaimed independence in the ‘Declaration of Independence of New Zealand’. Then came the landmark signing of the Waitangi Treaty in 1840, the foundational document that guides New Zealand today.
I spent most of my mental energy in the Iwi Gallery, concentrating on every word, learning a little about a culture that was new to me. It told the story of Te Kingitanga – the Maori King Movement. The Kingitanga was established to unite the Maori tribes, retain control over their land and stop violence. The first Maori King, Potatau Te Wherowhero, was crowned in 1858. In 1891 the Maori King, Matutaera Tawhiao, established a parliament called the Kauhanganui or the Great Council. It had an upper house of nobles and lower house of commoners and a Premier. The Kauhanganui continued until the 1920s. I also learned that there were Maori newspapers published between 1842 and 1932.
A diary was opened at early June 1914. It was written in both English and Maori by Mita Karaka, a secretary and interpreter for a Maori delegation to England led by King Te Rata. They were seeking justice over the seizure of Maori land. I was transfixed by the entry recording the Maori visit to the Court of King George V:
Two women caused a Commotion before The King and Queen, went down on their knees and begged the King to stop the Torturing of the womens, but they were rejected from the Palace. They were Grand-daughters of the Bishop of London now dec.
The injustice of one people met the injustice of another group in the King’s Court. Back at home I fossicked around and uncovered a tantalising story of multiple encounters and the intersection of a several significant historical processes. Yet with the limited resource available to me it is beyond my ability to delve any further.
I had known nothing about any of this history previously. It was a humbling and exhilarating experience. And it was exhausting. I emerged from this exhibit and moved on to the next but my mental capacity was spent. I persisted but I could not absorb any more. I became frustrated because I was expecting to have the same endurance I would have in an Australian museum, however in Australia I have a base of cultural knowledge so understanding exhibits is not such a strenuous activity. This was a lesson for me to be patient in another country and not expect to know it all after one visit.
While I did not cover the other exhibits with the same attention as I did the one about the Maori Kings it would be remiss of me to give the impression that Te Papa only focuses on the Maoris. Modern day New Zealand has a rich array of cultures and the national museum of New Zealand reflects this. Like Australia, New Zealand has received migrants from around the world. European settlement brought British government and substantial settlement by people from Scotland, Ireland and England. This is reflected in the Passports exhibition. I also wandered through the natural history exhibits which tell the story of this moving land and its natural life. A highlight of this was the exhibit of a giant squid which had emerged from the deep ocean.
The exhibition about the recent refugees to New Zealand was very moving. The refugees themselves used a variety of means to depict their stories of refugee and settlement experiences. Their short statements broke through my fog of tiredness and effectively conveyed their difficult journeys to New Zealand. I gained a sense that they are welcomed in New Zealand. This exhibition made me wonder how we give recent refugees a chance to tell their stories to the public in Australia.
Te Papa uses a wide variety of mediums and techniques to tell stories, something we have come to expect from museums at the cutting edge. Dotted throughout the museum are places where the visitor can pause and watch a video. These are well worth your time. Keep an eye out for the gentle humour that percolates through the museum. This and the care and empathy for all cultural groups represented in the exhibits gives the museum personality thus avoiding the staid, officious tone that some museums can have.
This is a national museum designed for the nation it serves. It has the depth that would be appreciated by New Zealanders. For those who are not familiar with the cultures of the Pacific, don’t attempt to see everything in this museum. Take your time visiting a few exhibits. Leave viewing other exhibits for your next visit. Hopefully you are fortunate enough to come by this part of the world again.
For those who want to know more…
- Museum of New Zealand/Te Papa Tongarewa: have a look at the museum’s website before you visit. Entry is free – very good value!
- New Zealand History online: This is a handy window into New Zealand history. The link I have given here tells more about the Maori Declaration of Independence in 1835.
- Maori newspapers: 70% of this online collection of historic Maori newspapers are written in Maori, 27% are bilingual and 3% in English.
- Paperspast: Australians love their Trove collection of digitised newspapers. This is the New Zealand equivalent and it looks as if it is just as valuable. Like the Australian collection it is free to access.