Commonplace: Towards a Post-‐Ethnic Understanding of Identity and Representation of Asian New Zealanders for Museum Practice
Displays of national identity in the context of the social history exhibition focus on the universal as a method of connecting a diverse group of people. The issue with this approach for Asian New Zealanders is the vexed and complex process of identity making and their contested representational history. Being Asian in New Zealand is inevitably tied to an offshore repository of signs and signifiers whilst a local presence alludes to a peripheral experience. This dissertation considers the museum not as a mirror but as a manifesto and privileges the encounter between the exhibition and the exhibited subject. Considering recent identity theories such as hybridity and cosmopolitanism, this dissertation provides fresh perspectives to explore processes of representation within the museum. The two perspectives examined are representation within the museum exhibition Passports at Te Papa Tongarewa and processes of identity making through narrative biographies of 'later' generations of Asian New Zealanders. Examining these two sides of representation is a means to evaluate the efficacy of representation within the civic space of the museum. Narrative interviews were conducted using a longitudinal approach. Two separate interviews, with the first in the museum setting, allowed for an exploration of how representation and meaning precedes and succeeds the confrontation with an exhibition. The empirical material reveals that for the participants in this study the focus is no longer on migration and being from 'somewhere else' but rather navigating and negotiating multiple identities as a result of circumstances located in this time and place. The term 'Asian' in New Zealand holds its own meaning beyond geographic markers and in this research accounts more for the idea of a type of communal experience as opposed to traditions bound by ethnic specificity. This research aims to fill a dearth in empirical testing of identity theory as well as reveal an understanding of the potential of the person as a signifier. Viewing the exhibition as an influence on identity making allows for a realisation of how feelings of belonging are shaped within the museum's walls, and how the exhibition holds influence going beyond this site of encounter.