Worlds Apart: Indigenous Re-engagement with Museum-held Heritage: A New Zealand - United Kingdom Case Study
For several decades a decolonised museology has been manifest within Western museum practice through, among other things, enhanced indigenous engagement with museums. Even so, indigenous communities still fail to access their cultural heritage housed in museums at distance, when they have no institutional affiliation which can facilitate contact and communication, and because they are often disadvantaged in terms of resources. Furthermore, the museums’ lack of online collection databases, coupled with other practical constraints centred on resources and priorities, inhibits their ability to work with indigenous communities. In post-colonial settler nations the democratisation of museum practice for indigenous collections has been one outcome of the political presence of indigenous peoples and the assertion of indigenous autonomy, as well as the proximity of indigenous communities and museums. Innovative practice has therefore differed from elsewhere as a result of the need for negotiated relationships with indigenous communities and recognition of indigenous authority. This has been the case in New Zealand where Māori epistemological frameworks are acknowledged and there is effective Māori participation within museums. This research addresses this issue of access to indigenous collections when they are held in other countries, and a corresponding gap in the literature, by exploring ways in which Māori communities can negotiate ongoing relationships with museums that hold collections of their ancestral heritage, when they are geographically remote from these collections. Using an analytical framework drawn from assemblage theory, the research has focussed on a detailed, situated New Zealand-United Kingdom case study, and is the first contextualised study over time of a heritage assemblage, comprising a collector and his collection, an indigenous community and a museum. A kaupapa Māori research methodology has enabled the acknowledgement and incorporation of Māori values into the research strategy which is an interdisciplinary approach centred on museum studies, but drawing also on related fields, indigenous knowledge systems and my own professional experience as a curator in a regional museum. The research has also employed methods such as archival research, interviews and hui/focus groups. Through the disassembly of this research assemblage I was able to document the impact of different value systems and epistemologies on access to heritage objects and clarify their meanings for specific communities. A number of entities emerged from this disassembly which were temporally and spatially contingent, and manifest as power, agency and values. Analysis of these entities has revealed their potential for beginning the task of decolonising the museum when power and authority are negotiated within this network and our difficult histories are acknowledged and communicated. Analysis of the data gathered has also reinforced the idea that taonga objectify social relationships in which they are transformed from passive ‘things’ to active actor-entities and as such are capable of enacting relationships prompting contemporary responses from human actors. The research findings show the emergence of an indigenous engagement praxis in which actor-networks are ongoing and reassembling, a process which is visible in contemporary indigenous people’s re-engagement with their museum-held heritage at distance. This praxis combines a range of developments in contemporary museum practice for community engagement which have proved effective in New Zealand and other settler colonies and has potential application elsewhere for community members, academics and museological practitioners when forging relationships based around indigenous cultural heritage collections when distance is a factor.