Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
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"Walking the Talk"? An Ethnography of Biculturalism at Te Papa

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posted on 2021-11-14, 01:00 authored by Schubert-McArthur, Tanja

This thesis examines the implications of a bicultural framework for the everyday interactions of Māori and non-Māori staff at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa (TP thereafter). The research addresses gaps in the New Zealand literature on biculturalism, which has not hitherto explored the internal dynamics of cultural organisations in depth,as well as issues in the international literature of anthropology, museum studies and related fields to do with museums, indigenous people and cultural identity. The central research question is: how does biculturalism work in practice at TP? The approach is qualitative using mixed-methods, based on twelve months intensive fieldwork behind the scenes at New Zealand’s national museum. Drawing on 68 interviews and participant observations with 18 different teams across the organisation, the thesis explores how biculturalism is enacted, negotiated, practised and envisioned on different stages within the complex social institution that is the museum.  Rather than seeing TP as a single bicultural entity, my analysis suggests that TP is a convoluted amalgam of several stages encompassing ‘contact zones’ where Māori and non-Māori engage to varying degrees. I propose that TP’s marae is the centre stage for Māori activities and rituals that serve a number of functions: to position people through mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion, display power, facilitate intercultural dialogue, empower Māori, and transform non-Māori through meaningful experiences. Throughout the thesis, I argue that biculturalism is neither an innocent aspiration nor a means to an end, but an ongoing struggle and negotiation process.  The importance of ethnography to the anthropological enterprise and museum studies research is reaffirmed through this study; not only does this ethnographic study provide insights into museum practices, but also the complex processes of ‘grappling with biculturalism’, interactions between diverse museum staff as well as positioning of indigenous peoples in settler societies.


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Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code

970120 Expanding Knowledge in Languages, Communication and Culture

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Social and Cultural Studies


Bönisch-Brednich, Brigitte; McCarthy, Conal