Thursday, October 14, 2010

Cultural Relativism, Ethnocentrism and Museum Collections: Te Papa Controversy

A couple of days ago, my RSS feeds tracking museum news came up with a lot of uproar regarding a statement that Te Papa museum in Wellington had made regarding pregnant/menstruating women accessing collections. Naturally it has been misunderstood and blown out of proportion - so i'd like to talk a little bit about what it all means. Apologies if it gets a bit cumbersome, but I just want to get this out and I don't really have time to fine tune it right now.

This AFP article is pretty representative of a lot of the other news around, so i'm going to quote from it (but you can read more here, here & here, for a variety of samples).

To begin with, the AFP's article lead is extremely misleading:

New Zealand's national museum on Tuesday warned pregnant or menstruating women to stay away from some of its exhibits or risk an encounter with angry Maori spirits.

I guess it's a bit sensational with the "angry Maori spirits" part, and definitely just wrong when it says people had been warned away from exhibits. It sets people up to be angry and misinformed from the get-go. If they do read on, they'd at least see the following:

Te Papa spokeswoman Jane Keig said the policy was not an outright ban, rather it was strong advice designed to protect pregnant and menstruating woman from exhibits which Maori, New Zealand's indigenous people, believed could hurt them.

"Pregnant women are sacred and the policy is in place to protect women from these objects," she said.

Regardless, most people see this as "pregnant or menstruating women are not wanted at this museum because of Maori cultural beliefs". One quote the AFP article uses shows how knee-jerk the reactions can be:

"I don't understand why a secular institution, funded by public money in a secular state, is imposing religious and cultural values on people," she told the New Zealand Herald newspaper.

Miscommunication leads to this sort of thing - it's not necessarily the museum's fault, nor those reacting, but it is the fault of those misrepresenting the issue (ie. much of the media). When you look at what Te Papa actually have to say on the nature of the issue it becomes clear this is not about imposing rules or banning any member of the public from visiting the museum.

Statement regarding guidelines of access to Māori collections at Te Papa clarifies a lot of what was misrepresented and caused so much trouble. Firstly, the areas that were to be visited were collection areas, never accessible to the general public, and definitely not 'exhibits'. It may come as a surprise to many people, but the material on display in public galleries is usually a small percentage of any museum's collection.

Next of all is the "cultural imposition" - which is actually just a consideration, sort of a formality. If you will read these quotes from the statement:

One of these cultural considerations is that hapu (pregnant) or menstruating women (mate wahine) should consider entering the taonga Māori collection stores at another time...

‘While we inform visitors to the collection stores of cultural considerations, no visitor would be stopped from continuing the tour if they wished to.’

Again, this is in regard to collection areas and no general display in the museum itself. Secondly, this is a cultural consideration and it's not a blanket rule that because the items are Māori then everyone must take on Māori cultural rules when visiting the museum. This is called cultural relativism (or sensitivity, I suppose) - taking a step back from your own cultural norms and perceptions to understand that everyone's life and the objects within them can have different meaning and prescribe different behaviour. Even if you don't identify with that culture, you can still take a step back and see what might be respectful even if you don't share the belief. There is no reason to see this as that culture "imposing their beliefs" on you at all.

‘Te Papa, as the kaitiaki (caretaker) of taonga Māori and a bicultural museum, embraces Māori tikanga and kawa when caring for those collections’, Ms Hippolite said.

I wanted to end with this quote as representative of Te Papa's policy and action - although the statement goes into it further and is worth reading, too. Te Papa, more than any museum I know of and have visited, has gone out of their way from the beginning to have a strong contribution from Māori communities when it comes to caring for collections, and displaying those collections, amongst everything else that Te Papa care for and exhibit. It's a mark of a responsible and forward curation and management team to see a museum do this. When you see so many museums throughout history and now have imposed their cultural beliefs and norms, it's nice to get the balance back a little.

I have worked in museums that have 'sensitive' areas of the collection which have been limited in who can access and care for them because of cultural respect and relativism - as my personal choice I didn't buck that trend, and let others who fit the bill interact with those particular items. There is no one truth, there is no one culture that deserves to be respected more than another, and there is always balance in what is appropriate for you and what is appropriate when accessing and viewing things that are important to other cultures. This is what Te Papa try to do, not to prescribe importance over Māori culture more than anyone else's.

People need to step back from their privilege and see that Te Papa's policies are reasonable and responsible, and appreciate them for all they do not just for Māori communities, but New Zealand's communities as a whole.