Learning from Indigenous curatorship

In this blog I am going to talk about my co-authored chapter in the new book which came out at the beginning of this year.

As you will have seen from the previous blog, Curatopia: Museums and the future of curatorship was published by Manchester University Press in January 2019. This volume argues that curatorship may be ‘recalled’ and remade through collaborative relationships with communities leading to experiments in curatorial theory and practice. What can museums of ethnography in the Americas and Europe learn from the experience of nations, such as Aotearoa New Zealand, where distinctive forms of Indigenous museology are emerging and reshaping the conventions of curatorial practice?

In chapter 13, myself, Philipp Schorch and Arapata Hakiwai address ‘The figure of the kaitiaki’, referring to the notion of kaitiakitanga or guardianship which has been a feature of Māori museology in the last twenty years.  The current chapter draws on research by the authors, including interviews with Māori curators, museum professionals, academics, and community leaders, exploring connections with the wider Pacific and the world. The ‘figure of the kaitiaki’ has developed historically as a particular local development of curatorship, drawing on Māori customary concepts and frameworks such as tikanga Māori (culture/practices) and Mātauranga Māori (knowledge).

It concludes that museums across the world can learn from Pacific experiments and become active agents in shaping cultural revival and future potentialities on a global scale. Other chapters in the book echo and extend these arguments, particularly one by Wayne Ngata, Billie Lythberg and Amiria Salmond on tribal engagements with Māori collections in an American museum, one by Paul Tapsell about a ‘post-indigenous’ tribal exhibition in Canada, and one by Sean Mallon about the politics of co-collecting Pacific cultures.


In particular the chapter deals with precedents from the early 20th century in which Māori intellectuals engaged with museum anthropology, the dramatic changes in museums after the Te Maori exhibition of the 1980s, and current thinking about curatorial practice by leading Māori curators in the field. See above a photograph of Thomas Heberley at the Dominion Museum in the 1930s, a taonga (treasure) from the Mana Whenua exhibition at Te Papa opened in 1998, and below Prof Hirini Moko Mead speaking during the Te Maori exhibition at the National Museum in 1986.


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Curatopia: A new book on the future of curating

Whew what a year – thank goodness 2018 is behind us.

Heres one of the reason’s why I needed a break at Xmas. My latest book, co-edited with Philipp Schorch, was launched in December in London and Leipzig. This large 350 page collection made up of 20 chaps, published by Manchester University Press, explores museums and the future of curatorship in Europe and the UK, North America, and the Pacific.


The book was a culmination of conferences in Wellington in 2011 and Munich in 2016. This project was nurtured by the lively discussions spurred by papers presented, and benefited from the ongoing intellectual engagement with conference participants as well as other authors we commissioned. It is therefore the product of the associated scholarly network, including university academics, museum professionals and community leaders, who are devoted to (re)thinking curatorship for the museums of the future.

The contents are a who’s who of contemporary museology, anthropology, and curatorial theory and practice. The writing on a wide range of case studies and topics is distinguished by a deep and genuine engagement with Indigenous scholarship and museum practice. In this and following blogs I will provide a taste of some material from this new book.

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I would like to thank my colleague and co-editor Philipp for his tireless efforts on this project – he was a pleasure to work with – and also extend my thanks to the many authors who contributed to the book.

See here for the link to the MUP website with a Q & A with the two editors:

Q and A

Here’s a profile of the book, the table of contents, and a sample chapter:

Curatopia on MUP website

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A new book for a new year: The history of Te Papa

In February 2018, NZ’s national museum will celebrate its 20th anniversary. The most visited museum in Australasia, The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa (Te Papa) is well known around the world for its innovative approach to audience engagement, commercial savvy and ground-breaking collaboration with indigenous Maori.

In 2017 I was commissioned by Te Papa Press to write a history of the institution 1998-2018. The book charts the background to the establishment of the Museum of NZ in the 1980s and 1990s, particularly in terms of NZ society and the new museology, and analyses the day one exhibitions and what made them so successful with the public, including the controversial art exhibition Parade. It also contains a chapter on biculturalism (and its discontents), current developments, and a comprehensive chronology and references.

The research and writing were completed in double quick time, former staff helped out with photos, documentation and memories, and Nicola Legat and her team at Te Papa Press did a great job on the production. Here is the advance copy being toasted on the deck in early summer (late 2017).

TP book toasted

You can find more about the book, and read an interview with the author, here:

Author interview, bio and profile of book

On Feb 14 1998 at Te Papa there was birthday celebration, a panel of speakers, and a giant birthday cake, as well as the book launch:

Te Papa’s 20th birthday

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New book: Collecting, ordering, governing

As you have not heard from me for a while, you may have wondered what I have been doing. In a word: writing. This year, I have had two books out, and I am now busy finishing three more which are due out next year.

In ‘About’ you will see a link to a co-edited collection in memory of the late Maori art historian and curator Jonathan Mane-Wheoki which was published by VUP at the end of July.

Earlier in the year a co-authored monograph came out with Duke University Press which was the outcome of an ARC funded research project led by Prof Tony Bennett from the University of Western Sydney. This book Collecting, ordering, governing: Anthropology, museums and liberal government uses Assemblage Theory to rethink the relations between museums, anthropology and social governance in Australia, NZ, the US, France and French Indo-China and the UK between 1890-1940. My chapter on NZ, co-written with Fiona Cameron, is based on extensive archival research including Maori sources, and situates the Maori engagement with museums and ethnology within this wider context. It offers a fresh interpretation, challenging much previous scholarship, showing how indigenous people participated in official heritage projects on their own terms, employing Boasian ideas of culture adapted from US anthropology. The book has been praised by Fred Myers (NYU) for a ‘sustained rethinking of the history of anthropology, collecting, museums, and liberal governance,’ and Barabara Kirshenbltt-Gimblett (NYU) has hailed it as a ‘magisterial work of breathtaking theoretical richness’.

For more about the book see the DUP website:


For a sample of the Introduction, see:


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Chapter 26 & 27: Afterwords by Eithne Nightingale and Anthony Alan Shelton


Lastly, two experienced scholar professionals round off Museum Practice in their afterwords: Anthony A. Shelton, Director of the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Coumbia in Vancouver, and Eithne Nightingale, a writer, artist and consultant who worked in the Diversity programme at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Each present short pieces which reflect on their own experience, respond to the contents of the book and the contributions by the authors gathered here, provide their particular perspective on current museum practice, and offer their view of the important issues coming up over the horizon.

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Chapter 25: Digital heritage, by Shannon Wellinton and Gillian Oliver

Chapter 25 tackles the digital: one of the most fast changing and powerful areas of modern society, which, despite its profound impact on museums and other “memory institutions,” is not dealt with adequately within the literature of museum studies, although discussed extensively in related fields such as media studies. Gillian Oliver and Shannon Wellington, who work, teach and research in and between the entities that make up the GLAM sector in New Zealand (Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums), set out to review the ‘‘digital heritage landscape’’.

This traversal of a complex, fragmented and ephemeral domain treats digital heritage as “more than the sum of these digital media tools and platforms,” and aims to understand “the engagement between cultural heritage and technology through the application of a broader socio-cultural lens.” Taking a multidisciplinary approach, and avoiding the utopian, technical or pessimistic rhetoric that often marks writing on this topic, they review the history, use and application of digital technology in cultural heritage environments, which has now become so ubiquitous that the term ‘new’ media seems obsolete, discussing the opportunities and challenges facing museums today.

They argue that museums “must embrace the opportunities inherent in digital media,” but we “must be mindful to do so within the wider socio-cultural constructs of digital heritage.” This construct, which they refer to as digital heritage, “considers not just the outputs of the intersections of digital and heritage, but also the engaging influence of those intersections with past, current and future practice.”


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Chap 24: ‘Learning, education and public programmes in museums and art galleries,’ by John Reeve and Vicky Woollard

In my latest book Museum Practice, which was published by Wiley Blackwell last year, the final section includes chapters dealing with the public face of the contemporary museum at work. Chapter 24 grapples with a central dimension of museum practice, namely learning and public programmes. It was written by two leading scholar-practitioners with years of experience at the front line of museum education as well as academic research and teaching in universities.

“The role and place of learning in museums has been transformed in the past twenty years,” write Reeve and Woollard, not just in the UK and the USA, “but also through a shared global community of practice from Brazil to Japan.” These transformations in museological practice have seen education and learning move “from margin to core” of what a museum or gallery is. The chapter surveys this transformation in numerous examples of current practice, where there has been much progress but a lot still to do to make learning the core of museum work in a sustainable way. The authors claim that “Museum learning specialists should continue to expect and claim a major role in the increasingly multi-skilled museum profession.” “They should themselves become more multi-skilled and more often leave their comfort zones and education centres to advocate, campaign, curate, lead, direct,” they add, and thereby “become a less uncertain profession however uncertain the times.”




Authors John Reeve and Vicky Woollard assessed the nature of the changing UK museum in The Responsive Museum – Working with audiences in the 21st century (with Caroline Lang, Ashgate 2006.) Both authors have been museum education officers in major museums and subsequently as university teachers of  MA students in museum and gallery learning, management and cultural policy. Both have also advocated museum learning as leaders of professional organisations and in campaigning for change. They have worked with museums and students from all over from the world.



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Chap 23: ‘Translating museum meanings: A case for interpretation’ by Kerry Jimson

In the last section of my new book Museum Practice authors consider aspects of professional work relating to the public face of museums and galleries. In Chapter 24 author Kerry Jimson makes ‘A case for interpretation’. A professional writer and interpreter who has written for the stage, screen, page and exhibit, Jimson provides a valuable summary of interpretation and its place in the museum today.

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Jimson sees interpretation as a function rather than a role, which is an important part of the museum’s work in communicating with the public. After a short history of interpretation, Jimson demonstrates the value of interpretation through a series of short case studies. He looks at the process of making exhibitions and argues that concept development and interpretation is a critical aspect of producing accessible exhibits for the general public. Unfortunately, like visitor research and education, interpretation can be undervalued by academics and professionals, either on the basis of an overly critical postmodern hermeneutics or on the grounds that it undermines their scholarly acuity (in other words their power).

But because interpreters operate within the institution and also figuratively stand outside it as audience advocates, they can act as a sensitive mediator and a reflective touchstone. Good interpreters employ their understanding of communication, engagement and learning styles to serve both institutions and audiences. Jimson argues that interpretation is essential to the museum. “In financially straightened times, museums can ill afford to shed or marginalise this important function,” he writes. “Interpreters represent the interface—a permeable membrane—between institutions and those they serve. The skills of the interpreter in mediating between multifarious groups to enable engagement and learning make for better exhibitions, and for better museums.”

Kerry Jimson has worked extensively in museums throughout New Zealand as a writer, editor, interpreter and concept developer. He began his museum career during the development of the new Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa (Te Papa) in 1995. In 1998, he became the national museum’s Senior Writer, responsible for the quality of verbal output across the institution. Since 2002, he has worked around the country in a variety of roles in major museums, art galleries, and zoos, and has worked on many exhibitions across a range of subject matter from natural history, science, transport, social history, exhibitions on iwi (Māori tribes), archaeology and art. Now resident in Nelson, Kerry is a Teaching Associate for the Museum and Heritage studies program at Victoria University of Wellington, taking classes on museum-based writing and interpretation.

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Museum Practice chap 22: ‘Visitor Studies’ by Lee Davidson

In this chapter of my new book Museum Practice, my colleague Lee Davidson looks at the topic of visitor research, something that has been referred to already in a few chapters earlier in this blog. Davidson points out that visitor studies is developing as a “more methodologically and theoretically sophisticated sub-field of museum studies.” “The key to its future, she argues, “is to maintain a strong dialogue between theory and practice, with museum practitioners and university researchers working together to build a culture of reflective practice and critical museology for the visitor-centred museum”.


Davidson reviews the brief history of visitor surveys and other forms of research, and the more recent qualitative methods employed to find out what the visitors do, think and feel in the museum, and then the numerous uses to which this information can be put internally, not just in areas like marketing, education and public programmes but also collection development, visioning etc. Indeed visitor research has become an integral part of museum practice across the board which underpins what the institution does not just by testing whether its work is effective or not, but by furnishing information about users and what meanings they make from their experiences.

One important area she touches on is exhibition evaluation, a critical if misunderstood aspect of exhibition development which can help guide and refine the process of making exhibits. Another crucial topic to watch in future, she argues, is virtual visitors, the question of how to measure and analyse those who do not come through the door but via the website, or Facebook page. Since museums are not just bricks and mortar, but digital entities, finding out more about visitors to these elusive spaces is essential for museums to remain relevant.


Dr Lee Davidson is a senior lecturer in the Museum and Heritage Studies programme at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. Her research interests include leisure (history, theory and contemporary practice); visitor studies; narrative research methods; tourism and natural/cultural heritage. She has published research articles in Visitor Studies, the International Journal of Travel Research and Leisure Sciences, as well as contributing a chapter to Intangible Natural Heritage (Routledge, 2012) and co-authoring Serious Leisure and Nature (with R.A. Stebbins, Palgrave, 2011). Recent projects include the development of a national visitor research framework for New Zealand’s museum sector (in association with Museums Aotearoa), and a transnational, collaborative study of Te Papa’s exhibition E Tū Ake: Standing Strong on tour in France, Mexico and Canada.

See her blog Museums and International Touring Exhibitions here:


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Museum Practice Chap 21: ‘The “active museum”: How concern with community transformed the museum’ by Elizabeth Crooke

In the last section of my new book Museum Practice, which was published recently (see last post), there are several chapters describing the outputs produced by the contemporary museum at work. Though the exhibitions considered earlier in the book could also be seen as the most obvious of museum outputs, here in Part IV ‘Publics’ we look at a more diverse and diffuse range of public products: from visitor research and community, to interpretation, learning, digital media and research.

In chapter 21, author Elizabeth Crooke looks outside the walls of the museum to the community. She considers how a concern with community effectively transformed the institution of the museum. Drawing on examples from around the world, but also at home in Northern Ireland, she reviews “the role of museums as a symbol of community; the connections between museums and community policy; and the use of museums for community action.” Crooke then argues for what she calls the “active museum,” the antithesis of the “disconnected museum of old,” which rather than only providing comment, at a safe distance, is an organisation that actively co-produces with its community, effects change and forges dynamic connections.

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Elizabeth Crooke is Professor of Heritage and Museum Studies at the University of Ulster, Northern Ireland.  As well as supervising PhD students, she is Course Director of the MA Cultural Heritage and Museum Studies and the MA Museum Practice and Management (distance learning). She has published Museums and Community: Ideas, Issues and Challenges (Routledge 2007),  Politics Archaeology and the creation of a national museum of Ireland (Irish Academic Press 2000), and many book chapters and journal articles. She is a member of the Board of Directors Northern Ireland Museums Council and the Board of Directors of the Irish Museums Association.

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