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.


About mccartco

Conal McCarthy is a former museum professional and academic who has published widely on museum history, theory and practice. He is the Director of the Museum and heritage studies programme at Victoria University of Wellington, Aotearoa New Zealand.
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