“Museums are not Neutral”: Facing Awkward Truths with Auckland Museum
This story was originally published on 20/12/19
Museums hold an interesting space in our conscious. Most of us think of them as boring old places full of old stuff that the kids go to on school trips and some of us see them as towering colonial institutions that are painful reminders of wrongs that were committed and reparations to be had.
But how many of us think of them as being at the cutting edge of social conversations around equality, equity and reparations?
In some ways, museums are in a battle for their future. They’re institutions that have stood for hundreds of years and collected the spoils of war, often stolen cultural artefacts and examples of the modern world. Now, they’re having to look at themselves — and the outside world — and figure out where they fit into current conversations around colonialism and the internet age.
Victoria Travers is the Head of Exhibitions at Auckland War Memorial Museum. She leads the design of exhibitions to make sure they’re interesting and that everyone — regardless of what they already know about any particular topic — can enjoy themselves. She is also involved in some of the conversations Auckland Museum is having, both with itself and with the wider community.
We meet in a closed library at Auckland Museum which, as it always has done, stands proud and tall on as a colonial institution on sacred Maori land.
Travers is well-spoken, thoughtful and deeply informed. She is, quintessentially, the kind of person that you would expect to work at a museum. And she knows that there are some awkward truths about Auckland museum but she doesn’t shy away from them.
“All of the people that work in a museum are engaged with what’s going on outside the museum — we’re not a building.” She says. “We’re people that work in the building. We’re part of the conversation or we facilitate the conversation. Museums are not neutral and that’s a big slogan. I don’t think a lot of visitors realise that we’re colonial institutions. Especially this place.” She looks around the classically styled library and the windows that look out onto Auckland Museum’s famous pillared facade.
“We are biased and we are fallible and all of those things,” she continues. “Museums are not neutral and so one of the things I’m liking more and more in museums is that we’re telling people we’re not neutral and we’re owning up to our colonial past.”
Part of that is being involved in conversations about decolonialisation or indigenisation and working with Maori to display taonga in ways that tell their stories and recognise their contributions to Auckland’s history.
“If you’re a colonial museum, there is traditionally one voice and one true — in inverted commas — story and you’re going to tell that story and be the authority on that subject.” Travers says. “Now, visitors still see us as authoritative places but now it’s about asking questions [because they know there isn’t one story]. You ask the question: whose story is being told here, why is their story being told here and whose story isn’t being told here?”
“Our collection speaks to a lot of powerful people who owned the story and owned the voice,” Travers says pensively. “Powerful people, traditionally, have been white men and white women, as well. Pakeha women are not far behind in terms of that. So we’re asking those questions and ensuring that lesser known stories are being surfaced.”
By working to acknowledge the bias in colonial institutions and seek out and find lesser known stories, Travers and her team are working to put the well known and the lessor known on the same footing. As Travers says, “it’s not that we’re pulling down the well known story, for example in the TuPaia show [Voyage to New Zealand: TuPaia and the Endeavour] there is nothing that degenerates Cook or Banks. What we do is elevate a story that is lesser known and that’s not done with the intent of minimising any other stories. It’s around pulling someone else’s story or other voice up so that more voices can be heard, not just one dominant voice.”
The Museum works closely with Mana Whenua and Tangata Whenua to help elevate and tell those stories. Travers says that the colonisation conversation can be awkward and difficult to have at times but she’s proud that’s a conversation that’s happening in New Zealand museums.
“In my opinion, we’re at the beginning of these conversations and, as a Pakeha woman, here at the museum, I feel strongly that my role is to listen and to follow the lead of Mana Whenua and Tangata Whenua. One of the things about New Zealand museums, which is really great, is that we have a lot of Tangata Whenua working at the museum and leading those conversations and that’s incredibly important.”
Travers is proud of the museum’s approach to having multiple perspectives and narratives. While it might seem obvious, it isn’t overseas. She recounts colleagues from museums outside of New Zealand asking what happens if you have, “something that contradicts the known, in inverted commas, narrative?”.
Her answer, she says, is that you can have both and she sees New Zealand moving towards more mature conversations around how we bring together colonial and non-colonial narratives. She says it’s a good sign that our museums don’t feel the need to reconcile narratives that contradict each other.
“It’s not our job to reconcile things and it’s not our job to say there is one truth.” She says. “It is our job to say there are multiple truths and it’s OK for them sit in conflict with one another or seemingly in conflict with one another.”