Speech for the Museums Aotearoa 2019 Conference

  • Hon Carmel Sepuloni
Arts, Culture and Heritage

Tēnā koutou katoa, fa’atalofa atu, malo e lelei, greetings to you all. 

I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak to you at the Museums Aotearoa Conference for the second year in a row.

Can I firstly acknowledge iwi in residence at Te Papa, Rongowhakaata, Courtney Johnston (Museums Aotearoa Chair), Museums Aotearoa Board members, Te Papa for hosting this event, and the many attendees gathered here today.

I’d like to begin with a quote in recognition of Museum Week it is very pertinent to the theme of this conference: Ko Aotearoa Tēnei. It says:

On the surface museums seem to show us who we are but their real mission is to transform. Visiting a great museum you should emerge as a different person, having looked at your society and your place in it, and reconsidered how you will live in it – ideally for the better.

From Northland to Rakiura, New Zealand’s museums, galleries and whare taonga are kaitiaki of our memories, our stories and our precious taonga. They play a crucial role in our self-knowledge and our sense of place.

Accessible and welcoming, these institutions are a place for all New Zealanders to come in out of the cold. They bring us together to engage with the things that define our nation, to experience different world views, and to be inspired to think in new ways.

In Aotearoa we are a very diverse society and becoming more so. Differences of ethnicity, culture, age, circumstances, health and ability all contribute to the rich fabric of our communities.

Many of you will have read, in the Museums Aotearoa Quarterly, Phillipa Tocker’s moving comments about the 15 March terrorist attack. She makes an important point about the role museums and other public institutions can play in fostering understanding across cultural, religious, demographic and political barriers.

The aftermath of the horrifying attack has made it imperative that we all look more closely at ourselves and our values.

Last year I talked about the importance of co-creating knowledge, drawing on the traditions, heritage and expertise of our Māori and Pacific communities.

At the heart of ‘Ko Aotearoa Tēnei’ is the concept of partnership – and recognition of the multi-faceted nature of history and knowledge. No longer should any one authority own and disseminate a single version of history. Rather, the onus is on us all to create a genuine sharing of leadership in knowledge.

The recently opened Te Taiao | Nature exhibition here at Te Papa, which combines science and mātauranga Māori, has shown us again how bringing together scientific and cultural knowledge can create a truly holistic experience.

That’s just one example. Institutions throughout this sector are showing great leadership in working beyond their front doors to reflect many rich and diverse sources of knowledge and tradition.

Core to ‘Ko Aotearoa Tēnei’ is Te Tiriti o Waitangi, our founding document which is central to our identity, who we are and where we are heading. 

This Government is focused on building better Crown-Māori relations. With work across departmental agencies gearing up in the context of Wai 262, we are looking ahead to try to give effect to the principles underpinning Te Tiriti o Waitangi.

We are looking to the past too, with momentum building towards the Tuia 250 commemorations next year. With engagement from iwi, Pākeha and Pacific communities, Tuia 250 will be an important chance to recognise the historic meeting of two peoples.

It will also be a chance to be courageous in looking beyond any sanitised or idealised versions we may have encountered about that time in our history. We need to recognise our history for what it is – warts and all. 

Today, in the spirit of ‘Ko Aotearoa Tēnei’ and acknowledging the theme of the session to follow, I particularly want to talk to you about repatriation. 

Since the repatriation of Rapanui koiwi in early 2018 as one of the first events I attended as Associate Minister of Arts Culture and Heritage I have had a deep interest in repatriation. There is no denying the power and mauri present when a process is undertaken to repair what is broken and replace what is lost. Last year, I also had the pleasure to speak at this conference and attend the repatriation panel which I look forward to sitting in on today. The conference reiterated the need for action in this space and I asked officials to work closely with the sector to understand how the government can support the great work already being undertaken by museums and other arts institutions and where our response can be strengthened.  

Over the past year it’s been interesting to note the growing awareness of what is actually held in museum collections, especially around ancestral human remains and taonga and the history surrounding the origins of these items.  

The shameful practice of trading in human remains has left a terrible legacy of hurt among indigenous communities worldwide. Repatriation cannot take away the wrong that was done, but it is crucial in the process of reconciliation and healing.

It is heartening that in recent years the global community has come a long way in its attitude to precious remains and taonga. I really have to commend the sector here in New Zealand today, and thank you for your commitment to returning these ancestors, and remedying the wrongs of the past – you are truly doing the right thing. 

This includes the return home earlier this month of 121 Māori tīpuna and Moriori karāpuna from the Charité Institution in Berlin and Museum Vrolik in Amsterdam. 

Another recent milestone in March this year was the repatriation by Canterbury Museum, in partnership with Ngāi Tūāhuriri, of three tīpuna to Native American Confederated Tribes in the Colombia Plateau in the USA.

There have been many amazing successes in repatriation, with some museums already having returned all remains they were holding to the communities in which they belong. 

Behind these successes have been the huge efforts of many iwi, institutions and officials, working often across international borders. The commitment by so many is inspiring, and I hugely commend our museums sector for your leadership in this space.

We all share the conviction that repatriation is the right thing to do. We have been hearing from museums that in order to make progress New Zealand needs a more consistent approach – and that additional government support and guidance is required.

The Government would like to support the sector to continue to build on its repatriation initiatives. The Ministry for Arts, Culture and Heritage has been working with Te Papa and the New Zealand Repatriation Research Network, as well as contacting museums individually, to explore options for how this might be achieved. 

As part of these conversations with museums and sector professionals, it is clearly evident that the wider cultural sector is building strong foundations to progress this important work; but there are gaps and barriers, particularly concerning capacity, resources, and the ability to research unprovenanced remains.

I would also like to acknowledge the partnerships that many museums have developed with local mana whenua, including through repatriation, which need to be protected and nurtured. 

Today I can assure you we have been listening; and I can confirm that the Government will be providing support to the museum sector to assist with its repatriation initiatives.

This will include practical assistance through Te Papa, such as helping museums with provenance research or logistics.  

The Ministry will also dedicate some funding through Te Papa’s National Services Te Paerangi to support domestic repatriations, aimed at the institutions which most need assistance.

This funding becomes available over the next two financial years, but we will continue to look closely at what longer-term financial support is needed from Government to ensure the success of New Zealand’s repatriation efforts.

Discussion with Museums Aotearoa, Te Papa and the New Zealand Repatriation Research Network have identified the potential to co-design an agreed set of principles, or a ‘charter’, underpinning the repatriation of ancestral remains – as well as best practice operational guidelines.

This does not mean that Government will be telling museums what to do. We recognise you are the experts, not us. Rather, this is about finding the best way to support the work of the wider cultural sector in this hugely important task.

I hope this is a step in the right direction and will give the sector the help it needs to build on progress so far. This is a very exciting time for repatriation in New Zealand, and I am looking forward to hearing further discussions in the panel session that will follow. 

Enriching New Zealand’s culture and identity is a key priority of this Government, and I am proud to have responsibility within such an amazing portfolio. Today is but one example of the many vibrant issues that the cultural sector brings to our attention – issues that resonate with who we are as New Zealanders, at home, in the Pacific, in the world.

I want to take this opportunity to thank Museums Aotearoa for inviting me to talk to you today, and for your tireless work supporting our precious museums, galleries and whare taonga.

This is a sector full of inspiring people – people committed to learning and scholarship, to the precious taonga of Aotearoa, and to enriching our communities. I applaud you all, and wish you a great conference.

Tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou, tēnā ra koutou katoa, fa’atalofa atu, malo e lelei – thank you