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Exhibition Review: Passports? Think I’ll just pass thanks

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With its motto “our place” Te Papa Tongarewa, New Zealand’s national museum, seeks to be all-inclusive and have regard for the cultural and ethnic diversities of New Zealand.[1] The museum has Tangata o le Moana, an exhibition of Pasifika history in New Zealand and Mana Whenua, an exhibit celebrating and recognising Māori as the tangata whenua. Passports therefore, as an exhibition that explores the history of settler migration, is very much an attempt by Te Papa to tell my story, a Pākehā story. The Te Papa website promises it to be “interactive and thought-provoking.”[2] I was interested to see how the often contentious history of setter colonisation within New Zealand would be addressed.[3]

Greeting me at the beginning of the exhibition was a bright red machine offering me the opportunity to purchase my own museum passport for a gold coin donation, which I could get stamped within the museum. The machine was sadly defunct, seemingly unserviced and empty. Deprived of my opportunity to buy an interactive souvenir I moved on to the exhibit itself. Entry is through several points, no doubt a stylistic representation of the multiple ways a migrant can travel and enter into a country. The design of the space funnels visitors through the exhibition narrative, which in turn mirrors the experience of the migrant. We start with an outline of the varied reasons for migration. This is supported by quotations from migrants in large vinyl lettering stuck to the side of a partition wall as well as an audible video playing of people telling their stories. We then pass through a life-sized diorama of a ship’s cabin to learn of the way early migrants arrived in New Zealand before finally arriving in the last gallery which discloses the ways in which migrants settled in and came to call Aotearoa home.

The ship’s cabin was a highlight of the exhibition. However its best design feature may be overlooked if the visitor merely passes through and does not take the time to experience it, for it is that subtle. The lighting ebbed, giving the impression that you were rocking gently or at least having clouds passing overhead, conveying a sense of movement. This understated application of light to underscore the diorama was a pleasing and successful stylistic element.

There are several design flaws, some physical and some conceptual, which let down this exhibit. Firstly the red passport box was not the only piece of equipment not functioning. Other interactive displays were also not serviced. An interactive photo display, located next to an information panel on Dutch settlers, made a sad whirring sound before just giving up. Next to a panel about storms sat a blank computer screen. The interactive machines that did function on a mechanical level failed on execution, light up buttons or lift flaps hardly pass muster as interactive these days. This however may be more a testament to the speedy growth of new media and the museum’s inability to upgrade a permanent exhibit than a perfunctory attempt at being “interactive.”

Secondly in the final gallery the layout of objects in conjunction with photomontage and information panels feels haphazard and lets down the exhibition narrative. The grouping of objects into a thematic or even logical order falls apart here.  Muddled in between a Jewish altar cloth and embroidered samplers is a photo panel that illustrates with photos and text: “Food.” One gets the impression in this gallery that the display cases were rearranged but the photomontage panels were overlooked.

The biggest let down in this exhibition however was the content. There was a lack of acknowledgement that when non Māori people migrated to New Zealand the land was already inhabited. The story of interaction between Māori and Pākehā is a significant part of migrant history and its omission was glaring. Migration, historic or contemporary, is a complex issue however Passports framed it as a positive and one dimensional practice and didn’t touch on past or current debates political, cultural or social in nature. Te Papa is not the only museum in the world to approach the topic of migration with its exhibits. In Australia this has been addressed both in the National Museum of Australia (NMA) and the Immigration Museum of Melbourne (IMM). However where the NMA bowed down to conservative political pressure and presented Australian Journeys an apolitical representation of settler history, the IMM in its exhibition Identity: Yours, Mine, Ours has not shied away from approaching serious issues such as racism, shifting the focus from stories of migration to issues around it.[4] How can Te Papa, which tasks itself as being a forum for the future, achieve its noble goals of being “a cultural and intellectual leader…” which will “signpost pathways to the future by initiating, hosting and engaging in debates that explore a wide range of contemporary issues” when it avoids the issues of the past – issues that frame and give context to their contemporary counterparts?[5]

Next to, and accessible from, Passports is the community gallery with a long-term exhibit titled The Mixing Room. The Mixing Room is the stories of refugees, as told by the refugees. The whole exhibit was created in conjunction with young members of the refugee community, through nationwide workshops.[6] The end result is a visually sophisticated mixed-media exhibition. Like its participants, it is youthful and energetic. Located on the floor is a timeline of conflicts which created refugees. The timeline acknowledges that although the story told here is ultimately positive, the beginning stems from a dark place in the human condition. The participation of refugee youth lends the exhibit a strong sense of authenticity. The two exhibitions sit in contrast to each other, with The Mixing Room highlighting the neglected, outdated and non-political content of Passports.

Passports highlighted an issue in the ongoing attentiveness required to maintain long-term exhibitions to a respectable standard. Even the slicker, newer The Mixing Room’s companion blog has not been updated since 2013. If museums want to have interactive, new media displays they need to be ready to invest the time and resources to sustain them. I believe exhibitions have a duty to history and the authenticity of the stories they tell. Passports only told one story, avoiding the tougher aspects of migration and settler history. The machine I encountered at the beginning sadly stood as a metaphor for the whole exhibit – it held great potential for an interactive museum experience if only it wasn’t so empty.

 

 

 

 

References

Picture credit: Group of early Wellington settlers at Newtown Park, Wellington. Ref: PICT-000164. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22678062

Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. Passports. (Accessed 22 March 2015). http://www.tepapa.govt.nz/WhatsOn/exhibitions/Pages/Passports.aspx

Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. Statement of Intent. (Accessed 22 March 2015). http://www.tepapa.govt.nz/SiteCollectionDocuments/AboutTePapa/LegislationAccountability/Te-Papa-Statement-of-Intent-2014-18.pdf

Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. The Mixing Room. (Accessed 22 March 2015) http://www.tepapa.govt.nz/WhatsOn/exhibitions/Pages/TheMixingRoomstoriesfromyoungrefugeesinNewZealand.aspx

New Zealand Legislation. Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa Act 1992. (Accessed 22 March 2015). http://www.legislation.govt.nz/act/public/1992/0019/latest/whole.html#DLM260227

Schorch, Philipp. “The Cosmohermeneutics of Migration Encounters at the Immigration Museum, Melbourne.” Museum Worlds: Advances in Research 2 (2014). 81-98.

[1] New Zealand Legislation, Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa Act 1992, http://www.legislation.govt.nz/act/public/1992/0019/latest/whole.html#DLM260227 (accessed 22 March 2015).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, Passports, http://www.tepapa.govt.nz/WhatsOn/exhibitions/Pages/Passports.aspx (accessed 22 March 2015).

[4] Philipp Schorch, “The Cosmohermeneutics of Migration Encounters at the Immigration Museum, Melbourne,” Museum Worlds: Advances in Research 2 (2014). 82-83.

[5] Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, Statement of Intent, http://www.tepapa.govt.nz/SiteCollectionDocuments/AboutTePapa/LegislationAccountability/Te-Papa-Statement-of-Intent-2014-18.pdf (accessed 22 March 2015).

[6] Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, The Mixing Room, http://www.tepapa.govt.nz/WhatsOn/exhibitions/Pages/TheMixingRoomstoriesfromyoungrefugeesinNewZealand.aspx (accessed 22 March 2015).

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