International Museum Day 2017
Every year museums around the world celebrate International Museum Day on the 18th of May. The theme for 2017 is "Museums and contested histories: Saying the unspeakable in museums".
This topic got me thinking about what local histories are contested? What is unspeakable in the Waitaki district? And how might our museum speak about these histories? Inevitably this blog is only my perspective on this topic and I am interested to know what local histories you see as contested.
Part of the work for our Cultural Facility Development is planning new permanent exhibitions. One of the ideas museum staff have been working on is human impact on the environment. We want to tell the stories of how humans have affected the Waitaki district’s environment. This ranges from the first arrival of humans in the district to looking at how people affect our district’s environment today. Arguably this topic involves aspects of several contested histories.
The timing of first human settlement can be a contentious topic. Debate has occurred over whether settlement occurred around 700 years ago or 1300 years ago. And whether the first human contact with New Zealand was close to the settlement date or much earlier.
Researching this topic I feel confident that, based on current understandings, human settlement of the Waitaki District started around 700 years ago. For me part of dealing with contested ideas in a museum is being open about the nature of the debate and accepting that if new evidence is found then our understandings will change. I recommend Atholl Anderson’s recent publication “The First Migration, Māori Origins 3000BC – AD1450” to anyone looking to understand this topic further.
For me it seems pretty clear that first humans to settle in Aotearoa were people from East Polynesia. This is supported by linguistic analysis of te reo Maori, DNA research and the analysis of artefacts found at archaeological sites such as the Waitaki river mouth.
Yet, as this news article from the last week [this news article has now been removed from the New Zealand Herald website. See this article responding to it ] shows there is an ongoing fascination with the idea New Zealand was settled earlier and by people from places other than East Polynesia. This then quickly becomes a political topic as people debate the potential implications on politics today, The Treaty of Waitangi and our understandings of New Zealand’s history.
Discussing how humans have impacted the environment is also contentious. People have different perspectives on the environmental effects of different activities. There can be fierce debates whether you are discussing the impact of industrial dairy farming on waterways, how urban dwellers degrade the environment, the use of 1080 to control pests or the numerous extinctions caused by Maori hunting.
I hope that our exhibition can be a place for some of those debates. And I hope that as a museum we can provide some frameworks around understanding the nature of the evidence for different ideas and the different perspectives people are speaking from. It is a tightrope act, to acknowledge that ideas change, that evidence can be interpreted differently, that a Mātauranga Māori interpretation may be different to that of a biologist.
I believe one of the best ways museums can do this is to show how different experts have reached their conclusions and help provide our visitors with tools to carry out their own critical thinking.
Let us know what you think.