On 18 May 2019, I was invited to be a panelist on a discussion related to the ‘Future of Tradition’ in museums at the Aotea Utanganui Museum of South Taranaki in honour of International Museum Day promoted by ICOM. The organiser, Cameron Curd, Kaitiaki Pukapuka-a-Rohe( District Archivist), and his team assembled a diverse roundtable of people with various roles in the community related to museums and ways of presenting the past. As Cameron pointed out, we were the first in the world to hold an event because of our proximity to the International Date Line!
My perspective in the discussion is grounded in conservation and archaeology. Conservators form an integral part of museum operations in caring for the collection to ensure it survives in perpetuity. We also receive special training in the theoretical considerations of material culture which could influence how objects are seen or used. Archaeologists rely on museums to serve as repositories for finds at the most basic level and as a means for public outreach by providing the factual basis for which museums explore the interpretation of objects.
As a conservator, I have worked with museums or in museum environments for over 15 years and I was excited to see how the discussion would challenge my own perspectives as support personnel for museum operations, as well as, to contribute my learnings as a professional in the conservation field.
Cameron provided a great selection of questions to guide the discussion related to the role of museums in 2019, methods of honouring tradition and how museums can improve in serving their communities. Themes that reoccured throughout the discussion were community, pride, education, service and safe spaces.
The participants for the panel discussion were delightfully varied in their backgrounds and included:
- Local history professionals
- Board members of the museum
- Local author
- Graphic designer for the museum
- Collections managers
Role of Museums in 2019
We started by discussing the role of museums in 2019. This is particularly important for Aotea Utanganui because of the location within a small rural town in south Taranaki. The museum began as many small town museums do, amassing collections of rural farm equipment, dairy and freezer works industry memorabilia and Māori heritage items. However, it has undergone a massive redevelopment and the staff have brought the museum to an incredibly high standard of interpretation, collections management and community involvement, all while honouring the origin and purpose of the collection.
Panelists highlighted that the role of museums in 2019 is to:
- Reach new audiences.
- Entertain and educate. Museums have become too intellectual, they must provide experiences to young people.
- Promote recent history. Continue to explore the past, but also to include recent history as an experience.
- Use collections. Collections must be used to retain value, to have a purpose.
- Engage visitors in social issues.
- Participate in the creation of memory. Collections assist in developing an understanding of where you came from.
- Serve as a place for meetings.
- Be a place of community pride. Museums add culture to a community which is critical in identity.
- Use the space and exhibitions as a safe place to challenge views.
- Develop outreach and provide resources for the community. Aotea Utanganui offers workshops which develop skills in the community towards preservation and memory retention.
- Expose visitors to a world lens. Talk about larger issues affecting the world. Museums can take these issues and relate them to a local level.
Phew! This sounds like a daunting task!
Tradition and Memory in Museums
One of the questions that Cameron posed was related to how museums honour tradition while keeping memory alive. This was touched on above by saying that museums participate or act as a foundation for the creation of memory. Personal stories are very important in our community which includes Māori, Pākehā, Indian and Chinese heritage. How do you honour this diversity of traditions?
Overall, panelists revealed that ‘tradition and memory are in front of us, not behind us’. Museums can only tell a part of the story and the story is only as good as the collection. It is important that these traditions are told in the right way by the right people and that all voices are heard. One example given was related to Māori being identified as one culture with one history to tell, when in fact there is great diversity among the Māori people. Another example is failure in the past to be inclusive of womens voices in the documentation and process of history.
The panel proceeded to have a discussion of ‘truth’ and included the idea of ‘white-washing’ history (i.e. the dominance of Pākehā perspectives). Panellists pointed out that media has a large role in this. There is, of course, the caution against one ‘truth’. I loved the mention that objects are living things in that memory and stories are being added to them all the time and they take on new meaning and characteristics.
Lastly, I suggested the purpose of a museum is to fulfil an impossible mandate: preservation (archiving collective memory) and access (education). This is challenged now with the traditional use of objects in cultural ceremonies or as didactic tools.
Museums and Diversity
Diversity is a major social issue internationally. One of the panelists reflected on their museum as being in a small coastal location with the primary visitors being of the older generation. How do you improve and be more relevant?
Relatedly, looking at future audiences for the Aotea Utanganui, they are more diverse in their lifestyles. Rural farming families no longer dominate the population. More people from the city are relocating to small towns for the cost of living and these visitors will want different experiences from a museum than previously offered. However, the history of the region will ALWAYS be valuable, but audiences expect more now.
We also better understand different styles of learning and can offer audiences experiences beyond a text interpretation panel…which leads to technology!
Museums and Technology
The panel discussion repeatedly came back to technology as a dominant theme. Technology can be used to draw in young people. Panelists pointed out that technology in museums has moved from a ‘nice to have’ to a necessity. Social media has also become an avenue to educate. There was a point that the use of technology in museums needs to be more heavily emphasised in training programmes.
Museums also face issues of technology with preservation. A common example is the use of digital scanning to preserve the information and appearance of paper and photograph materials. Resources have to be put into the technology rather than the object preservation.
Improving the Museum Experience
The discussion was rounded out with: what can museums do better? This question resulted in some interesting responses from the panel with two main themes.
Move the museum outside of the walls.
This has numerous meanings. Panelists suggested that the boundaries of the museum are a barrier and that the information needs to move from the inside to the outside. One suggestion was the use of electronic display panels that can be viewed outside of museum hours. Another was related to the digitisation of museum collections; moving the collection online to be more accessible. The museum needs to provide for active and passive experiences.
More advocacy and better messaging at every level of the museum.
This includes both to the community and to governing agencies. We need to do more to promote the purpose and importance of museums. There seems to be a perception that experts run museums and that they don’t need the community.
This panel discussion lasted two hours and each participant offered really valuable insight from their perspective. It felt like a conversation we should be having more often and with more people. This was a great opportunity to stop and reflect on where museums are now and what they could be to the south Taranaki community in the future. I appreciated the opportunity to participate!