NZ s Our Place a blueprint for WA

Anew WA Museum will be expected to speak with authority for all West Australians, so its planners have been studying how many voices have their say through Te Papa, the Museum of New Zealand.

New Zealand's cultural flagship is the most-visited museum in Australasia and has done much to turn Wellington into a tourist destination, not just a stopover between the North and South Islands.

Te Papa, praised for its easy circulation, interactive exhibits and celebration of Maori culture, attracts 1.4 million visitors a year in a city of just 400,000 people.

That is four times the number of visitors the WA Museum gets at its Perth site.

Opened in 1998, Te Papa is run as a Maori and Pakeha (non-indigenous New Zealanders) partnership inspired by the Maori concept of mana taonga - that cultural objects can only speak truthfully with the imprimatur of the communities they represent.

Te Papa's joint-management model is evident from the outset in the bilingual Maori-English signage throughout the building on the Wellington waterfront.

Senior Maori curator Rhonda Paku says the mana taonga approach has underpinned Te Papa since the museum was conceived in the 1980s.

"It was a concept by which the museum would work and seek to engage more fully and sincerely with Maori tribes to bring their stories into the national museum," Paku says.

"Doing things differently with Maori tribes (iwi) not only has value for us as a museum but it has enormous value to the tribes we were working with," she says. "We recognised that this was a way, a model, a framework we could use to work with all communities."

As the WA Museum in Perth sits on Wadjuk Noongar country, director Alec Coles says Noongar and wider Aboriginal culture must be central to the planned $428 million redevelopment.

"This is a wetland where people once fished and hunted under the Perth Cultural Centre, so that needs to be reflected," Coles says.

The essence of mana taonga can be seen on Te Papa's fourth, and top, floor, which is dominated by an impressive marae, a traditional Maori ceremonial meeting place.

This majestic pavilion with intricately carved depictions of ancestral beings is used for meetings, weddings, funerals and to welcome home the remains of Maori ancestors repatriated from foreign graves, museums and research institutions.

The marae is both a dynamic public exhibition space and an important ceremonial space adapted to reflect the 21st century, Paku says.

Its carved images also represent the Pakeha from colonisation to today to integrate the diversity of modern New Zealand beneath the same roof.

New Zealand may be multicultural but its national identity is predominantly bi-cultural, the legacy of its twin migrations of the Maori 1000 years ago and Europeans and others over the past 200 years.

In Te Papa's designated Maori gallery, there is a revolving roster of exhibitions from each of the dozens of New Zealand tribes which can represent themselves as "iwi-in-residence" at Te Papa for two years at a time. "Every iwi gets their chance to tell their stories in their own way," Paku says.

One catalyst for the embrace of Maori culture, along with the self-determination movement of the 1970s and 80s, was the Te Maori touring exhibition to the US in 1984.

It was a milestone in the Maori cultural renaissance and the first time Maori were involved as curators, custodian and travelling hosts. "It was so successful there, it caused an enormous shift back home," Paku says.

Subtitled Our Place, the museum's full Maori name, Te Papa Tongarewa, means "container of treasures".

Its inclusive principles extend to its community gallery, which tells the stories of New Zealand's many migrant communities. Again, as with the Maori iwi, a different group is invited every 18 months or so to develop an exhibition with museum curators.

The Mixing Room exhibition about refugees is the latest example of this. Te Papa worked with 70 young refugees from 27 countries who have told their stories through art, film, poetry, performance and digital media

Multimedia comes to the fore via a gigantic portrait ("I am the face of millions of people.") pixelated with the faces of hundreds of refugees. Around the corner, a glowing hologram family steps from a Maori sailing vessel to tell of their voyage of discovery to New Zealand.

Technology abounds at Te Papa, where its famous Our Space installation fascinates visitors who can walk on a large satellite image of the country and see every town, river and major landmark. Each step they take activates a link to wall videos about each region.

In the Awesome Forces gallery, volcanoes come to life and earthquakes shake the floor literally as visitors step inside a house re-enacting the effects of the 1987 Edgecombe quake.

The exhibit Nga Morehu: The Survivors invites visitors to play a "game" as a nine-year-old Maori boy or girl trying to surmount the hurdles of racism, poverty, disease and other disadvantage in the early 20th century.

Coles says Te Papa has a giant international reputation for its governance, investment and its philosophies of mutual respect and shared custodianship.

"These are all philosophies that we are adopting here," Coles says. "It is not an authoritarian view of culture. It is a model that embraces the stories and perspectives of the people it serves.

"Its name itself, Te Papa, Our Place, fuels my vision for what the WA museum should be - a museum that is owned, valued and used by all West Australians and admired by the world."

The WA Museum's indigenous cultural affairs are run through its Aboriginal advisory committee headed by Irene Stainton.

"The important thing is that the Aboriginal voice is permeating throughout the entire museum," Coles says.

"Aboriginal engagement is the key to this. Arguably Western Australia's greatest story is its 50,000 years of continuous Aboriginal culture."

The museum's new partnership with Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company as company in residence reflects a commitment to impart indigenous experiences through theatre, dance, music, film, art and storytelling, as well as with objects.

It is an example of how the museum - years before the projected opening of the new complex in 2020 - already has been opening up for people to tell their own stories, Coles says.

"We haven't got all the knowledge. The knowledge is all out there. It is everybody's museum."

· *Stephen Bevis *travelled to New Zealand as a guest of Positively Wellington Tourism.

'It is not an authoritarian view of culture. It is a model that embraces the stories and perspectives of the people it serves.' Alec Coles

The West Australian

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