Travelling into the Future… Taking the Profusion-theme to New Zealand
From the specific time and place of writing this dispatch (11.23am, Friday, UK), elsewhere, in New Zealand, it is already a kind of future (12.23am, Saturday). Being 11-13 hours ahead of GMT, New Zealand is one of the first countries to greet the New Year sunrise. Of course, the claim to being ‘the first’ is both open to interpretation and fierce date-line politics. As was illustrated around the millennium roll-over with South Pacific nations vying to be the first to see in the year 2000; yet simultaneously doing so with anxiety about what Y2K meltdown predictions might actually bring (a prophecy now logged firmly in the bank of retro-futures ‘flashbacks’). In any case, here and there; today and tomorrow; Friday and Saturday; asleep and awake…These are the kinds of everyday entanglements of present-futures that people navigate as they work, live, play, communicate, and travel across geo-temporal locations.
Here and there; today and tomorrow; Friday and Saturday; asleep and awake…These are the kinds of everyday entanglements of present-futures that people navigate
In February 2018, I travelled to New Zealand to give invited talks to professionals at Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga and the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. This was an opportunity to push Heritage Futures not just across time but national, professional, and disciplinary zones. Both events were well attended by staff from these organisations. In the case of the former, the organiser, Dr Christine Whybrew (Area Manager – Canterbury / West Coast, Southern Regional Office), invited local heritage consultants involved in the Christchurch rebuild, Underground Overground Archaeology, academics from Canterbury University, museum curators, and buildings conservation specialists.
The project’s emphasis on futures thinking prompted rich discussion following my presentations to both organisations. Dr Whybrew summarised that the research encourages practitioners to ‘think about the work we do in a broader and longer frame’. Similarly reflecting a desire to bring critical and practice-based insights into dialogue, one staff member at Te Papa asked: ‘what would be good for us as museum professionals to know from what is going on in the households you research in?’ While our Profusion-theme findings continue to emerge, one shared interest may be the research we have done looking at times when people donate to museums. Revealing peoples’ motivations for doing so, what they choose to give and why, and their hopes for what will happen to donations sheds light onto the ways that the public builds collections. Not simply by adding things, but by expressing (through their selections) what they think a museum should safe-keep for the future. Such motivations are important to understand because, as one Te Papa curator told me, ‘in a way they’re building the collection and you are simply a conduit and at best a filter […] today the collections are really built by the public, by their judgement of what museums should [collect].’ An important aspect of museum collecting is that it involves layers of selection – as in this example, through the public choosing to offer things for donation, and by curators using their expertise to decide what to acquire from these things (other ways of collecting are also discussed below).
Additionally, I spent several days at Te Papa meeting with staff and learning about how history collecting is done. Dr Bronwyn Labrum (Head of New Zealand and Pacific Cultures) and Kirstie Ross (Curator Modern New Zealand) must be thanked for arranging an invigorating programme of meetings; site-tours (including to the Museum’s conservation studio); and exhibition visits (including the hugely popular Gallipoli: The scale of our war). The opportunity to meet with curators, conservators, and managers thinking deeply about collecting the material culture of everyday life, both through their practice and research, was a highlight of my visit.
Partly, the visit encouraged me to think about similarities or differences to the sites I typically research within (i.e., smaller UK museums with Social History departments and/or collections). One obvious difference is Te Papa’s mandate to collect for the nation rather than a specific region. This introduces a particular quality of heritage-futures assembled through collecting: scale. At Te Papa, I learnt how history curators think very carefully about what material culture of everyday New Zealand life to collect that will be of national significance guided and supported by collections policies and procedures. Being invited to sit in on a History and Pacific Cultures acquisitions meeting enabled further insight into how this process works in practice. One notable feature – apart from the high volume of donations (one history curator alone received three emails about possible new donations during the hour of the meeting!) – is the multi-disciplinary approach. Collecting decisions are shaped by input from staff across subject – (e.g., History, Pacific, Māori) and professional- (e.g., curatorial, management, conservation) divisions.
Another notable difference was that terms like ‘everyday material culture’ or ‘history and culture’ tend to be used when discussing this kind of curatorship, collections, and/or collecting. Curators operating in the history division include: Senior Curator of New Zealand History and Culture, Curator Modern New Zealand, Curator Contemporary Life & Culture, and Curator History. I found myself slipping into using these kinds of phrases, especially by asking about the collecting of ‘the material culture of everyday life’, rather than, as I tend to do when visiting UK museums, ‘social history’. While a subtle difference, this may be a comparison that the Profusion theme could further unpack. It is entirely feasible that how collecting is categorised changes the scope of what is collected and how this is done. Amy Hackett’s 2017 master’s thesis research into collecting at Te Papa examined, what she calls, the ‘mutability’ of everyday material culture: ‘it can be all things to many people’.
It is entirely feasible that how collecting is categorised changes the scope of what is collected and how this done
Talking to Dr Labrum provided excellent scope to further understand how such collecting is done. She described an approach which is also outlined in her Real Modern book (Labrum 2015: Chapter One). This is to collect objects that tell, what she calls, ‘material histories’. Or acquire things that provide insight into peoples’ ‘experiences’ of everyday life by focusing on how objects are ‘used’ and ‘given meaning’ in routine activities (like shopping, working, going to school, gardening, cleaning or dressing). The emphasis is on collecting to communicate ‘experiences’ rather than overarching historical narratives. For Dr Labrum, this means paying attention not only to ‘special’ or ‘unique’ but more ‘ordinary’ and ‘commonplace’ objects. It also means collecting things that communicate a diverse range of experiences – for example different ethnic but also rural and urban identities.
Another area of rich discussion was futures-thinking. Staff commented that my talk had acted as a useful prompt to reflect on this aspect of their work. One curator described the curatorial role as that of a ‘futurist’ whose task it is ‘to assess or to make judgements about what is going to be of long term interest’. Others spoke to me about the need to identify audiences and carefully balance responsibilities and obligations through collecting. Or, as the same curator put it, thinking carefully about ‘who we are collecting for – the present or the future?’. The uncertainty of futures – whether these be close or more distant – was also flagged as a core challenge for collecting, as it has been in the many conversations we have had with museum professionals elsewhere (Macdonald and Morgan, 2018). Yet new nuances emerged including, for example, curators explaining how it is sometimes the unanticipated and unexpected that turns out to be the most interesting or important things to acquire when collecting from everyday life.
This was illustrated during an especially thought-provoking conversation with Curator Contemporary Life & Culture, Stephanie Gibson, who described ‘field collecting’ (a term borrowed from other disciplines such as natural history). It is an approach she occasionally takes to collect for her focus area of the material and visual culture of protest, conflict and reform, as well as everyday life in New Zealand. One example she gave was of collecting a poster from an anniversary of the 2007 Tūhoe raids. She had noticed the poster appearing on public spaces in the city like bus shelters, and that it had not only an especially beautiful design but lots of ‘visual information’ to tell ‘important stories’ about the raids including about the ‘endurance of memory’ and ‘wrongs righted’. These kinds of discussions encouraged me to consider how systems and procedures guiding collecting (which typically operate through anticipatory frameworks) might remain flexible or open enough to embrace an element of uncertainty by recognising that not everything of value can be identified or predicted in advance.
During my Te Papa visit, many more topics and issues were discussed with staff, and this dispatch is only a snapshot into the thinking it has prompted. Visiting Heritage New Zealand and Te Papa has allowed me – to borrow an expression from our Profusion Creative Fellow Shelley Castle – to take a ‘sideways glance’ at core topics under investigation through comparison with new domains and contexts of practice. Perhaps the main feeling that characterised my journey was a deep sentiment that New Zealand is progressive in its heritage practice. This was evident, for example, in the ways that Te Papa’s bicultural mandate shapes practices of assembling and caring for collections. My visit to the conservation studio provided a fascinating insight into how preservation practices can connect objects and people (including source communities beyond the museum) and be open to incorporating varied knowledge systems (including culturally-based expertise). More generally, I found staff to be highly engaged and deeply reflexive, demonstrating an awareness of the need to question not only why things are done the ways that they are but how they might be done otherwise. Journeying across international date lines and multiple time zones was in this sense also a step into museological futures, and ones that will continue to expand my thinking towards developing shared, critical insights.
Labrum, B., 2015. Real Modern: Everyday New Zealand in the 1950s and 1960s. Wellington: Te Papa Press
Macdonald, S., and Morgan, J., 2018 (forthcoming). ‘What not to collect: Post-connoisseurial dystopia and the profusion of things’. In: P. Schorch and C. McCarthy (eds), Curatopia: Museums and the Future of Curatorship. Manchester: Manchester University Press
I found staff to be highly engaged and deeply reflexive, demonstrating an awareness of the need to question not only why things are done the ways that they are but how they might be done otherwise