Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Taonga Tapu: my subjective postion

This is, I guess,a continuation of my previous post - because what will follow is me stating my subject position and contextualising why I think, feel and respond to the Te Papa story in the way I do.

I'm a historian. A writer. I am do this because the past, and objects from the past, have, and always have had, meaning to me that I cannot rationalise or easily explain. Example: age ten, giggling and excited, I enter Notre Dame. Tourists throng on the cobbles. I look up and see the Rose Window. I am silent. Filled with an unknown feeling of terror, awe, pleasure and sadness. People made this. It had immutable meanings to them. Their effort, their mahi (work), their lives - seem to speak to me out of the past.

Example: Age 23, at a Passover seder, I meet a survivor. I shake his hand and the numbers on his arm fill me with tears, coldness, horror. That tattoo is the signifier, to me, of extreme evil. He wears it as an old friend, something he carries to ensure that the past cannot be forgotten.

Example: It is November, any year since I became an adult. I take out my folder of recipes and begin to make courimbiades, the Greek shortbread that my mother made every year. She is dead. She died eight years ago. I can feel her next to me, with me, as I watch my children shape the biscuits and insert the cloves.

Example: I am in the Auckland War Memorial Museum storage area, locating objects for inclusion in a book I am editing. We want to re-photograph many of the taonga, since the images from the previous edition of the book are very old. I don't wear gloves; neither does the curator. We touch the ancient bone, pounamu, wood with our bare hands so that our wairua can speak to the wairua of the object; the mana of the person who made it. I go into the area reserved for korowai; the curator asks me if I would like to try on a beautiful cloak made by Dame Rangimarie Hetet. Wearing it, I feel open, like a conduit, a doorway to the past.

I'll stop. You get the picture. For me, the past is palpable. And sacred. Things people have made, loved, touched, preserved, discarded - these things are powerful and carry within them the wairua of those who have interacted with them over time.

So - Te Papa. A few facts first: the taonga under contention are items that will never be displayed. The Museum holds them as kaitiaki; they are to be accessed only by the whanau and hapu that gifted them. There will never be a need to exclude members of the public, in a public exhibition context, from viewing them. There is little public understanding of this aspect of a musuem's role - preservation without public display.

The edict restricting access was advice; perhaps badly worded. However, those invited are all museum workers, aware of the context for the advice.

I am a feminist; how could I not be. I abhor cultural relativism. The edict, with the implications that women employees may have to pass on personal information to employers or co-workers, makes me uncomfortable.

But I'm also highly aware that objects do have power; and that we ignore this at our peril. I don't go into the Holocaust Gallery at the Auckland Musuem, despite this being my area of research. The objects there displayed have too much power for me to cope with interacting with them regularly. I go in once a year, on Yom HaShoah; I take my children; I explain.

So the brouhaha has me conflicted; however, I know that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in your philosophy, Horatio. So I happily embrace the conflict. Objects have power; the past never leaves us; men and women are equal in their abilities and rights; peoples have differing ways of respecting and understanding the past; New Zealand re-negotiates our understandings of the past continuously.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

scratching the surface

It seems that I had, once again, forgotten that, when writing for a job, it is very hard to make the time to write in order to live, if you (and Henry Fielding) will excuse the mixed allusions. That's all I'm going to say about that.

I'm also going to - largely - ignore this week's controversy about someone I've long loathed - and instead, attempt to use the flurry of discussion about what consitutes racism in New Zealand as an entry into some stuff I've been thinking about. Unfortunately, it's not very trivial.

Henry's initial apology threw the conversation, for me, into another discourse entirely - with his self-deprecating reference to being "half a gippo", Henry, inadvertantly I might add, inserted this media fracas within the context of ancient and modern trauma. The persecution and maltreatment of the Roma people in Europe is well-documented - and still going on - and yet here in Aotearoa/New Zealand we have little understanding or knowledge of that past.

Which brings me to my point, I guess. Henry's classification of the New Zealand-born of Indian (by way of Fiji) descent Sir Anand Satyanand as failing to look like a 'real' New Zealander is, I consider, born out of the same stance that sees thousands clamouring to call themselves 'New Zealanders' on their census forms, or those who reject the unique nomenclature of Pakeha. It's a stance that refuses to recognise the diversity and depth of places we came from - sometimes centuries ago. This attitude sees the Prime Minister very rarely described as the son of a Jewish refugee from the Holocaust, and the son of an English migrant; his past is glossed over, and we have presented to us the self-made man - from state house to Parnell mansion in a lifetime.

That's not John Key's fault - this absence of back story is becoming increasingly common. Where once we had Michael King outlining his personal subject position each time he wrote - be it an article or a book - we now have Paul Moon slamming He Whakaputanga in the Herald without more than a Professor of History byline. I like the backstory, the subject position, the acknowledgement that we all write, or think, or feel, with some influence from the past - whether we have constructed ourselves anew in opposition to it or embrace the giants on whose shoulders we stand.

So I'm just wondering if we reclaimed this practise - an acknowledgement of whakapapa - we'd be less likely to think that saying so-and-so doesn't look like a 'real' New Zealander is not racism. We'd recognise that for what it is - the dismissal of a person's contribution based on an attribute about themselves that they cannot change and for which they are not responsible. We'd start judging those in the public sphere - be that the media or government - on character; that aspect of self for which we are responsible.