Most people think of museums as repositories for nice old stuff, interactive exhibits and historical or scientific information. While it’s true we have some nice old stuff (and the other bits), the modern museum often has priorities that have more to do with who we are now and who we wish to be. How does our old stuff inform that? This is where museum perspectives and traditional Māori perspectives might meet: for Māori, our past lies in front of us, leading us towards our future. In other words, we cannot know where we are going unless we know where we’ve been.

A few weeks ago I had the privilege of attending the Federation of International Human Rights Museums (FIHRM) conference at Te Papa. Human rights are not generally the first thing most people think of when they consider museums, but as UN youth delegate Melissa Gibson noted in her closing panel remarks, FIHRM  transforms perceptions of what museums are for, and how they can affect our lives.

“Museums change lives”  Museums Association (UK)

It didn’t take long to see just how exactly a museum experience can be transformative. In an extraordinary testimony, museum volunteer Fred Chin described his twelve years in prison in Taiwan 1971-1983. The aroha (empathy) in the room was palpable as Fred struggled to give a conference-type presentation in a language that was foreign to him. Finally, he told us he would put down his notes and simply tell his story, and it seemed that once he started, there was only one way to tell it, which was to tell it all. He described how he was falsely arrested (kidnapped), the details of how he was tortured, confined in solitary or overcrowded cells, and given only ten minutes outside each day. My apologies, Fred, if I have some of these details wrong. I was too transfixed to write anything down.

Eventually Fred’s innocence was established, but he could not be given his freedom, because he knew too much. He spent the next decade on an island with others incarcerated for the same reasons. When he was finally let out, he was not allowed to return to his homeland of Malaysia, as the authorities did not want their methods to become international knowledge. He had no citizen rights, and for three years lived on the streets. Eventually he forced the authorities to give him a valid ID card (by threatening suicide on their premises) and happily (at last) found work, married and had a family.

National Human Rights Museum, Taiwan

Fred never did return home, but he now works for the National Human Rights Museum of Taiwan, which was established in 2011 to preserve and reinstate historical & cultural legacies, collect oral histories of political victims during the White Terror period (1949-1987), and promote human rights education. He did not want to tell his story in museums, Fred told us, because every time he does he can’t sleep for seven days and seven nights. But he tells it so the children will know about human rights and freedom in Taiwan and the world. I wondered if, in telling us his story, Fred had sacrificed even more of his peace.

“It’s never over when it comes to human rights”

As the conference continued, it became evident that for people in many parts of the world, history is dominated by human rights abuses – it therefore makes sense that museums focus on this. There were presentations from Argentina, the Dominican Republic & Berlin, as well as the iconic International Slavery Museum in Liverpool and other Western museums around the world. Each of these places have had to grapple with the legacy of their own historical human rights record. The New Zealand reader may wonder why there is an international slavery museum in Liverpool, but that city was a main port for the slave trade, and much British wealth was dependent on slave work, even when slavery was banned in Britain.
Menashe Kadishman’s Shalekhet (Fallen Leaves), Jewish Museum Berlin. Over 10,000 open-mouthed faces coarsely cut from heavy, circular iron plates cover the floor. Kadishman’s installation, on loan from Dieter and Si Rosenkranz, powerfully compliments the spatial feel of the Voids. While these serve as an architectural expression of the irretrievable loss of the Jews murdered in Europe, Menashe Kadishman’s sculptures filling them evoke painful recollections of the innocent victims of yesterday, today, and tomorrow. (from

Mō tātou, ā, mō kā uri ā muri ake nei – for us and our children after us.

In addition, because human rights abuses continue (yes, even in our society) this work does not just consist of looking back, but looking forward. How does this work in Aotearoa? Te Papa demonstrated how much work takes place behind the scenes, repatriating ancestors, and assisting with Treaty settlements in the area of heritage. By partnering with iwi, they are able to give the community some say in how their stories are told. Through a bicultural management structure (one that shares power), they are able to demonstrate Treaty principles. While for us in New Zealand this has become commonplace, expected or even taken for granted, to overseas visitors this is an extraordinary way to run a museum.

Bringing a fresh audience to museums: Hip Hop for Matariki
Bringing a fresh audience to museums: Hip Hop for Matariki

But there is much more to do. As Te Papa Kaihautū Arapata Hakiwai noted more than once, “museums have gone back” in their relationships with Māori. A certain amount of complacency has crept in. Compared to the hopeful and active 90s and early 2000s when museums were transforming their approach, we may need to check our relationships with our communities. Former Te Papa programmer Herbert Bartley showed us, in customary style, how much subterfuge and original thinking it takes to get young, brown faces into the museum environment. A hip hop competition stirred up some real interest, a fresh approach to get fresh faces through the door. If only that kind of approach were not viewed as unusual.

“Museums have gone back”  Arapata Hakiwai, Kaihautū – Te Papa

This all left me thinking about my own work in my own museum. When I returned I was asked: has it changed my approach? It definitely gave me a push. Since the conference I’ve started organising one thing that was missing from our whare (building) – an important aspect of tīkanga Māori.  And asking annoying curatorial questions is a job hazard I often worry about, but after the conference I thought no, that’s our job. To ask the annoying questions. To not be quiet.

Human rights can be as simple as asking the annoying questions, sharing power with our communities, giving them the opportunity to tell their stories in our institutions, and making sure we understand our obligations under the Treaty of Waitangi.

Are we there yet? No. We have far to go. But we’re taking small steps.

From Happy Museum Project: re-imagining museums for a changing world