Guest blog by Matariki Williams, Curator Mātauranga Māori, Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

I’m afraid this isn’t an instructional post on navigating the labyrinthine corridors of our nation’s museums, instead this is about a pathway in to working at a museum.

The route I took was by undertaking a Masters in Museums and Heritage Studies at Victoria University, a path that involved 600 hours of internship, some of which I spent with Wellington Museum. Though most of the internships are unpaid, I will forever be grateful to Wellington Museum and the Museums Studies programme for allowing me to use a short term contract as my placement.

It doesn’t feel like this is acknowledged enough. Although the Masters programme is a popular pathway into the museum, however because of the internship factor, there is an immediate financial filter on who will be able to apply for the programme. Perhaps this explains why I was the only Māori person in my intake and why there was only one Māori student the following year. It is very problematic that the most obvious pathway into the museum involves an immediate socioeconomic filter – this is part of the reason why eventually getting a museum’s role felt like I was ‘breaking in’.

This blog is running the risk of sounding defeatist but there are many reasons why people want to work in this sector so let’s change tack and focus on why people want to work in the sector. First for me is the taonga, the objects of mana that are inextricably linked to people, stories and the immeasurability of time. Through taonga our museums unlock hidden and visible connections between people and places. For Māori in particular, so much of our mātauranga has been covered by introduced knowledge systems, and taonga serve a reminder of what endures, waiting to be discovered. From a Māori perspective, it is also important to understand that it was in recent history that we had no autonomy in being the kaitiaki of our taonga, so being in the museum still feels like a revolutionary position.

Aside from the taonga, it is people that keep me here. I have come across so many who have inspired, encouraged and challenged me. One of the most supportive groups of people I have come across are my peers, both inside Te Papa and out. My peers are an upwardly mobile and fiercely engaged bunch. Almost two years ago my friend Nina Finigan (who completed the same Masters, has also worked at Wellington Museum, and is currently the Curator Manuscripts at Auckland Museum) and I started a website called Tusk – Emergent Culture.

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Photo: Antalis glaucarena (Dell, 1953), collected 04 Nov 1950, Chatham Rise, New Zealand. CC BY-NC-ND licence. Te Papa (M.005678)

The impetus for this was that we were feeling unfulfilled in previous roles and felt like we had no way to affect change in the sector. Through Tusk we’ve been able to provide a platform for ourselves and our peers to write about sector issues in a supportive environment. Crucially, it has afforded us the ability to shed light on our peers and advocates through two columns of profiles: Tuakana and On the Level. Through this online platform, we’re able to provide diverse perspectives of the sector which is one of the most satisfying aspects of the website.

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Photo and linocut artwork: Matariki Williams

People are the glue for museums, when the going gets tough, we have each other. In saying that, I would also say that museology is evolving as museums continue to work with their source communities and eventually start to divest power in collecting and curating.

When I say that people are the glue I mean all people, from our donors to our audiences, from the people walking through our doors every day to the people on the other side of the world accessing our collections and research online. In this respect, I’m glad that it’s a lot easier for our audiences to break into museums as we continue to digitise our collections and make our research / public programmes/talks etc available online.