In my last Kōrero Kākahu post I made reference to the changes that have been happening at the national museum, Te Papa, lately, particularly those brought in by the new CEO Rick Ellis. The post mentioned the scrapping of short-term exhibitions in favour of reinvigorating long-term exhibitions and I pondered what this would mean for the dedicated textiles space in the museum, Eyelights Gallery. These weren’t the only changes mooted by Ellis as curator and biographer Jill Trevelyan revealed to national media that the museum’s publishing arm, Te Papa Press, was in the firing line. Te Papa Press, it must be said, is an extraordinary success for the museum and its publications have won multiple awards, including the prestigious New Zealand Book of the Year awards. What I found most shocking however was what this would mean for New Zealand textiles history and scholarship: if we were to lose both the physical space and the intellectual space, what would remain? Thankfully, this short-sighted idea is on the cutting room floor where it belongs, with great thanks owing to Trevelyan and other arts proponents putting their voices forward to save the Press.
In light of this rollercoaster, I thought this would be a great opportunity to highlight one of the stunning publications produced by the Press in the recent past. Whatu Kākahu – Māori Cloaks edited by Te Papa Curator, Awhina Tamarapa, was launched in October 2011 and was beautiful precursor to the Kahu Ora exhibition that opened the following year. For the first time, the storerooms housing Māori textiles were opened and drawer after drawer of cloaks were photographed in enlightening and vibrant ways. In terms of “core museum work”, which is what Ellis claimed he wanted to focus on, having a publication as a lasting record of a successful exhibition is integral to the legacy of an exhibition and without these publications, we don’t get the passing on of expert knowledge in a lasting medium. Books are also portable, they can be taken away with you at the end of an exhibition and supplement the awesome feelings you felt within. They are lasting testaments to the knowledge held by curators and the networks of people that they build up. Mina McKenzie, the first Māori woman director of a museum, is well-known for saying that museums need to “keep taonga warm”, that is, these objects that make up the Māori collection and even the non-Māori museum objects, they need to be surrounded by people, to inspire people, be seen and touched and smelled by people. If museums aren’t doing that, through their exhibitions (and they really should be doing it!), then they need to do it in other ways, through books and online publications. Long live Te Papa Press!
A note on my column title: Kōrero Kākahu translates very literally from Māori to English as “talk of clothing” but can also be read as the stories gleaned from clothing or the stories that clothing holds. Future columns, particularly those that cover Māori content, may delve into this meaning a little deeper.