Friday, March 27, 2015

Slow reading, and slow tweeting

I've added a widget to the front page of this blog which shows my most recent posts to twitter, that overcongested superhighway of the internet.

I don't think that Michael Lambek has a twitter account. An anthropologist who divides his time between the London School of Economics and the University of Scarborough, Lambek has written an essay for Savage Minds to lament the decline of 'slow reading' in twenty-first century universities. Lambek argues that many of today's students are either struggling with or avoiding altogether the heavy and heady books that excited earlier generations of scholars.

Lambek explains that, in many anthropology departments, instructors have stopped prescribing classic texts of ethnography, or else have offered these works to students in measured doses. EE Evans-Pritchard's Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic Amongst the Azande, for example, is given in an abridged paperback edition. Distracted by social media and other epiphenomena of our digital age, students apparently find it difficult to penetrate the forests left behind by scholars like Evans-Pritchard and Malinowski. They cannot do the sort of careful, reflective reading that generates ideas and helps get essays written.

Lambek blames not only social media but the 'substitution of images for text' for the decline in students' reading. He notes that many students are now more accustomed to powerpoint displays, with their reassuringly steady flow of easily identifiable images, than to purely verbal seminars and lectures. The 'traditional classroom arts' of 'listening and note-taking' are, he fears, disappearing.

When I feel the same sort of melancholy as Lambek, I try to banish it by visiting Hookland, the twitter feed run by David Southwell, a British journalist known for his interest in conspiracy theories, gangsters, and the Angry Brigade. Southland's tweets pose as despatches from a sort of alternative England, a place of restless gargoyles, blood-stained power pylons, babbling vicars, and overfriendly UFOs. Like Mortmere, the alt-England invented by boarding schoolmates Christopher Isherwood and Edward Upward in the 1920s, Hookland seems simultaneously celebratory and satirical.

I was excited when I discovered Southwell's tweets, because they suggested to me that twitter could be used to create mystery, and to detain a reader's attention, rather than as a lubricant for what Michael Lambek calls 'rapid fire and simultaneous online communication'.

Southwell's tweets frequently combine a text and an image, but the relationship of these parts is not always straightforward. Where the images in a powerpoint presentation normally exist as mere illustrations of the presenter's argument, the blurred or broken photographs, scraps of old maps, and covers of imaginary books that Southwell tweets often seem to contradict, or at least qualify, the lapidarian fragments of text that accompany them. In the space between their meanings an ambiguity alien to much of the twittersphere, but familiar to anyone who understands modernist and postmodernist poetry, appears and prospers.

Sometimes Southwell takes photographs of pages of books or magazines and posts them, alongside cryptic commentaries. Devoid of their contexts, these pages become artefacts that ask to be examined and catalogued. They can only be read slowly.

Hookland is an almost hermetic twitter feed. Its author never joins the high-velocity debates that regular shake the twittersphere, and seldom even acknowledges the twenty-first century world. And yet his tweets are often reposted scores of times. I'm obviously not the only one who thinks David Southwell is inventing a new artform, and suggesting a new and more intellectually important role for social media.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Friday, March 20, 2015

Marching on the frontier

[This post started as an e mail to genealogist and military historian Christine Liava'a, who has been very generous in helping me with my research into blackbirding.]

Dear Christine,

I wanted to apologise for leaping out of my seat and running away from your talk about the Pacific front of World War One last Tuesday at the Papatoetoe library. I hadn't been offended by the old photographs and maps you'd been powerpointing, or by your discussions of warships and digging works and influenza. I simply needed to restrain my oldest son, who had decided, against the evidence offered by his mother, that he was a blue racing car, and that the carpark outside the library was his racing track.

Before my departure I was fascinated by your photograph of the Fijian members of the King's Royal Rifles. As I looked at the earnest and very white faces of the Fijian troops, I remembered the surprise I felt as a kid, when I flicked through a book about the history of test cricket and discovered a set of photographs of the teams the West Indies sent to England in the 1920s and '30s. Instead of the ancestors of mighty Windies players of the '80s, like Viv Richards and Mike Holding, the photographs were full of tall, stern Anglo-Saxons with white ties and thin moustaches. Like cricket, war was obviously considered a white man's sport by administrators of Britain's empire.

You noted how indigenous Fijians were carefully excluded from the King's Rifles, even though many of them were keen to fight the Kaiser. When you mentioned the tests that white Fijians had to pass before they could serve, though, I wondered whether they too might have been victims of imperial prejudices. When recruiters ran measuring tape over the men's chests and checked their height, were they guided by the belief that the inhabitants of the tropical Pacific, whether black or white or somewhere in between, were all susceptible to frailties uncommon in the colder parts of the world?

Until the middle of the twentieth century, many Europeans and Australasian whites were convinced that the heat and humidity of the tropics made their inhabitants decadent and sickly. For decades, Australian politicians and planners debated how they might settle the northern part of their continent without creating a race of 'degenerate whites'. New Zealand advocates of the annexation and colonisation of societies like Fiji and Samoa insisted that Kiwis who emigrated there should be helped to take, every five years or so, a long, restorative holiday in their cool mother country, so that their bodies and souls could be rid of tropical languor, lasciviousness, and depression. After German Samoans declined to resist New Zealand's invasion of their colony, Kiwi newspapers attributed their surrender to the effects of too many years of heat and humidity.
It is certainly true that, in the cooler parts of the British Empire, volunteers for World War One were not tested as stringently as the men from Fiji. Ronald Blythe has revealed that many of the men who fought for Britain on the Western front and in Gallipoli were slight and prone to fatigue, because of the poor diets they had suffered as children and young adults in the working class and rural districts of the mother country. I wonder how many of these men would have passed the test administered to the Fijians?

It seems, though, that a dozen members of the Fijian section of the Legion of Frontiersmen avoided the testing and drilling that were the lot of the colony's regular soldiers. You noted how, in August 1914, the Frontiersmen were welcomed onto one of the ships New Zealand sent to conquer Samoa, and you powerpointed a photograph taken shortly after the 'liberation' of Apia, in which they pose with a captured German flag.

Although it was founded in 1905 by a Boer War veteran who believed that the British Empire needed a massive, disciplined, and battle-ready paramilitary force, the Legion struggled to convince generals and politicians of its usefulness. Its direct involvement in the expedition to Samoa seems, then, surprising.
Last Tuesday you joked about not understanding the purpose of the Legion. I agree that the group has seemed, for a long time, quixotic. I consider it one of a panoply of organisations - paramilitary forces, mystical orders, thwarted political parties, lobby groups - that were created early in the twentieth century to celebrate and defend the British Empire. By the beginning of the century, the empire was both mighty and imperilled. It covered more than a fifth of the world's land surface, but the ambitions of rivals like Germany and America and class and racial conflict had made its supporters uneasy. Novelists and newspaper polemicists had begun to imagine German invasions and conquests of Britain, and revolutions that replaced the Union Jack with the red flag of socialism.

British Israelites and neo-Arthurian mystics looked to the Bible and to pseudo-archaeology for reassurance that British pre-eminence was divinely ordained and permanent; the Frontiersmen believed that God's will might have to be enforced with bayonet charges.
The word 'Frontiersmen' must have resonated with New Zealanders. As Jock Phillips and James Belich have shown, Kiwis liked to contrast their improvisational, often rough lifestyles with the supposedly effete ways of Britons. The over-elaborate vocabularies and overstuffed suitcases of new arrivals from the old country were ridiculed by newspapers. Like the anxious Britons who founded the Legion of Frontiersmen, many Kiwis believed that the true spirit of the empire could be found on the edges of the British world. On the frontier of the empire, exposed to Antarctic storms and Maori raiding parties, New Zealanders had been forced to preserve the manly qualities that had been lost in metropolises like London and Manchester and Calcutta.

It seems to me that the invasion of Samoa might almost be the high point in the military history of the Legion. The thousands of Frontiersmen spread around the empire appear to have done a lot of flag-waving, marching, and saluting, but very little fighting, unless they also belonged to the regular armed forces. The Frontiersmen's role in the invasion of Samoa seems almost unparalleled in the organisation's history.

In the years between the wars the Legion seems to have stayed busy, and even to have impressed the odd observer. In an article written at the end of the 1930s for the People's Voice, the communist poet and polemicist Gordon Watson included the Legion in a list of organisations that were planning to use the coming war with Hitler as an excuse to impose a right-wing dictatorship on New Zealand.

Watson's claim might not have been as absurd as it looks. In 1930s Britain Frontiersmen were often mistaken for Oswald Moseley's British Union of Fascists, because of their dark uniforms, angry anti-communism, and penchant for marching. During a strike on the Vancouver waterfront in 1935, Frontiersmen as well as members of local fascist parties were recruited as special policemen and encouraged to charge at picket lines. A couple of years earlier, during the most depressed period of the Great Depression, an anti-communist and anti-democratic movement spread briefly but spectacularly from Hawkes Bay through the rest of the country. Is it a coincidence that this movement was called the New Zealand Legion?
Like the empire it wanted to defend, the Legion has declined and almost disappeared in the decades since the Second World War. You mentioned finding a few middle-aged Frontiersmen working as ushers at some public event in South Auckland; the South Taranaki Star reports that even this sort of activity is nowadays too difficult for the Legion's four elderly members in New Plymouth, who have decided to retire.

I wanted to return to 1914, though, and ask: is it possible that the Frontiersmen were allowed to seek glory in Samoa because of the intervention of New Zealand's Prime Minister? William Massey grew up in northern Ireland, a place where British had always been embattled, and as a fervent British Israelite he considered World War One a struggle for the survival of God's chosen people. The commanders of New Zealand's professional army may well have been suspicious of the Legion's part-time soldiers, but Massey would have admired the group's ideology. Might he have considered that, in the midst of a holy war, faith and patriotism would be more important than training and equipment? Perhaps a letter somewhere in Massey's archive can answer these questions.

'Ofa atu,

Monday, March 16, 2015

Taken over

A couple of seconds after this photograph was taken a wave came over Waiwera's sea wall and drenched me, much to the amusement of my brother-in-law and his kids. We'd driven to Auckland's northeast coast to meet the remnants of Cyclone Pam, which had done so much damage to Vanuatu a day earlier.

Even in a weakened state, the storm could raise winds and water disconcertingly high. It reminded me of a poem I dug out of Kendrick Smithyman's archive and published as part of a book called Private Bestiary in 2010. In Smithyman's text, heavy winds and rain make the normally murmurous Waitemata Harbour into something ‘monstrous, incalculable' and 'contemptuous’, and cause random landslides on the edge of the neat new suburbs of the North Shore. The safety that New Zealand's largest city seemed to offer the poet becomes ‘unreal’, and the suburbs are suddenly a place where humans ‘test’ their ‘limits’.


Today, roads blocked,
Four slips on Albany hill
with subsidings predicted.
Any prospect west is rained out,
More rain is headed that way.

A view of our circumstance is narrowed: this
side, unreal safety.
Down in the valley men console
in a thoroughly public bar.

Wind roves easterly, sea’s
quarter where nearest the gulf.
Beyond is Ocean, a dominion
known to be monstrous, incalculable, contemptuous
of our offering, not entirely indifferent to us.

We are a myth of our making.

Locally there’s a record of slipping.
At the crest drivers are advised
to watch for edges falling out.
Oil drums and a wooden frame -
limits of safety, with a view
denied to farmers and foresters.
We test the limits. We project.
Speaking in figures we are taken over.

[August 28th 1965]

The ‘thoroughly public bar’ mentioned in the poem is probably the Albany Hotel, which was, along with Smithyman’s beloved Puhoi Tavern, a popular watering hole for the North Shore literary community in the decades after World War Two. In his biography of Smithyman’s friend Maurice Duggan, Ian Richards reveals that Smithyman and many other writers held a whiskey-drenched wake for ARD Fairburn at the Albany Hotel in 1957. I needed a couple of whiskeys of my own after yesterday's dunking.

If the storm was disconcerting for Aucklanders, then it must have been terrifying for ni-Vanuatuans on islands like Efate and Tanna. I was very sad when I checked the website for the Vanuatu Daily Post this morning, and found that the paper hadn't been published for three days. You can help ni-Vanuatu by donating to the Red Cross.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Back to the bridge

When Paul Janman and I decided to make a documentary film about Auckland's Great South Road several years ago, I imagined that we'd hit the streets of South Auckland for a few weeks, cool our heels in the editing suite at the back of Paul's house for a few days, and emerge with a feature-length film. I was naive. Shortages of funding and time, fluctuations in enthusiasm and changes in perspective have all complicated our work.

But even if it hasn't delivered a movie, what we've taken to calling 'the Great South Road project' has permutated in some interesting and unexpected ways. Along with the cimenatographer and professional retrofuturist Ian Powell, Paul and I have contributed images of and words about the Great South Road to three art shows. Paul and Ian have lately been filming the Papakura section of the Great South Road, after being asked to contribute footage of that suburb to this year's Auckland Festival. And this week Paul and I will be taking a group of drama students from Unitec on a guided tour of Mangere Bridge, and then showing them Merata Mita's film about the epic industrial dispute that delayed the construction of that bridge in the 1970s. Sociologist Dave Bedggood will be joining us to remember the political and economic crises of the '70s, and the issues at dispute during the Mangere strike.

Paul and I got interested in Mangere's bridge last year. We had been invited to contribute to the Other Waters festival, which was intended to retrieve some of the history of the Manukau harbour and its environs. Although the Mangere Bridge was not literally on the route of the Great South Road, we decided that it had some of the same genealogy - the water it crossed had, in the nineteenth century, been a de facto border between Maori and Pakeha worlds, and in the twentieth century the neighbourhoods it had connected had boasted the same politically conscious working class culture we were trying to document in suburbs like Otahuhu and Papatoetoe.

I spent hours hacking through old newspapers, and discovered a series of events - the banning of Maori from the old Mangere Bridge in 1912, after the outbreak of smallpox in their community; the persecution, a year later, of Onehunga's municipal brass band, after its buglers and trumpeters insisted on joining the marches of the 'Red' Federation of Labour; the pursuit and arrest of opium dealers along the same bridge in the 1920s, and the raiding of Chinese homes at the southern end of the bridge by cops looking for drugs; calls in the 1930s for the conversion of the bridge into a sort of dam, the draining of the allegedly unhealthy waters of the upper Manukau harbour, and the creation of a 'garden suburb' on reclaimed land - that Paul and I discussed when we gave a guided tour of the Mangere Bridge back in November, during the Other Waters festival.

While Paul and I were walking and talking, Ian Powell crept and knelt in the shadows of the bridge's underpass, fiddling with his archaic camera; here are some stills from the film he shot. If you look carefully, you can see the author of one of New Zealand's most famous songs and some of its most memorable books of poetry tinkering with the peeriscope that Paul installed on the bridge.

Thursday, March 05, 2015

It's about China, not ISIS

Using material supplied by Nicky Hager and Edward Snowden, the Herald's David Fisher has revealed that New Zealand spies electronically on its neighbours in the South Pacific, and passes the data it has gathered to the United States.  John Key has replied to Fisher's article with bluster about terrorism and New Zealand's forthcoming military adventure in Iraq, but nations like Tonga and Fiji are not known as bases for Al Qaeda and ISIS. 
The United States is interested in the South Pacific because the region has become one of the front lines in a new Cold War. A lot of people in New Zealand and other Western nations think of the tropical Pacific as a backwater, where nothing of consequence has happened since the Second World War, but anyone who visits a place like Tonga will see that Beijing, Washington, and Canberra don’t share this view. In Nuku’alofa, the capital of Tonga, warships from America, Australasia and China are regular visitors, diplomats from all those countries can be found negotiating with local politicians in air-conditioned cafes, aid workers operating under different flags compete to build schools and roads, and Australian public radio and China’s English-language television station both broadcast propaganda

As China has grown in power over the past couple of decades, it has sent its diplomats, its navy, and its entrepreneurs deeper and deeper into the Pacific, a part of the world where the power of the United States and its Australasian allies was unrivalled for decades. America and its allies have found themselves competing with China for influence, resources, and bases. 
A number of right-wing pundits have claimed that that the confrontation between China and the United States does not pose any problems for New Zealand, because this country has historically been a close ally of America, and enjoys all sorts of cultural links with other American allies like Australia and Britain. If China and America come to blows then, these commentators suggest, New Zealand should side with Washington.

But New Zealand will be put in an extremely difficult situation if the Cold War between Beijing and Washington ever looks like heating up. The all-important dairy sector of our economy has over the last decade and a half become focused on China. Nearly half of our dairy exports now go to that country. In the 1950s and ’60s we were sometimes known as ‘Britain’s farm', but today we are China’s farm.
China has shown in recent years that it is prepared to punish nations that displease it economically. It has, for example, imposed ‘virtual sanctions’ on some countries whose heads of state have had face to face meetings with the Dalai Lama, by limiting the imports it takes from these countries. China also punished the Philippines, with whom it had been having a border dispute, by refusing to aid that country after it was devastated by a typhoon a couple of years ago (New Zealand tried the same tactic with Tonga last year, in the aftermath of Cyclone Ian). If the confrontation between China and the United States becomes more serious, then China is likely to punish nations it perceives as close allies of America by suspending or severely limiting trade with them. Without access to the consumers of China, New Zealand's economy would swiftly sink.
If New Zealand does not want to get caught in the middle of a clash between the United States and China, then it needs either to distance itself politically and militarily from America or else somehow find a new and massive export market.
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Thursday, February 26, 2015

New Zealand and the war against ISIS: a lesson from 1885

Chanting Koranic verses, the army of a grandiose leader conquers a piece of desert and a few towns, and proclaims these possessions a caliphate. Muslim prisoners of war and infidel interlopers are executed in horribly ingenious ways, and in the cities and barracks of the West politicians and generals demand a response. As expeditionary forces are assembled in Britain, North America, and Australia, New Zealanders debate whether they should join the war in the desert.
This narrative might fit with the events of the last few months, but it also describes the dramas of 1884 and 1885, when a Sudanese nationalist calling himself the Mahdi, or messiah, pushed Egyptian and British troops out of his homeland, and made Khartoum the capital of a state that he hoped would eventually cover the world. The British general Charles Gordon, who struggled unsuccessfully against his own messianic delusions, was decapitated after refusing to retreat from Khartoum. 
New Zealanders may have lacked social media and television in the 1880s, but they followed events in the Sudan tenaciously. Newspapers carried long commentaries on the fighting, and in a hall in the military settlement of Hamilton a diorama made with sand dunes and toy soldiers showed crowds of visitors a battle between the Mahdi’s army and the British.
During the first months of 1885 hundreds of volunteers learned to march and salute and shoot in a Sydney barracks, as the government of New South Wales pledged its support for the battle to retake the Sudan. But John Ballance, the Premier of New Zealand, was uninterested in doing his bit for the empire. When a retired colonel of the British army wrote to ask him whether New Zealand would be sending an army to Sudan, Ballance responded negatively, explaining that his sympathies were with the Mahdi, rather than with the British.
In Paradise Reforged, his history of New Zealand from the 1880s to the end of the twentieth century, James Belich argues that Ballance’s refusal to send troops to the Sudan was not some personal eccentricity, but the reflection of a distrust of Britain widespread amongst Pakeha New Zealanders in the 1870s and ‘80s. Men like Ballance had been born in Britain, knew about the inequities and hypocrisies of the place, and had crossed the world to create a new homeland for themselves. For them, New Zealand was a ‘Greater Britain’ which would, like the United States before it, become economically and politically free of the old country.
John Ballance was not some enlightened anti-imperialist – he hated Maori, and had fomented and fought in the Taranaki War of the late 1860s. But Ballance lacked the loyalty to and awe of the British monarchy and empire that had led Charles Gordon to martyrdom in the Sudan.
The story of John Ballance’s response to the war in Sudan might have surprised Philip Hammond, who is the Foreign Secretary in today’s British government. During a recent visit to Wellington, Hammond explained that New Zealand ought to contribute to the new war in Iraq because we are ‘part of the family’ that includes Britain, the United States, and Australia. Britain has, Hammond said, gotten ‘used to’ New Zealand ‘being there alongside us’ when wars are fought.
Hammond was referring, of course, to the Kiwi troops who have fought and died during two world wars and a series of smaller conflicts, like the battle against communists in Malaya and the long struggle against Pashtuni nationalism in twenty-first century Afghanistan.
But Philip Hammond’s argument did not resonate with New Zealand politicians. Cabinet Minister Peter Dunne is not known as a radical anti-imperialist, but in an angry speech to parliament he described Hammond as ‘a patronising figure from abroad’ who wanted to lead New Zealanders into a new ‘round of unmitigated slaughter’.  
John Key’s recent decision to send troops to Iraq has been condemned by the forces of the left, but also by conservatives like Dunne, the Maori Party’s Te Uruora Flavell, and Winston Peters. For the critics, New Zealand’s new military adventure is a pointless show of loyalty to the United States and Britain.

James Belich explained New Zealand’s twentieth century enthusiasm for the British Empire and its wars by pointing to changes in the country’s economy that began late in the nineteenth century. After the advent of refrigerated shipping and the beginning of mass exports of beef and lamb to Britain, New Zealand became economically dependent on the old country, and conservative farmers came to dominate the nation’s politics and culture. Links with Australia and other parts of the Pacific were half-forgotten, and Pakeha New Zealanders, at least, began to consider themselves residents of a misplaced fragment of Britain. When Britain itself came under the domination of the United States after World War Two, New Zealand became an obsequious ally of Washington, as well as London.
Britain’s economic influence over New Zealand has evaporated over the past forty years, and during the last decade and a half China has usurped the United States as an export market for Kiwi farmers. The rise of China and disastrous failure of George Bush’s attempt to remake the Middle East show that, like Britain sixty years ago, the United States is a declining power. The opposition to the new military adventure in Iraq from mainstream politicians like Peter Dunne and Winston Peters is a harbinger of a future where New Zealand governments no longer march in step with the United States and Britain. The nationalism of John Ballance is making a comeback.

 [Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Friday, February 20, 2015

Exhibitionism: a quick guide for the offended

With the encouragement of the Young Men's Christian Association, the Taxpayers Union, and various bloggers, thousands of people have signed a petition denouncing the exhibition of an obscene T shirt at Canterbury Museum. 

The shirt, which was produced to promote the heavy metal band Cradle of Filth and shows a nun masturbating as well as the slogan JESUS IS A CUNT, was banned from New Zealand in 2008. Canterbury museum's curators got special permission to show it - in a secluded, adults-only room - as part of an exhibition called T Shirts Unfolding. The museum wants its visitors to think about the limits to freedom of speech, and about the functions of censorship. The YMCA and co argue that the T shirt is offensive, and that museums should not display offensive objects.

I've been wondering when the organisers of the campaign against the T shirt will turn their attention to the Auckland War Memorial Museum. On its second floor, in a room dedicated to the Second World War, Auckland's museum displays two of the most offensive objects of all time - Hitler's swastika flag, and his demented book Mein Kampf. Both objects help the museum tell the story of World War Two.
Museums use objects to tell true stories about society and its past. A museum doesn’t necessarily endorse the messages encoded in the objects it displays, any more than a historian necessarily endorses the events and people he or she describes in an article or book.
The T shirt is helping Canterbury museum tell a story about street art, and about censorship. Canterbury museum isn’t endorsing the meaning of the shirt any more than Auckland museum endorses Nazism by displaying a swastika.
I haven’t seen the show in Christchurch, but I’d argue that state censorship is a subject that is worthy of coverage in our museums. 
New Zealand has had a long history of state censorship of culture and of political speech. A hundred years ago Auckland cops were hunting down copies of Defoe’s Moll Flanders, on the grounds that it corrupted the public, and putting the book’s distributors in court. For decades anyone who published Marx risked time behind bars. In the 1920s Jean Devanny’s feminist novel The Butcher Shop became a bestseller and was promptly banned as offensive. During its confrontation with New Zealand's militant unions in 1951 the National government used emergency legislation to ban the leader of the opposition from radio airwaves. Right up until the 1990s, Maori sculptures displayed in museums or other public places were attacked with axes because the genitalia they showed upset religious conservatives.
We need to be aware of this historical context when we debate censorship and related issues, like state surveillance, today. I’m pleased that the Auckland museum’s permanent display on World War Two includes a section on the censorship laws introduced by the wartime Labour government, and shows a copy of an anti-war newspaper that Labour banned.
Many of the critics of Canterbury museum have argued that 'the community', that ubiquitous but mysterious entity, should be charged with deciding what New Zealand's museums exhibit. If an object is offensive to part of the community, then the object should, they suggest, serve a life sentence in a museum storage room.

But almost every object in a museum is likely to be offensive to someone, if that someone has mistaken exhibition for endorsement. Besides its swastika flag and commie newspaper, the Auckland museum displays artefacts from dozens of religions and relics from a series of wars. 

On the museum's ground floor, for instance, masks and drums associated with Papuan religious rites rest a short walk from a massive and austere sculpture of Kave, a goddess from Nuku'oro atoll, a carving of the Madonna and child by an early Maori convert to Catholicism, and a Samoan-language Bible published by a Protestant church. Relics of the religions of ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt advertise their creeds upstairs. In the room of the museum devoted to the New Zealand Wars, the Union Jack and the banners of Maori nationalist movements confront each other, as speakers play recordings of bugle calls and haka.

We can only appreciate myriad and contradictory exhibits like these if we accept that a museum is a space where different aspects of and ideas about the past are allowed to manifest themselves, and where visitors, rather than curators, have the responsibility for forming final interpretations. 

When I worked at the Auckland museum the institution mounted a major show about Charles Darwin’s life and work. Darwin offended the religious views of some visitors. I remember, as well, the way that some veterans of the Vietnam War were offended by the museum’s coverage of that conflict. Those vets didn’t like the museum mentioning that the war had created considerable public debate and protest in New Zealand. 

They may have been offended, and their views may have been shared by hundreds or thousands of other Aucklanders, but neither the religious folks who objected to Darwin nor the Vietnam veterans who objected to references to anti-war protests should have had the right to intervene and alter or shut down the museum’s displays. A museum’s duty is to the truth, and the truth about the past is complex, and polemicists speaking on behalf of a nebulous community have too little patience with complexity. 

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]