What would you like to see? The inevitable question each time a curator took us to one of Weltkulturen’s storage areas. 67,000 ethnographic objects. 120,000 images and films. What would you like to see? I had no clear objective, other than to find my way to some sort of understanding of the Museum der Weltkulturen and its collections. I already had seeds for stories in mind, and knew that the taonga in the museum would provide the beating hearts to those stories. The conversations and communications I’d had with the museum staff in the previous six months had already provided some inspiration. But what did I want to see? By the time I arrived, Bryce and Hamish had already been through the collections, and the staff suggested I begin in Oceania, moving on to the other regions (Africa, South East Asia, the Americas) at a later time. I got the impression that their experience of Kiwis thus far was that we gravitated to objects from our region.
Tauihu at the Face to Face exhibition. Image: NZ@Frankfurt
Which was, of course, true. Conversations soon turned to the meanings of objects with or without narratives to accompany them. The custodians of the collections had many stories to share, which was brilliant, but without internal reference points for some of the objects, we were viewing something we couldn’t interpret or know intimately. As writers, we wanted the story. Perhaps that seems obvious, but visual artists and designers who had worked with the collection may have been inspired by simply viewing an object, and been able to interpret them purely aesthetically. For me, being the type of writer I am, it was not just the story of what the taonga represented, but the story of how they came to be where they are, and the stories of the relationships people had with them that mattered. One day I approached the tauihu (canoe prow) in the Face to Face exhibition and wrote about all these things, in relation to that particular taonga. I simply wrote what I saw, but realised that what I saw was probably radically different than what was seen by most other visitors to the museum, or even the staff who cared for the objects. From my studies in Māori art, I could interpret in a general way much of the meaning of the carving, but I also saw much of the history of Aotearoa played out in the journey the tauihu had taken from being part of an active waka taua in New Zealand to being stored in a museum in Europe. For me the startling realisation was that the tauihu had been witness to at least the last hundred years of Europe’s history as well (more about this in Part Three).
Face to Face with taonga, director, curator & NZers. Image: Lisa Gardiner
There were other things I saw, which became as central to the experience as the taonga themselves. I saw how the custodians of the collections really cared for them. In New Zealand they would be called curators, but the German equivalent translates more to custodian or guardian. It was not that I didn’t expect them to care about their collections, but that I hadn’t expected to witness a kind of connection and guardianship that was more akin to kaitiakitanga. I saw how one custodian drew strength and guidance from the objects in her care, how another found vitality and inspiration. I witnessed a third’s confusion and desire to understand the strange collecting habits of her twentieth century predecessors, something I myself struggled to come to terms with (a wholesale grabbing of stuff from ‘dying’ cultures – as much as they could transport home. The analogy of the naturalist destroying species in order to collect and study them was made more than once). They saw much more clearly than I had imagined.
NZ Text und Kultur Marathon Poster. Image: Hinemoana Baker
And so the experience became just as much about relationships with the people. Typical of me to focus on this, but it seemed to be a distinctive aspect of the residency. ‘What will you take away with you?’ asked the custodian of the Oceania collection, Eva Raabe, at the Text and Culture Marathon a few hours before I was due to leave. ‘Well, there is all the writing,’ I said, ‘But it’s also the relationships that will continue. It’s the beginning of something.’ We’d just been speaking about how the taonga were alive to us. And I’d been writing about how I suspected Weltkulturen’s staff were already responding, on some level, to the living energy of the taonga in their care. So there were at least three groups connected by the residency: Weltkulturen staff, taonga and NZ residents, probably more if we include both the German and NZ visitors.
I’ve been home a week, and happy to be here. But a strange nostalgia has taken hold now. I’m still unpacking and sorting. Occasionally I see German writing – a receipt, a book or ticket. Then I’ll feel a bit of a squeeze somewhere between my heart and my stomach. The last email I received from the brilliant and striking director of the Museum, Clementine Deliss, said ‘know that you have a museum-home from home in Frankfurt.’ I have more work to do, writing to finish, research to follow-up on. Already Frankfurt has a dreamlike quality. It was immense. I have a huge amount of gratitude to many people. I can’t imagine how I got to have this completely unexpected adventure. And I’m immeasurably chuffed that I have a place to go back to, one day – an enduring link with a place and people who showed me something of themselves by showing me some of their objects / my taonga / our treasures.
Kōrerorero - Conversations
From time to time I'll post things here that haven't found a home anywhere else, or have been used in other formats. Occasionally I might even blog...