There are few things better than when life throws something at you that you couldn’t have predicted, just lobs you a fastball without even bothering to yell catch! and watches your face contort as you try to figure out if you can catch this one, or if it’s going to flash right by you, or even smack you in the eye.
Perhaps I should rewind to last year, when there was this list made of 100 NZ books that would be part of a 2011 catalogue in advance of NZ’s 2012 role as Guest of Honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair. I don’t know anything about how such things were done, but Once Upon a Time in Aotearoa was given a spot in the catalogue and some publicity followed on from that. It was a boost for which I was grateful, though I did wonder what it all meant. Time went on. There may have been a German publisher nibble. Occasionally people would say, I hear you’re going to Frankfurt, and I’d say, Oh no, not me, just the book! And then I found out that no, not even the book would be promoted at the 2012 Frankfurt Book Fair, since no German Publisher had picked it up.
Then, earlier this year, I received a message about a residency in Frankfurt leading up to the book fair, for which I had somehow mysteriously made my way onto a shortlist. Cue fastball. I thought of all the reasons I couldn’t go first: family, fear, family, fear. Okay, so there were only two reasons, but they were compelling. Except, as I heard more about the residency, other thoughts gained precedence: what I could write; what museums mean; what ethnography is and does; what it would mean to be a Māori in a Museum in Frankfurt. Half-formed story and essay ideas kept insinuating themselves into my thoughts like showgirls looking for an audition: I’d be perfect for this! You could take me with you! I’d travel well!
And so there was a meeting, and a little while later there was an invitation. I was going to Frankfurt. I am going. Haven’t been yet. Here’s a little bit about what I’ll be up to:
Weltkulturen is an ethnographic museum with an intriguing approach to a constant issue for all museums: how to approach, interpret and make relevant their collections. In Germany the approach has traditionally been more, er, traditional that it has been in New Zealand for decades now. I can’t comment on attitudes or methods in German Museums, but it’s probably safe to assert that they would not have the kinds of cultural roles and tikanga/protocols in place that have become commonplace in New Zealand museums. As a friend said recently, museums in Europe usually don’t have local indigenous populations to work with, and therefore haven’t developed the kinds of relationships that museums in places like NZ, Australia or Canada are working towards.
Weltkulturen has tens of thousands of objects that were collected from indigenous populations around the world mainly in the last century. Extraordinary objects, cared for by dedicated staff. But some of these objects lack significant information or understanding of their function or meaning or origins. And rather than tackle this problem only in a conventional and direct manner, which may have limited success, the Museum has developed an innovative and elegant idea: invite contemporary artists (in the wider sense) to respond to the collection.
So that is what we will be doing for a few weeks later this year. There will be two of us, Hamish Clayton and I, and we will literally be living in apartments in the museum. There is much to say and think and write on the matter. There are many questions raised simply by the idea of living in a Museum, engaging with a collection in this way. I have at least two gut responses to Museum environments, forged by the two main cultures from which I descend. And I have been impressed and inspired by the work of previous artists at Weltkulturen – astute, illuminating work that incites conversations about museums and ethnography and the people and cultures at the centre of them. I hope to contribute to that conversation.
With many thanks to the NZ @ Frankfurt team and Clementine Deliss, Director of the Museum der Weltkulturen.
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