Ko Tawa: Where are the glass cabinets?

A presentation by Paul Tapsell, Chair in Maori Studies and Dean of Te Tumu, the School of Maori, Pacific and Indigenous Studies at the University of Otago, New Zealand, in the 2010-11 Issues in Museum Studies lecture series.

How do we measure an exhibition’s success? Who is ultimately best qualified to judge? When Ko Tawa exhibition project was in its initial design stages, I guided the team I had pulled together to adopt a Maori worldview before committing any lines, words or drawings to paper. Could we design an exhibition to match the expectations of our source communities and in the process bring our urban relations along for the ride? What were their expectations? Would community elders view us as tribally-accountable Maori or young know-it-all museum curators from the city? How could we design a space to display our ancestral treasures””taonga””that appropriately reflected the philosophy of our people”•the philosophy of whakapapa: the acceptance that all things, all thoughts, all beings are genealogically connected throughout the universe? Could an exhibition capture the past, present and future, from birth to death over 3000 plus years of ancestral voyaging across the largest ocean on the planet? Could we design something that would engage the hearts of young and old, accurately reflecting our identity through the pain of colonisation, our rights to belong, to harvest resources, to engage with the living and farewell the dead? Could an exhibition harness the power of our marae (ceremonial plaza in the village): the place to which we are drawn in life and are laid out in death; where the core business is relationships; where the living ritually engage with the dead who in turn provide guidance to the living? Through audio/visual, narrative and song I hope to share my Ko Tawa journey, drawing out some of the underpinning principles by which indigenous source communities might successfully become co-producers of ancestrally-bounded knowledge within museum contexts.


Paul Tapsell is the Chair in Māori Studies and Dean of Te Tumu, the School of Māori, Pacific and Indigenous Studies at the University of Otago, New Zealand. Tapsell was the Curator of the Rotorua Museum of Art and History from 1990 to 1994 and has also served as the Māori Director of the Auckland Museum and as an Adjunct Senior Lecturer in Anthropology at the University of Auckland. Tapsell’s research interests include Māori identity in 21st century New Zealand, cultural heritage and museums, Māori values within governance policy frameworks, indigenous entrepreneurial leadership, genealogical mapping of tribal landscapes and Te Arawa historical and genealogical knowledge. The curator of many exhibits and author of numerous articles, Tapsell has published two books: Pukaki: a comet returns (2000) and Ko Tawa: Maori Ancestors of New Zealand (2006).

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