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Human Rights Museum

Te Papa blog, Registrations now open for Museums and Human Rights Conference, 22-24 September 2015, Wellington NZ, 2 July 2015

Conference registrations open

This week registrations opened for the Federation of International Human Rights Museums (FIHRM) conference, which is being held at Te Papa this coming September. The three day conference will feature keynote presentations by Professor Richard Sandell from Leicester University, and Dr David Fleming from National Museums Liverpool, alongside a dynamic programme of speakers from New Zealand, Australia, the Americas, Asia and Europe. As the draft programme testifies, it will be culturally diverse and content rich. For more information visit

Federation of International Human Rights Museums and Te Papa

The Federation or FIHRM, was established in 2010 to “encourage museums which engage with sensitive and controversial human rights themes… to work together and share new thinking and initiatives in a supportive environment”. Readers might wonder what this has to do with Te Papa, or even museums in general.

Certainly, there has been some interesting debate in recent years about the core purpose and responsibilities of museums. A 2013 report into public attitudes towards museums in the UK suggested that, while people are supportive of them, delving into issues such as human rights and social justice was seen as outside of what might be deemed ‘essential’ museum business. Here in New Zealand local authorities have constantly grappled with defining core services, with arts, culture and heritage frequently coming off as a poor cousin. Museums have a hard enough time expressing their economic value in the current environment, let alone their societal or cultural value.

So why bother getting involved in these potentially ‘non-essential’ areas?

Social justice, human rights, and access in its broadest sense (physical, intellectual, social, cultural, spiritual) are not add-ons, opt-ins, or opt-outs for Te Papa. They are at the very heart of the museum’s genealogy, or whakapapa. The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa Act was passed in 1992 and laid a very firm foundation for a museum that would do things differently. Specifically, that the museum would ‘have regard to the ethnic and cultural diversity of the people of New Zealand’, and ‘endeavour to ensure both that the Museum expresses and recognises the mana and significance of Maori, European, and other major traditions and cultural heritages, and that the Museum provides the means for every such culture to contribute effectively to the Museum as a statement of New Zealand’s identity’. When the Board of the Museum adopted a Bicultural Policy two years later, it resolved to require the expression of biculturalism within all areas of the museum.

Add to that the fact that Te Papa’s Vision is Changing Hearts, Changing Minds, Changing Lives, and you have a museum that is hard-wired to engage with the challenging and the uncomfortable, a museum that must be prepared to take a stance if it truly hopes to create transformative experiences for its visitors, its communities, and even for its staff.

Changing environments

The environment in which Te Papa and other New Zealand cultural institutions operate is shifting rapidly and dramatically; the New Zealand Government aims to settle all historical grievances with Māori by 2020. Many settlements make provision for cultural redress, requiring communication, negotiation and agreement between iwi (tribal groups) and cultural organisations. In the introduction to one of the more far-reaching (and as yet unresolved) Treaty of Waitangi claims, it is stated that that the partnership framework for the Crown-Māori relationship is evolving into a ‘relationship of mutual advantage in which, through joint and agreed action, both sides end up better off than they were before they started’. This statement also provides powerful guidance for museums and the way they engage with their communities.

There could then be no better time for Te Papa to host the FIHRM conference. A commitment to human rights has been an implicit element of this museum since before it opened to the public, and the current dynamic political environment in Aotearoa New Zealand requires an inclusive and nimble museology. It is still a journey, and I hope that we never reach an end point, for then we might stop challenging ourselves, succeeding, failing, but always learning.

In the conference we’ll be looking at the legacies of social inclusion and considering the pathways to the future. What has been achieved? Where are we heading? In reflecting on the genesis of Te Papa’s museological stance as part of this discussion, it’s appropriate to consider a Māori proverb, or whakatauki:

‘Kia whakatōmuri te haere whakamua.’

‘ My past is my present is my future I walk backwards into the future with my eyes fixed on my past.’

As the FIHRM website states, Human rights museums must be prepared to challenge traditional museum thinking and practice. For this reason, I consider Te Papa to be a human rights museum, and I look forward to welcoming our delegates in September.

Nā Tracy Puklowski