Leading Museums, Museum Leaders

Rethinking “traditional” tags

Portrait of Albert Wendt, 1996. Photographer: Hamish McDonald.

Sean Mallon, Opinion: why we should beware of the word ‘traditional’, Te Papa Blog, 20 December 2016

In 1994, four years before the opening of Te Papa, Samoan novelist and scholar Albert Wendt was an advisor for the planned Pacific exhibitions. He requested that we abandon the use of terms like ‘traditional art’ in our labels and display signage. ‘Traditional means nothing to me!’ he said. At the time, I didn’t understand what he was talking about.

I had gone through university learning about traditional societies. As a person of Samoan descent, I was used to hearing about our traditional culture and customs. As a museum worker, I talked about traditional cultures all the time.

However, Wendt was asking us, as Pacific people and museum workers to decolonise the language we use in our exhibitions. In his view, the word ‘traditional’ as used in categories such as ‘traditional arts’ and ‘traditional practices’ was the vocabulary of Western ways of writing about and cataloguing indigenous peoples.

We in museums had bought into it, and our communities had internalised it.

Later, in an interview I had with him in 2008 he explained his position to me in more detail:

‘I came to feel very uncomfortable with terms such as traditional, folk history, folk art…Colonial scholars and researchers used them whenever they referred to us but not to their cultures. Such terms I concluded were part and parcel of the Euro-centric colonial vocabulary. Traditional inferred our cultures were /are so tradition-bound they were static and slow to change; that they weren’t dynamic and growing and changing; that because they were slow to change and fixed in history they were ‘simple and easy to understand.’ Traditional also had implications about how we were viewed as people even to the extent that, because we were tradition bound, we behaved out of habit and past practice and [were] slow to adapt to other ways or change our own ways, that we didn’t want to think for ourselves, or were incapable of individual thinking and expression.’

Towards a New Oceania

This year, marks 40 years since Wendt first published these ideas in his inspiring essay Towards a New Oceania. It was 1976, and a formative period for Pacific literature, new art forms, and their developing markets.

In his essay, he argued, ‘Any real understanding of ourselves and our existing cultures calls for an attempt to understand colonialism and what it did and is still doing to us.’

Wendt challenged the idea of ‘traditional cultures’ and cultural essentialisms, criticising corruption and the use of ‘tradition’ by our political and cultural leaders.

He argued that, ‘There is no state of cultural purity (or perfect state of cultural goodness),’ and warned of stagnation, ‘an invitation for a culture to choke in its own bloody odour, juices, and excreta.’

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