Leading Museums, Museum Leaders

Taking care in ‘Making Histories’ at Te Papa

Matthew McIntyre-Wilson wears his muka face mask, 2020. Jack Fisher/Te Papa.

Kerry Ann Lee, Taking care in ‘Making Histories’ at Te Papa, Stuff, 26 August 2021

How might creative actions bolster care and resilience in these unsettled times?

In June I attended a special viewing of early Chinese New Zealand and migrant history taonga, and Covid-19 related artifacts at Te Papa. It was also the Pōneke launch of Anti-Racist Soup, a zine responding to rising Sinophobia and anti-Asian violence in New Zealand, published by Migrant Zine Collective. For a brief moment, this was our safe space to hold discomfort and explore racism and resistance through kōrero, kai, and zine-making. Such moments of pause, reflection, and cross-cultural conversations are invaluable and much needed right now.

During the early months of the global pandemic, Te Papa began collecting materials linked to life during lockdown – state communications, art, design, and photographic documentation of essential workers, mask-wearing, community messages, signage, and graffiti. This contributed to the Making Histories programme led by researchers Dr Grace Gassin, Emma Ng, and Rachel Yates in partnership with various community collaborators and knowledge holders.

By centering emerging and under-represented perspectives and experiences of the pandemic, particularly those of Māori, Pacific, and Asian heritages, it aims to foster long-term discussions about health, work, wellbeing, racism, and inequality in Aotearoa.

‘I am from Wuhan’ T-shirt, February 2020, Christchurch, by Cat Xuechen Xiao, courtesy of Te Papa. Supplied.

Making Histories ask how we can learn more from those whose experiences of this time have been different from our own. PPE feature as both expressions of cultural identity and health and safety. These include a raranga face mask woven from boiled and dyed harakeke (New Zealand flax) by artist Purewa MacGregor (Taranaki), and a finely woven muka fibre mask by artist Matthew McIntyre-Wilson (Ngā Mahanga, Titahi, Taranaki), who used the aho poka technique to mimic the concertina folds of a surgical mask.

Medical ‘Poly Scrubs’ were lovingly sewn by Lolita Asopesio Duffy for her daughter Dr Shavonne Duffy, a Tāmaki Auckland-based GP. These used leftover fabric from the puletasi (Sāmoan two-piece formal dress) she previously made for her daughter’s graduation. A pink gingham cloth mask embroidered with: ‘Anti Anti Asian’ by Auckland-based Korean New Zealand artist Hanna Shim was purchased by Saera Chun as a souvenir of the current pandemic, and her own memories as a young Korean émigré to New Zealand during the SARs epidemic.

Within this programme, Making Sense of Pandemic aims to ‘’ethically and sensitively’’ collect diverse experiences (on and offline) of ethnic Chinese living in Aotearoa during Covid-19. A hand-painted T-shirt reading: ‘’I am from Wuhan (This city is not a virus, I am not a virus)’’ tells the story of Christchurch-based artist Cat Xiao who was in regular contact with friends and family in Wuhan, China, in early 2020. Xiao created the shirt to highlight the lack of empathy for victims as the pandemic unfolded.

Making Histories also asks what opportunities exist in this moment to create a better future. Winning entries from the inaugural Aotearoa Poster Competition, a national anti-racism arts initiative organised by researcher Bev Hong and artist Bruce Mahalski are here, along with Te Papa’s visitors’ Postcards to the Future and public responses to Barbarian Productions’s Eggfruit project. The museum also invited international students and migrants to share personal experiences, supporting highly visible yet unrepresented demographics in Aotearoa.

Another initiative at Te Papa, Voices of Asian Aotearoa explores the complexities and nuances of Asian New Zealand identities through language. Chinese Languages in Aotearoa, demonstrates the profound linguistic and cultural diversity within New Zealand’s ethnic Chinese communities.

In the first video in the online series, Taiwanese Hakka New Zealander Ya-wen Ho talks about working with heritage materials and how translation is a helpful tool for Asian Tauiwi to connect with tangata whenua. These artifacts and activities creatively hold a mirror up to our own limited experiences and world views and seed potential for deeper understanding. Nuance is everything.

Kerry Ann Lee is an artist, designer, and scholar at Toi Rauwhārangi, College of Creative Arts, Massey University in Wellington, New Zealand.

Council of Australasian Museum Directors c/o Lynley Crosswell, Museums Victoria, GPO Box 666, Melbourne VIC 3001, © CAMD 2023
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