How Te Papa exploits its bicultural policy to manufacture Maori consent for whitewashed histories

…and why Aotearoa needs to see a 100% Pacific-curated exhibition about the impact of empire, and resistance to empire, in Oceania.


Like the oil reserves that lie deep under the earth and seabed, history is a powerful resource. Appreciated in context, history can help us gain a critical understanding of the present, and so provide an awesome force in social justice struggles. But history can also be an oppressive weapon, exploited to cultivate support for deceptive brands of nationalism.

If the government wants to drill for oil, it must first have consent from iwi. In Ahipara, activists draw on the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People in the fight to keep oil companies out of their waters. Government does not like to recognise those rights of course, because they are often irreconcilable with the interests of the state. The destructive social and environmental impacts of oil exploration mean it’s often not in iwi interests to approve. But that’s not a hindrance to the government – since the government can simply decide to define consultation on its own terms.

They can grant the permits to Anadarko, or to Statoil, and then go to iwi. With oil company executives in tow, government officials can traipse up to Northland – and sell the idea of economic growth and job opportunities aplenty. Then, as Catherine Davis (Te Rarawa) says:

if our communities are in poverty, or we have not much economic action going on, or our people are jobless, any kind of a crumb looks like a banquet. So they come to us, and we’re like – Oh! Yeah, let’s get out of our economic situation.

Any interest from iwi can then be inflated to look like Maori approval for a government agenda.

I believe exactly this kind of manipulation takes place within Te Papa’s Gallipoli exhibition, which I recently wrote an essay about, critiquing it as war fanaticism. I see the show as promoting the myth of the keen Kiwi male war hero, drawing on racist and sexist stereotypes and cinematic effect to do so, while glossing over the imperial nature of World War One as a fundamentally unjust war for profit and territory between European colonisers.

After writing my article, I received some strong objections from the historian responsible for the Maori components of the exhibition (Puawai Cairns), who felt personally accused by me. She suggested I read her essay The Wait and the Fight, which is about her experience being part of the team that produced Gallipoli. I did, and watched all six episodes of Te Papa’s behind-the-scenes video series Building Gallipoli – in which Cairns gets only a two second silent cameo. The result is that I now feel even more strongly about Te Papa’s exploitation of biculturalism and Maori research for the institution’s own purposes.

One of my major gripes with Te Papa’s Gallipoli exhibition was the overemphasis on enthusiastic participation from Maori to fight for the British Empire, as against the mere five sentences on objection and resistance. That was a criticism that offended the Maori curator, who felt I (a punter, a Pakeha), was trying to instruct her on how Maori history should be told. I’m not interested in doing that. What does interest me, is how Te Papa’s lack of consultation and a predetermined framing can push Maori research into a tight corner, and then exploit whatever historians manage to achieve from within that corner.

The Wait and the Fight describes how the Maori curator was brought into the production process:

I was charged with researching and curating the experiences of the Maori Contingent at Gallipoli.

Did Te Papa want to make the terms any damn narrower? That’s why there are only a handful of sentences on Maori objection to war and resistance to empire in Gallipoli – because the topics of resistance and empire were effectively prohibited. The topic of World War One was barely permitted: the scope was strictly defined as Gallipoli, 1915. The terms were set before Cairns even entered the scene – and that appears to fit government’s notion of biculturalism, honouring the Treaty of Waitangi, and consulting with Maori.

What’s more, military historian Christopher Pugsley, who had a leading role in the exhibition’s production, sees Gallipoli in a distinctly Pakeha light. “Gallipoli is important for New Zealand,” he says in Building Gallipoli,

because… this is the first time that we put a large body of people into a warzone; and it ended any notion that war was glorious and exciting and inevitably victorious… This wasn’t going to be a short war – it was going to be a horribly tragic and expensive war.

It doesn’t seem to me that Maori had ever found modern warfare “inevitably victorious” or ‘profitable’. Instead, they had seen the devastation that results from British imperialism.

Puglsey says furthermore that what “fascinates” him about this exhibition is that “it’s personality driven.” Lead curator Kristie Ross describes how researchers looked for “characters” (cinematic language proliferates in these videos, largely shot at Weta) “who portray youthfulness or boyishness or enthusiasm, or cynicism, jadedness and despair.” Lieutenant Westmacott was chosen because he “typifies the great adventure boys thought they were on.”

The effect of this framing is to encourage viewers to emotionally engage with, identify and develop affinity with soldiers. It manipulates viewers into feeling pride in “our” war heroes. This “personality” framing of a story, already set in trenches, hardly enables critical examination of broader themes like European imperialism, colonisation and resistance – themes that are all important to a Maori history, that a Maori historian should be able to choose to centre her research around.

That’s how the process of making this exhibition reminds me of a government march up to Ahipara with oil company executives to present iwi with but one option: acceptance of a mythical prospect of “economic growth”. In this case, government takes the form of Te Papa – joining forces with an entertainment industry giant – to present a Maori curator with her option. You can research whatever you like about the impact of modern warfare on the Pacific – as long as it’s the Maori Contingent at Gallipoli 1915.

The Declaration of Indigenous Rights articles that Davis draws on to resist Statoil, state that “indigenous peoples have the right to determine and develop priorities and strategies” as part of any development project that affects their resources. And history is a resource.

States shall consult and co-operate in good faith with the indigenous peoples concerned, through their own representative institutions, in order to obtain their free and informed consent prior to the approval of any project affecting their lands or territories and other resources.

Compare that with Davis’ actual experience of how government “does” consultation:

Some key things. That word “free”. Our experience of the government coming and consulting with us? Half the time it’s not free, because it’s done under duress… It’s not really “informed”, either, because the government comes to us, and of course, they have these company execs or officials in tow, and they just paint this really great picture… and of course they don’t tell us prior, they don’t share prior, they’ve already planned out this whole scheme of things – they’ve got the law in place, they’ve got the policies in place, they’ve made the calls to the oil companies, and they’re coming in and they’re looking around, and they’re using our resources. The NIWA boat – Tangaroa – that’s our bloody name, how dare you!

There are parallels between the reflections in The Wait and the Fight, Davis’ experience at Ahipara – and even the Maori Contingent at Gallipoli. In all three cases there is a resource: whether it is men, or oil, or history. The state is looking to exploit that resource for its own purposes, while also seeking the approval, or the appearance of approval, from Maori. It draws on a notion of biculturalism, which on the face of it, promotes equal participation in a project from Maori contributors and the state.

In practice, however, the framework is a farce; the formalisation of a gross double standard. The state still gets to define the terms of the agreement or the project; Maori are given a small box within that framework in which to exercise some agency. That agency may have real benefit – but whatever benefit it brings, the game is still rigged, and exploitative. Whatever agency Maori display is integrated into a narrative of nationhood that the state can promote, even as it continues to refuse true recognition indigenous rights.

The Wait and the Fight exposes the total insufficiency of biculturalism as a framework at Te Papa. Its author talks about how hard she had to battle, even to gain reasonable representation within an already limited space.

An excerpt from The Wait and the Fight

Te Papa has spoken: Here is the history you can tell, Maori curator, so go and tell that. And then within that tiny corner we’ve pushed you into, while you’re in there, remember to fight to justify every scrap of representation you get, in the history, that really, the victors still get to write.

Proceeding with her work, Cairns says she knew that “there was a demand and hunger for Maori WWI stories” – a hunger reminiscent of that for “economic growth” in Ahipara. All at the same time, this hunger constitutes a real need, a predisposition cultivated by the state, an opportunity for mobilisation, and an exploitable position.

This hunger for war stories, particularly at Gallipoli, is something Sean Mallon has critiqued in a blog piece entitled Were there Pacific Islanders at Gallipoli in 1915? Mallon responds to and challenges this frequently asked question, saying that it is less important to ask whether Pasifika were at Gallipoli, than to ask where they were. He says that

The need to know if there were Pacific Islanders at Gallipoli is perhaps part of a desire of Pacific peoples in New Zealand to be acknowledged as part of the national commemorations, which are so focused on the Gallipoli campaign. Of course, the Pacific Islands story begins before Gallipoli.

It is Pakeha who have cultivated Gallipoli myopia, and determined that an ancestral presence at Gallipoli is all-important. Yes, Gallipoli was significant – but not more significant than its entire context, the context Gallipoli exhibition planners prohibited discussion of as part of Te Papa’s major World War One commemoration.

In starting to locate Maori war stories, Gallipoli’s Maori curator was next concerned to “ensure that visitors knew that Maori had participated in the fighting at Gallipoli as more than trench diggers; at the very least, I wanted the audience to recognise that we were there.” She says she “wanted to show the Maori soldier as a hard-working and well-regarded soldier, as published sources had repeatedly revealed.” She rightly resisted pressure to represent a passive, marginal Maori presence at Gallipoli.

It seems though, that the predetermined framing had already placed any Maori curatorial work between a rock and a hard place, because the alternative option in characterising Maori agency, was to militarise it. In that sense, the work of this Maori curator at Te Papa actually parallels that of the Maori Contingency at Gallipoli. That militarisation of Maori agency has resulted in the giant figure of corporal Friday Hawkins frowning, with clenched jaw, powering his machine gun – and it constitutes a huge – overwhelming – sacrifice. A sacrifice so profound that it further supports the argument Cairns had to make when she fought to have more space allocated to Maori than would be proportionate to the number of troops at Gallipoli.

The resulting “hard-working soldier” figure, represented especially by Hawkins – is also exploited by Te Papa. The representation is exploited as a symbol of Maori endorsement for fighting war for the British Empire, in spite of whether that’s what any Maori intend for it.

The Wait and the Fight also describes the search for tikanga Maori at Gallipoli, for records of how the “No. 1 Outpost” was made the “Maori Outpost”. Research uncovered Maori carvings in trenches, haka, sermons delivered in te reo Maori. These are recreated in the trench constructed at Te Papa: a dark place, with the sounds of battle and haka resounding, and Maori carvings etched deep into the rock.

This is all irrefutably important historic material. It is also the part of the exhibition where the relationship between Te Papa’s story and te Ao Maori appears to be consummated. As far as Te Papa is concerned, these displays serve to create an intimate bond and intimate portrayal of Maori identification and endorsement for the exhibition’s overarching nationalistic messages and framework. This is where Persephone goes into the underworld, and eats the fruit of Hades; where the piwakaka laughs at Maui and Hine-nui-te-po awakens and shuts her legs.

What this all proves, to me, is just the total insufficiency of biculturalism as a framework for indigenous Pacific researchers. The Wait and the Fight is a powerful illustration, to me, of the urgent need for Pacific researchers to have greater control over the production of histories in our museums.

I compare the Gallipoli show to Blood, Earth, Fire, another Te Papa exhibition, which shows how the Aotearoa landscape appeared before any human settlement, and how it has changed as a result of Maori, and then European impact.

An image from Te Papa’s exhibition Blood, Earth, Fire

The message is that “we are all migrants here” – we have all changed, and damaged the landscape, according to our industrial capacity.

In sending this message, Te Papa undermines some of the fundamental distinctions between Pacific settlement and adaptation to Pacific landscapes; and European colonisation and environmental destruction based on notions of racial superiority and white profit. By extension, the exhibition then subtly undermines some of the fundamental differences between the rights and relationships to land of Pakeha, and of tangata Moana-nui-a-kiwa. There is a powerful, nationalistic agenda behind Te Papa’s “nation of migrants” framing, which tries to iron out important distinctions between Maori settlement and European colonisation.

The solution? Cairns is right – that’s not for me to say. But I am just saying, that if there did happen to be a petition for a fully Pacific-curated exhibition of the history of empire in Oceania and resistance to it, I’ll sign it, promote it, and line up and pay a Pakeha surcharge on my ticket to see the result. I’m dreaming up a team including Puawai Cairns, Teresia Teaiwa, Tina Ngata, Tere Harrison, Damon Salesa, Sean Mallon, Pala Molisa, Ati Teepa… but that’s where I will tap out.

The last word is Puawai Cairns’:

The history of Maori participation in the First World War should be reclaimed by Maori historians from the territory of myopic military historians. The challenge is to introduce more scholars and popular writers to this topic, empower them to be creative, to be dissenting, to think actively, so that centimetre by centimetre, the ground is regained.


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10 thoughts on “How Te Papa exploits its bicultural policy to manufacture Maori consent for whitewashed histories”

  1. Incisive and thoughtful critique on the power of monolithic structures and thought control. Now I know why I’ve not been keen to see the exhibition. Thanks

    1. Hi Ian!
      Thanks for that question. It’s given me yet another thing to think about actually in regards to what I’ve written.
      The quotes from Davis are from a presentation delivered at the Change Everything Conference last year.
      Contact Oil Free Wellington for more info about that. Thank you!

  2. You identify several of the things that make me profoundly uncomfortable in the Gallipoli exhibition. The use of “we” and “our” throughout the exhibit, along with the surging musical score, pushes a very unhelpful heroism narrative that bears little resemblance to the reality. Nowhere was it more obvious than in the area relating to the Maori battalion – sentimental doesn’t begin to describe it.

  3. The throwaway interpretation of Blood, Earth, Fire, while not central to the article’s point, moved me to comment. I think the writer has rather misread that show.

    “Te Papa undermines some of the fundamental distinctions between Pacific settlement and adaptation to Pacific landscapes; and European colonisation and environmental destruction”

    Te Papa was, rightly, seeking to challenge some of the unexamined assumptions in that very statement: the idea that the Pacific peoples were “adapted” to their landscapes, unlike Europeans, who colonised and destroyed. This is contradicted by the actual evidence of forest destruction and extinction presented in some detail in Blood, Earth, Fire; if anything, it’s understated. Human beings have thoroughly trashed the Pacific, wiping out thousands of species in the largest human-caused extinction event ever, yet this story isn’t told by any museum.

    I can see that the Te Papa natural history consultants pulled their punches when dealing with pre-European environmental change. It’s certainly not a perfect show (the moa reconstructions are anatomically impossible for example). But to criticise it for calling us a ‘nation of migrants’ is a complete misread. In fact, we ARE all migrants, and extraordinary recent ones: people have been here only 750 years. I can’t imagine a museum in New Zealand brave enough to tell the actual human story of our land, one of destruction, extinction, ecological collapse, and population collapse. It’s perfectly possible to tell this story without denying the mana whenua of Māori or their claim to their land, and that’s what I think Blood, Earth, Fire is doing.

    1. Hi Mike,

      Nga mihi, thanks for commenting on my blog essay. I’m aware it has some limitations, learning from those in this piece particularly is changing the way I write.

      On Blood, Earth, Fire – yes, the idea that we are all migrants here is the one I think this show communicates above all. I have spent a fair amount of time with the show for what it’s worth, i.e. during the seven week install.

      I think it’s really important to consider that Pasifika, Tangata-moana-nui-a-kiwa, navigated, explored and lived in the Pacific for tens of thousands of years without destroying it – and that Maori belong to that group of course.

      Since Europeans came here however, we have seen populations reduced significantly – for instance, Maori to a third through the 19th century; New Zealand was also responsible for the deaths of 1 in 5 Samoans in 1918. There have been invasions, blackbirding, cultural genocide, land theft and Land Wars, nuclear testing and fallout, terror raids, and mass incarceration, deforestation, mountaintop removal, child poverty and preventable illness among Pasifika, mining and pollution of land and waterways, and climate change seeing more and more cyclones and sinking islands in the Pacific, for example.

      I think that in telling any Pacific history, it’s actually really important to make those clear distinctions and avoid false equivalencies between Pacific settlement and European colonisation. Particularly for the sake of young Pasifika.

      Nga mihi.

  4. Can I disagree with your statement “Pasifika, Tangata-moana-nui-a-kiwa, navigated, explored and lived in the Pacific for tens of thousands of years without destroying it”? Obviously, nobody claims Pacific people destroyed the Pacific, just as nobody would claim European settlers destroyed New Zealand. But the environmental history of the Pacific is one of destruction, over-exploitation, and mass extinction by its indigenous people. Pasifika wiped out about 10% of the world’s bird species, overfished, and trashed numerous islands, including some so badly that they either abandoned them or starved. Māori impact on Aotearoa was similar. This story is ignored, downplayed, or just not known by many Pacific peoples. And it’s not told by museums.

    1. White people, non-indigenous people, are absolutely destroying New Zealand, the Pacific, and the world. THAT is what our public institutions need to talk about. They do NOT need to be making false equivalencies to sustain nationalistic myths. Nga mihi.

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