Whose History Is It? Chinese New Zealanders And The Museum Community

Nigel Murph, New Zealand

Museums reflect the history and identity of the communities they represent, whether those communities be local, regional or national. They also tend to reflect the dominant or mainstream culture of those communities. National museums of the past were storehouses of the spoils of empire, and were used to display collections that showed the breadth, strength and power of both the nation-state and the empire at large. Such museums embodied the power and dominance of the mainstream culture of the nation, reinforcing and reflecting the dominant narrative. They symbolised and reflected the power and resources of the nation and the mainstream, in the same way that Parliamentary buildings and armed forces do. A vestige of this symbolism still adheres to them.

Because museums reflect their societies, they are also responsive to changes in their societies. In New Zealand, the national museum responded to the challenges of the democratisation of history, and the impact of biculturalism and multiculturalism, by physically moving from its lofty position on a hill overlooking the capital city to the downtown waterfront. It changed its name to Te Papa or ‘Our Place’ and attempted to reflect the different communities that made up New Zealand. How successful these initiatives have been is still open to debate. The question this paper asks is: are ethnic groups that have previously been excluded from the mainstream narrative able to be successfully represented in cultural institutions such as museums? How well can such institutions represent and reflect “other” communities and “other” narratives?

The Chinese New Zealand community has had a long history of marginalisation and exclusion from the national narrative, suffering considerable racism in the process. For such a group to give up its treasures, stories, histories, heritage and the spirit of its culture to institutions that have traditionally represented an oppressive history and culture is truly a challenge. Can such institutions store, nurture, represent and interpret the histories, narratives and identities of communities such as the Chinese New Zealand community? Can they also allow these communities significant control over how their heritage and history is stored, displayed and represented? To assume ownership and control of such communities’ history and identity, and to misrepresent it, merely compounds the hurt caused by the legacy of exclusion and racism.

This paper will explore these highly charged and political questions by focussing on the Chinese New Zealand community. It will also address the issues of differing national and community narratives, identity, ownership, representation and misrepresentation, and whether collaborations between museums and ethnic communities are possible and can be successfully negotiated.

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