Intangible Heritage: A Pacific Case Study at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

Writer : Kolokesa Uafā Māhina-Tuai
Year : 2006


The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa has a large collection of Pacific material, but, despite the museum’s commitment to represent the cultures of all New Zealand’s peoples and its recognition of the importance of intangible heritage, it has only been partially successful in demonstrating. Objects have been de- contextualised and some of their cultural significance has been lost, as has happened with many other Pacific collections in museums worldwide. The exhibition Culture Moves! Dance Costumes of the Pacific was set up to complement the conference Culture Moves! Dance in Oceania for hiva to hip hop held at Te Papa in November 2005. It provided an opportunity for the museum to show its commitment to the idea of intangible heritage. The paper deals with the problems involved in the collection, display and interpretation of dance costumes and describes some of the solutions. It recommends the approach of the Vanuatu Culture Centre’s Fieldworkers to the collection and recording of intangible material as a model which Te Papa tried to follow in the creation of this exhibition and as one that would be appropriate for other projects and other museums.


The Pacific region encompasses living and transforming cultures that include both tangible and intangible components. Museum institutions, worldwide, have long been associated with the tangible aspect of Pacific cultures, in terms of the amassed Pacific material wealth that they have collected/acquired and currently have in their care. In the early phases of museums, in private collections and ‘cabinets of curiosities,’ Pacific items were regarded as ‘curiosities’ of the unknown exotic ‘other’ and, often served to represent the status of collectors and other individuals as being well-travelled and knowledgeable. The development of the ‘cabinets of curiosity’into public museum institutions, in some cases took on a scientific approach where Pacific collections came to be regarded as specimens of different peoples and races, and were interpreted accordingly. This scientifically-driven collecting required an objective approach where Pacific collections were classified and displayed in a systematic fashion. This objective approach would further de-contextualise Pacific collections by disregarding any intangible or anecdotal meanings items may have possessed.

For a long time, the displays of Pacific collections in museums have represented Pacific cultures as static. As a result, museums have been criticised for their contribution to the estrangement of the collections they hold from their original functions. In far too many cases the walls of museum institutions literally confine Pacific collections to passive contexts, marginalising their original functions and interpreting them according to established Western museological practices and world views. The representation of Pacific cultures as static is an issue that is now being addressed and continually revised by many museums. The focus on representing Pacific cultures as dynamic and changing comes at a time when Pacific peoples, whose cultures are represented, have also been included in museums’ decision-making processes. This is through the consultation process that is established between museum institutions and communities. In this respect the approach of the museum regarding Pacific collections has gone from the elitist, scientific and authoritative voice of the institution and academics, to a more plural, inclusive and culturally sensitive approach. This historical background is comparable to the history of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa (Te Papa) and the representation and interpretation of its Pacific collection. Before discussing the Pacific collection a brief overview of Te Papa is required to set the context.

Te Papa

Te Papa’s significance as a museum institution in the Pacific is in part its commitment to being a bicultural organisation. This is through acknowledging the importance of the Treaty of Waitangi and the equal recognition and representation of its two signatories - Tangata Whenua, (those who belong to the land by right of first discovery or Māori) and Tangata Tiriti, (those who belong to the country by right of the Treaty of Waitangi, or European). The bi-cultural ethos provides the foundation that shaped Te Papa in its incipient stages of development and infiltrates into the conceptual and operating framework of the organisation, right through to governance level. Although bi-culturalism at Te Papa is a reflection of the partnership between Tangata Whenua and Tangata Tiriti, the latter also encompasses the cultural identity of the more recent settlers of New Zealand...multicultural heritages...and their place in the Pacific and the wider world(Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa 2002: 6).

Te Papa’s obligation to represent multicultural heritages is bound by the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa Act 1992, and particularly Section 8 of the Act, which requires that the Board shall:

  • Have regard to the ethnic and cultural diversity of the people of New Zealand, and to the contributions they have made and continue to make to New Zealand’s cultural life and the fabric of New Zealand society:
  • Endeavour to ensure both that the Museum expresses and recognises the ‘mana’ and significance of M ̄aori, European, and other major traditions and cultural heritages, and provide the means to contribute effectively to the Museum as a statement of New Zealand’s identity. (Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa website,

This clause in the Act acknowledges the multicultural make-up of New Zealand society today which is now home to many ethnic groups including Pacific peoples.

Te Papa originated from the merging of the National Museum and the National Art Gallery in 1992 and was opened in 19986. The incorporation of an indigenous approach - through knowledge and understanding founded on Māori custom, culture and protocol - provides a framework that allows for the acknowledgement of intangible manifestations of heritage. This indigenous approach is particularly evident in the current Collection Development Policy in the recognition that Māori are the spiritual owners of their ‘taonga’(treasures) and that Te Papa is only the guardian of these treasures (Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa 2003:).The guiding principles set out for the care and management of taonga Māori are aligned with Māori knowledge, custom and protocol. This is put into practice through partnerships developed between the museum and various Māori ‘iwi’ or tribes.

Intangible heritage

Intangible heritage is defined in the UNESCO Intangible Heritage Convention as:

The practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, skills – as well as the instruments, objects, artefacts and cultural spaces associated therewith –that communities, groups and, in some cases, individuals recognize as part of their cultural heritage. This intangible cultural heritage, transmitted from generation to generation is constantly recreated by communities and groups in response to their environment, their interaction with nature and their history, and provides them with a sense of identity and continuity...(UNESCO 2003: 2)

Implicit in this part of the definition is the interconnection between the intangible – practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, skills - and the tangible – instruments, objects and artefacts and cultural spaces. Te Papa has acknowledged this interconnection not only through the documentation of the associated stories and history of its collections but through telling of these stories within exhibition spaces. The definition also includes other manifestations of intangible heritage such as:

...oral traditions and expressions... language, performing arts, social practices, rituals and festive events, knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe, and traditional craftmenship.
(UNESCO 2003: 2)

As a bi-cultural organisation, Te Papa has, since its inception, put into practice the concept of museums and intangible heritage within and outside the museum context, through the recognition and acknowledgement of or Māori knowledge systems. However, this has primarily been in connection with knowledge related to items in collections or exhibitions with a strong narrative base, but is not emphasised in the museum’s actual collection.

Pacific collections

The museum’s Pacific collection does not at present emphasise the intangible elements of Pacific cultures. Te Papa’s ‘Acquisition Strategy’sets out the desired outcomes, strategy, directions and priorities for collection development in all collection areas. The current focus is only on collecting tangible material culture. This is indicative of the museum’s acquisition priorities which have a strong emphasis on collecting heritage items and specifically items created and used by New Zealanders of Pacific descent, and items that represent expressions of Pacific identity in New Zealand (Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa 2004b: 3). This strong emphasis on the tangible is not compatible with the guiding principles set out in the Collection Development Policy which states that:

Te Papa will collect significant cultural property and information related to its mission, in order to document, illustrate and explore the natural and cultural heritage of New Zealand, and those parts of the world that have contributed to its natural and cultural identity.
(Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa 2003: 5). It continues to explain that it does this:

To capture the imagination of New Zealand by exploring our national identity; to give physical and visual presence to the concepts, values, ideas and information that Te Papa disseminates to users by all media; and to form part of the record of scholarship and mātauranga Māori.

The museum’s acquisition strategy therefore needs to be better aligned with this policy statement.

Te Papa is currently re-developing the acquisition strategy of its Pacific Collections that will involve a more structured and active role in collecting intangible forms of expression. Because Te Papa has already established the conceptual foundation for including intangible heritage, it is now simply a matter of emphasising this by incorporating a statement into the acquisition strategy to follow through with its implementation. It will be this implementation process that will be the challenging task. This is where the unique approach developed by the Vanuatu Culture Centre (VCC) is of particular interest.

Vanuatu Culture Centre (VCC) and fieldworkers

Vanuatu is unique in the Pacific region for its cultural fieldworkers’ network programme, widely seen as a model for community participation in cultural heritage management (Huffmann 1999). The programme was set up in the mid-1970s at the VCC which now comprises of the National Museum, the National Library, the National Film and Sound Unit, the National Cultural and Historic Sites Survey with the later additions of the Women’s

Culture Project, established in 1993, and the Vanuatu Young People’s Project, established in 1997 (Regenvanu 2002). The work carried out by fieldworkers is focused primarily on collecting in the area of intangible heritage through the documentation of oral histories, genealogies, rituals and performances. The fieldworkers are people from within the local community who are chosen to represent the culturally diverse areas in Vanuatu. Fieldworkers are trained in the use of resources for recording and documentation. This training takes place at an annual two-week workshop, where fieldworkers gather to share their experiences and decide on the theme of research for the following year. The National Film and Sound Unit is responsible for compiling and database storage of work from the fieldworkers. This unit has state-of-the-art film and sound recording, production and archiving facilities that have enabled it to build up a substantial film and audio collection.

The successful approach taken by the VCC through its network of fieldworkers is attributed to many factors. Most of these factors are distinct and particular to Vanuatu in terms of the cultural context that the fieldworkers programme has developed and grown since its establishment in the 1970s. The fieldworkers’network operates on a voluntary basis. It is this voluntary aspect that contributes significantly to its success because it draws on people with a genuine interest and passion for preserving, maintaining and reviving Vanuatu culture. Another contributory factor is that the fieldworkers’ programme involves an ongoing relationship with the VCC. These two factors can offer some guidance for implementing the approach taken by Te Papa. Instead of duplicating the fieldworkers’ approach, certain elements will be drawn on to develop a strategy that is appropriate for Te Papa and its current relationships with Pacific communities.

Te Papa and Pacific communities

Te Papa’s consultation with the Pacific communities prior to, and since its opening in 1998, has been on a project-by-project basis (Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa 2004a). One project relates to the development of Te Papa’s Pacific exhibition, Mana Pasifika, which involved two Pacific Advisory Committees. Other areas where consultation with Pacific communities takes place are with regards to collections development for referrals or acquisitions, and for contributions to publications and public programmes.

Te Papa’s Pacific collection is comprised of both historical and contemporary items and consists of about 13,000 items that represent most, if not all, of the Pacific region. Pacific communities have responded in creative and innovative ways to their environment herein New Zealand through expressions of local identity that merge with their own traditions, knowledge and practices. The material elements of these expressions are represented in the collection through Te Papa’s active approach of collecting contemporary items produced by Pacific peoples in New Zealand. This has resulted in a significant contemporary collection of Pacific material culture that is possibly unique to Te Papa (Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa 2004a). What is lacking is an equal representation of the intangible forms of expressions such as oratory, theatre, dance and music. The collection may contain associated material forms such as costumes or related archival material but this does not sufficiently capture the essence of these ephemeral expressions.

Culture Moves! Intangible expressions at Te Papa

An opportunity to explore Pacific intangible forms of expression came about in the development of the Culture Moves! Dance costumes of the Pacific exhibition. This exhibition presents a selection of historical and contemporary dance costumes from Te Papa’s Pacific Collections. It was developed to coincide and complement the Culture Moves! Dance in Oceania from hiva to hip hop conference, held in November 2005. Both the exhibition and the conference provided opportunities to develop and cement ideas about the significance of intangible heritage, in this case performance arts, within a museum context, and to explore its representation in the Pacific Collections.

Te Papa hosted the Culture Moves! Dance in Oceania from hiva to hip hop conference, and for four days and two nights provided a space for

......choreographers, dancers, composers, curators, costume makers, scholars, writers, musicians, and artists to participate in a discussion on the knowledge and practice of dance in Oceania across cultural, national, academic, and aesthetic boundaries

For the duration of the conference, Te Papa was temporarily a living space of living treasures, in terms of the wealth of knowledge and experience that each participant contributed. One of the discussion panels in the conference looked at documenting dance, exploring questions of why dance should be documented and how may it be stored and recorded in an institutional context, and what type of relationships are possible between dance communities and people who document them. Some of these questions were explored in the development of Culture Moves! Dance costumes of the Pacific.

Although dance is ephemeral in nature, it is represented in Te Papa’s Pacific Collections in various tangible forms by dance regalia and dance related items. While dance costumes can be considered on their own, they can only be fully appreciated when displayed within the contextual framework of their origin - the dance genres they are associated with, and the particular occasions for which they were made and worn. This contextual framework is explored in Culture Moves! Dance costumes of the Pacific through the combination of objects, photographs and audiovisuals.

The exhibition concept is based around two main objectives – to explore the aesthetic qualities of the dance costumes of the Pacific and to capture itsclose connection to music and dance. The aesthetic qualities are explored in the exhibition through the selection of costumes illustrating the diverse styles and materials found throughout the Pacific. This includes costumes that have incorporated new materials and styles such as the use of synthetic as opposed to natural fibres. In order to capture the close connection between costumes, dance and music, audiovisuals were proposed as a means of providing viewers with snapshot performances from selected Island nations with costumes on display. This in turn would offer viewers a more holistic appreciation of dance costumes on display.

With the exhibition concept in place, the next phase involved the challenging tasks of selecting dance costumes and identifying relevant photographs and film footage. A survey of the Pacific Collections was carried out and an initial selection of dance costumes was made. During this process gaps in our representation were noted and plans were made for new acquisitions.

One criteria in the selection process was to include as many complete dance costumes as possible. This was a challenge with regards to our historical collections. All of the historical dance-related items in our Pacific Collections were only parts of complete dance costumes. This was the case with various dance items from Papua New Guinea that were featured in the exhibition, such as the dance skirt from East Sepik Province area, a breast plate and dance belt from the Eastern Highlands, and ‘eharo’ masks (or dance masks) from Orokolo, Gulf Province (Fig 1 & Fig 2).

In contrast to the lack of complete historical dance costumes, our contemporary collections were more complete. Featured in the exhibition are a complete female dance costume from Tokelau and a complete male costume from the Cook Islands. There were, however, a few exceptions such as the female New Zealand Māori costume, where we selected various parts to make a whole, and the costume from Tuvalu, of which we only had the skirt. The Tuvalu skirt was used as our main ‘signature’ graphic for the exhibition (Fig 3 & Fig 4).

The selection process also took into consideration an even representation of costumes from the Pacific. After making an initial selection from the Pacific Collections, an attempt was made to acquire new costumes from areas in the Pacific that were not represented. Because of time constraints and the limited exhibition budget, our wider Pacific community networks to an extent largely influenced the Pacific nations that were included in the exhibition. The exhibition included costumes from Tokelau, Tuvalu, Cook Islands, Tonga, Samoa, Niue, Rapanui (Easter Island), New Zealand, Hawaii, Kiribati, Belau, Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea.

With nations such as Belau and Vanuatu featured in the exhibition we were very much dependent on the expert advice of individuals from their respective cultural institutions - Belau National Museum and the Vanuatu Cultural Centre. In ourbrieftoinstitutionsandindividuals, werequested complete dance costumes, photographs that captured costumes worn in performance and video footage showing the context of the performance where the costumes were worn. Belau National Museum assisted us in acquiring both male and female dance costumes. The female costume (Fig 5) included in the exhibition is a combination of new and used. That is, the pandanus bra top is brand-new and the skirt with its components, were worn as part of the opening performance at the 9th Festival of Pacific Arts hosted by Belauin 2004. Vanuatu Culture Centre went a step further by sending a staff member to Lamap in the island of Malakula to document naluan mekam – a dance performed as part of a grade-taking ceremony and they acquired a costume that was worn for this dance. This costume, along with the footage, is featured in the exhibition.

We also had the opportunity to document and acquire costumes from one of New Zealand’s own Pacific festivals, the annual ‘Polyfest,’officially known as the ‘ASB Auckland Secondary Schools Māori and Pacific Islands Cultural Festival’. This festival is the largest Polynesian dance festival in the world, and is held in March of every year in Auckland – the largest Polynesian city in the world. ‘Polyfest’is a three-day event that combines music, dance and art. It is a visual feast for performers and spectators alike, with the five core competing groups –New Zealand Maori, Samoa, Tonga, Cook Islands, and Niue – performing simultaneously on five stages. Female costumes from Tonga and Samoa, and a male costume from Niue are featured in the exhibition (Fig 6) along with film footage from the ‘Polyfest.’

Running simultaneously with the acquisition process was the development of the Culture Moves! exhibition. This involved an exhibition team that comprised of various roles such as the project manager, curator, concept developer, interpreter, designer and writer. There were two main obstacles that are worth highlighting here; one that was evident from the outset and the other emerged as the exhibition progressed. What was apparent in the early stages of development was the clichéd mindset that Pacific dance is simply bright, colourful and vibrant. These features are true on a superficial level, but when one looks beyond this outer surface there is depth, aesthetics, sophistication, elegance, precision and even subtlety. This clichéd view was an issue that came up for discussion, particularly in relation to the exhibition graphics.

The second obstacle was the task of ensuring that we did not lose sight of the main objectives of the exhibition. These objectives, as mentioned earlier were to explore the aesthetic qualities of the dance costumes of the Pacific and to capture their close connection to music and performance. The former was easily achieved through the selection process but the latter was more difficult to achieve. Photographs and audiovisuals are the two mediums in the exhibition that represent music and dance. In order to illustrate the close connection between dance costumes, music and performance, all three distinct, yet related, elements had to be fused in a way that was dynamic. This in turn would create a dynamic and lively space that brought the costumes to life in their glass cases. Working towards this goal was at times trying, especially when it was not used as the reference point for decisions that were made.

The physical layout of the exhibition space (Fig 7) and the location of the three audiovisuals to the sides of the cases (Fig 2) offered a challenge right from the outset, but also provided the boundaries within which we had to work. There are six large cases and each case had enough space for three costumes. Two audiovisuals showed performances that featured the costumes on display. The third audiovisual focused on preparations for Kiribati dance –illustrating through photographs the making of dance costumes, dressing performers and the performance itself. The photographs showed images of dancers, or a dancer, captured in performance, wearing either the costumes on display or similar ones. The plan was to produce large poster-sized images that would be placed inside each case and behind each costume, in an overlapping juxtaposition to create a sense of movement for the viewers. This plan brought about several discussions, with the main concern being that the cases would be too cluttered if every costume had an accompanying image. A compromise was reached of only having the centre costume with a poster-sized image and the costumes on either side having smaller images on the labelrails. Unfortunately, in the end the centre images were still too small to have the desired effect of bringing the costumes to life.

Throughout the exhibition development process there was a tendency for the dance costumes to take precedence over representations of music and dance - perhaps because of their status as collection items. Music and dance, embodied in audiovisuals and photographs, were treated more as a means of enhancing the dance costumes rather than having their own status. This may highlight one of the reasons why it is important to represent intangible heritage in the collections so that it is given its due status within the museum context.

The whole process, and the fieldwork involved in the acquisition of new dance costumes, proved to be challenging and time-consuming but it was a valuable and worthwhile experience. It also provided an opportunity to add more complete dance costumes to Te Papa’s Pacific Collections and initiated the first step in collecting intangible material. Te Papa now has its first collections of intangible expressions in the stories and performances that were acquired and documented (on film footage and photographs) on our behalf and those that we documented and acquired ourselves. The next step is to work out the logistics of how intangible forms of expressions can best be represented in Te Papa’s Pacific Collections and most importantly to validate its inclusion within Te Papa’s Collection Development Policy.


The Vanuatu fieldworkers’ network approach provides a model that would accommodate and encourage representatives from the diverse Pacific communities in New Zealand. Te Papa has many Pacific networks from which fieldworkers can be recruited. What will be difficult to implement is the crucial voluntary element. Only time will reveal people’s genuine interest and passion in the programme and in the possibilities they see the museum offering.

Staffing levels have increased, with two full time Pacific curatorial positions established in 2004, an improvement on the 5 position of the two previous years. These new developments provide an opportunity for Te Papa to change the emphasis of its acquisitions strategy to reflect a different engagement with Pacific peoples. The proximity of Pacific peoples in relation to New Zealand demands that museums with Pacific collections reconsider how they are developed and managed. These processes should view the tangible and intangible aspects of Pacific cultures as mutually interdependent.

But this does not mean that museums more distant from Pacific communities should not also act to re- evaluate how, and what, they document and collect. Telecommunications technology, the internet, online museum collections and publications are making the world smaller. Pacific collections and curatorial practices are more open to international scrutiny than ever before. Peoples in the South Pacific can view and interact with collections and curators in Europe, the United States and Asia. The ‘cabinets of curiosities’ are bursting open and with this comes a new responsibility to reconsider how we do things.

Pacific cultures are living cultures, and this can only be reflected in a Pacific collection and curatorial practice that conceptually and practically encompasses both the tangible and intangible in mutual and holistic ways. Pacific collections have gone through many phases of representation and interpretation, which run parallel to the development of museological theory and practice. The concept and practice of museums and intangible heritage is therefore better understood when the historical context of museums and its collections is taken into consideration and, used as a basis for the decisions that we make in the present. This is best expressed in the following quote from Dr ‘Okusitino Māhina, lecturer in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Auckland.

In the Pacific, it is generally thought that people walk forward into the past and they walk backward into the future, where the past and the future are constantly fused and diffused in the present. In this way, the actual past is put in front of people as a guiding principle in the ever-changing present, and because the elusive future is yet to take place, it must always be brought to bear on their past experiences, situating it behind them in the conflicting present. This means that the onus of preserving the past and mapping of the future – whether they be for culture’s sake, humanity or future generations - rests squarely on our shoulders in the present.
(personal communication, 2003)