RANGINUI WALKER says the planned final stage of Auckland Museum's redevelopment presents the chance to display Maori treasures and our shared heritage better.
Next year, the Auckland Museum will be 150 years old and intends to begin its final stage of redevelopment. This $46 million project will ensure the people of Auckland own one of the world's most exciting museums.
Even more gratifying is the immense benefit the new development will deliver to Maori and Pakeha - a museum in which both cultures can take pride; a museum that expands and explores how we can join together to better present our unique stories; a museum where stories of war and reconciliation, protest and peace, land alienation and poverty, urbanisation and hope can be commemorated or celebrated; a museum that embodies partnership not unlike what the Treaty of Waitangi promised when it was first signed.
Today's Auckland Museum is well on its way to fulfilling these dreams. With the completion of the final stage, it will be able to embrace such partnership ideals on a new level that expands beyond its four walls.
Encouraging partnership, however, has not always been the case in New Zealand's oldest museum. For most of its history, Maori were excluded from any decision-making. Instead, the museum provided over three generations of Pakeha with a window of curiosity: a place through which they they could view the savage Maori without fear of being eaten.
Grotesque Maori carvings were displayed like captured war trophies, complete with tattooed heads surrounded by primitive weapons nailed to the wall.
The museum reinforced the school curriculum image of Maori, with tales of cannibalism, treachery and war. Of course, there was a happy ending: one of Pakeha victory and Maori's successful integration into modern society.
Fifty years after its founding, the gap between Maori reality and the museum story could not have been greater. As an impoverished Maori population hit its lowest ebb around 1900, museums were at the forefront of exhibiting Maori as a dying race responsible for exterminating the original New Zealand settlers, the Moriori.
Out in the tribal districts, the once-proud descendants of warriors were mostly living in depressed, low-sanitation, tuberculosis-infected villages on inadequate Crown reserved lands.
The Crown had acquired the best and most fertile waterways, foreshores and estates by way of forced individualisation through the Native Land Court.
With wholesale land alienation came the uncontrolled trade of ancestral treasures, or taonga, once associated with such estates. Alcohol abuse, domestic violence and poor health followed, a trend that still shakes the moral foundation of Maori.
Pakeha Aucklanders living in the first half of the 20th century remained mostly unaware of the poverty-stricken Maori living beyond their horizon. Even when the museum moved to the War Memorial in 1929, its many hundreds of taonga - detached from their people and land - remained captured in a story of primitivism and natural history.
It took another six decades before the art of the Maori gained national recognition, but only after praised acceptance by overseas audiences.
By that time, the time of Te Maori, the post-Second World War generation of Maori had long left their impoverished villages and sought new opportunities in Auckland.
For a time everyone prospered in the post-war boom. Then in the late 1970s, the country was gripped by a deep recession and Maori, as the main labour force, was hardest hit. All the social ills of their grandparents' generation began to re-emerge as the gap reopened.
Turning back the clock was not an option for this new urban generation. Not only did they have to struggle with living as nuclear families in an ethnically competitive urban environment but they also had to come to terms with alienation from the once-plentiful support that land, marae, elders and community once provided.
During the 1970s and 80s, entering the Auckland Museum did little to relieve Maori of the personal loss or hurt many carried. Romantic images of the old-time Maori - a noble savage - only saddened Maori visitors.
No mention of how Maori helped Pakeha when they first arrived, provided them with land for towns, entered into solemn partnerships with the Crown, presented taonga in exchange for promises of prosperity, gifted vast forests, helped build infrastructure or fought in two world wars.
Fortunately, Maori exhibits in today's museum differ radically from what visitors once found. The tide turned when Te Maori (1984-87) returned to New Zealand and demonstrated the power taonga can release if museums allow Maori to perform them appropriately.
Te Maori presented a new sense of cultural identity. Not only did it fill Pakeha with nationalism but it also empowered Maori with a sense of ancestral pride and equality. Many of the taonga that toured with Te Maori originated from the Auckland Museum. On their return they were re-exhibited in a manner that reflected mainly Maori understandings and sought to recapture the magic of Te Maori.
Young Maori were offered training positions and invited to help develop appropriate care, interpretation and exhibition of taonga. It was another decade, however, before Maori finally had a voice at trust board level through an advisory committee called the Taumata-a-Iwi. Since 1996, the Taumata-a-Iwi has overseen the stage one galleries refurbishment and guided the museum on Maori governance, management, protocol and staffing.
Under the guidance of its Taumata-a-Iwi, the museum's stage two redevelopment is expected to open up new opportunities for Maori to interact better with their heritage.
Central to the redevelopment is a huge increase in space. Storage of the world's most impressive taonga will no longer be hidden from view. There will be greater public access. Redevelopment will also allow space for descendant kin groups to interact privately with taonga.
In the Maori galleries a special area is reserved where Maori artists can publicly demonstrate traditional and contemporary arts and crafts. Interactive performances, hosting and educational facilities will continue to complement the Maori galleries, but on a more substantial scale.
The redevelopment will provide essential learning areas in which Maori interns, representing their tribal communities, can gain training in the specialised care, storage and display of taonga.
The Auckland Museum has shown the courage to not only begin healing past wounds but also explore meaningful partnerships with Maori. If all goes to plan, the stage two redevelopment will weld a new level of partnership between the museum and Maori in the management and care of our shared heritage.
Auckland's most important icon must be given the opportunity to fulfil what promises to be one of the most valuable building projects of our lifetime.
* Emeritus Professor Ranginui Walker is the former head of Maori studies at the University of Auckland.