This week the team at MTG Hawke's Bay are celebrating winning the Museums Aotearoa award for Exhibition Excellence – Taonga Māori, for our exhibition He Manu Tīoriori: Songbirds.

On display until July 22, the exhibition provides a glimpse into Ngāti Kahungunu's rich musical talent, looking back at 100 years of singers, songwriters, kapa haka, jazz bands and more.

It takes many people to make exhibitions and this was no exception.

Initially curated by Tryphena Cracknell, who formulated and developed the concept, it was then completed by Charles Ropitini.

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Determining themes, sections and objects was followed by the work of design, loan arrangements, object preparation and mount making. All these elements came together to make a great exhibition.

And once open, our customer service team, educators, volunteers and events staff come to the fore, bringing the experience to life for our visitors. Any success we have is truly a team effort and achievement.

This exhibition, like so many others, reminds us of the importance of understanding and knowing our heritage – which is often thought to be "behind" us, distinct from present and future. And yet, how can the past be behind us, when it's the only thing we can see, the sole source of all knowledge? It must instead be in front of us, as we move backwards into the unwritten, unseeable future.

In this way, the lives of ancestors are not really separate from the present, but are continually acting as guides as we create the future, helping us to avoid repeating erroneous ways and to follow the tried and true.

The MTG team celebrated one such guide this week, as May 22 marked the 150th birthday of Meri Te Tai Mangakāhia, of Te Rarawa.

By the age of 25, Meri was a leading activist for the rights of all Māori and all women in Aotearoa. While an influential part of the suffragist movement that petitioned the colonial Government for women's right to vote, she also argued in an impassioned speech in 1893 that women should be allowed to both vote for, and stand as members of, the Kotahitanga parliament.

Referring to Māori appeals to Queen Victoria regarding the Crown's failure to honour Te Tiriti of Waitangi, Meri pointed out that "there have been many male leaders who have petitioned the Queen concerning the many issues that affect us all, however, we have not yet been adequately compensated according to those petitions. [. . .] Perhaps the Queen may listen to the petitions if they are presented by her Māori sisters, since she is a woman as well".

As an advocate of mana wahine, Meri was countering not only the sexism but also the racism inherent in the colonial Government. While 125 years later, many are celebrating the anniversary of women winning the right to vote in the New Zealand Westminster system, the work of overcoming both racism and sexism remains far from over.

I wonder how different things would be if Meri's Pākehā sisters had supported her movement, just as she had supported theirs. What if all women had committed to upholding the self-determination and land rights of all Māori, as guaranteed by Te Tiriti?

How much more flourishing and resilient would our communities be today? This is how Meri continues to guide us into the future. When we think about how to make a more just society, she shows the way forward: a holistic approach that leaves nothing and no one behind, for the prosperity of all.

• Jess Mio is curator of art at the Museum Theatre Gallery (MTG) Hawke's Bay.