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Film: A conversational shift to widening museum audiences

Dina Jezdic, Adult and Tertiary Programmer, Auckland War Memorial Museum gave this presentation at MuseumNext Melbourne in February 2017. In it she asks how can the museum become a place for challenging conversations and give a voice to marginalised communities? This presentation will share one successful approach.

Dina Jezdic :  Greetings to you all, and thank you, Museum Next, for a very cool welcome here in Melbourne in ACMI. My name is DinaJezdic, and I’m the adult and tertiary programmer at the Auckland Museum, [Tama Ki Panga Hira]. Firstly, I’d like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land, and the custodians past and present. I’d like to thank the organisers for this opportunity, because it’s a little bit risky and brave to let some of us talk here, but since the theme of the conference is risk, I’m hoping that we’re all in this space together for a reason.

So, before I begin, I want to warn you, this talk, [Hi mana hi wahine], definitely contains both contentious language and images. So you’ve been warned. I’d really like to encourage Twitter discussions, so yeah, [help me out]. Mana Wahine is often referred as the Maori Feminist Discourse, and is understood as the power specifically held by Maori women, and I will be extending this definition to the Pacifica woman as well. And before I get into it, I’d like to introduce the concept, that will be a thematic thread of this talk, and to help me illustrate my point, I’m going to use the word of Toby Morris … sorry, the comic, and the sort of work of Toby Morris here, and his Pencilsword and this short story about privilege.

So here we have Richard, and his parents are doing OK, and on the other side is Paula, and her parents, not so much. Richard’s house is warm, and it’s dry, and his shelves are full of books, and his fridge is full of food. Richard’s parents will do anything for their baby, and so will Paula’s, and that’s why they’re working two jobs. And so, Paula’s house is full of people and not much else, and it’s damp and noisy, and she keeps getting sick. So Richard goes to a really great school, it’s well resourced, good kids, his teachers love their jobs … at Paula’s school, the class sizes are large, the school is underfunded and it looks it, the teachers are tired and thin from stress. So maybe we can see why the expectations set for Richard might be slightly different to the ones that are set for Paula. And over the years, all these little differences, they start to add up, to build into something bigger, and because each little difference sneaks a little bit sort of unnoticed, then maybe Richard starts to believe that he deserves to be on the top, that he did it all himself, and maybe Paula starts to settle, and really learns how to … where to know her place.

But I really hope not. I truly, truly hope not, because in general, having privilege seems like a pretty sweet ride. Getting access to [unearned] benefits is a really good deal. But in the end, this system’s upholding privilege hurts all of us, including dominant groups, and this is another reason that pointing out male privilege is quite the opposite of hating men. Gender equality means everyone, including men, get the support that they need.

So I’ve just illustrated my main concept, and the issues behind the inequality of gender, and I think that this punchy feminist definition from [Marie Shier] really sums it up: feminism [is a] radical notion that women are people. We can just pause here for a little bit, almost, then just go [ach], a little cough. So it’s about being awake to the notion that when something’s not right for all of us, it’s not right for any of us, and Che Guevara said that; pretty smart chap. So most importantly, feminism is for women and girls and men and boys and everything in between; feminism is for the ones that get it. And just when you think that we have now kind of come to the same page, and we’re all in this together, I’m going to add a twist of lemon and throw the word ‘intersectional’ at you, and so when I say the word ‘intersectional’, can I see a show of hands at … sort of to see how many people know what I’m talking about? And just be absolutely honest. Cool, thank you.

This is where the mountains really start to appear, and it becomes so evident how far we have to go, and this is where we, the museums, need to take a risk, and create opportunities for our communities to engage in relevant issues, and in this case, issues of social change. What we gain is what actually we treasure the most; we gain audiences and we gain relevance; and that word relevance is something that’s been kind of coming up quite a lot during a lot of these sessions, about are we relevant, and what is our place, and growing and developing audiences as we embody the role of a catalyst for ideas. And to really sort of illustrate intersectionality, I will need some help from my girl pals, the Gorilla Girls, the ultimate bad-girl bitches of my dreams, and this is a collective made up of anonymous American female artists. And this is one of 30 posters entitled ‘Gorilla Girls Talk Back’, and since their inception in 1984, the Gorilla Girls have been working to expose sexual and racial discrimination in the art world, particularly in New York, and in the wider cultural arena. The group’s members protect their identities by wearing gorilla masks in public. Dubbing themselves ‘the conscious of the art world’, they started a poster campaign that targeted museums, dealers, curators, [credists], artists who they felt were actively responsible for or complicit in the exclusion of women and non-white artists from mainstream exhibitions and publications.

So in some way, their work is actually more relevant now than ever before. So this is one of my favourite ones, and since we’re in the month of February and we’re going into the month of March, it’s actually quite timely, and a good time for a pop quiz. So the question is, if the February is Black history month, and March is the women’s history month, what happens the rest of the year? And so the answer is … and you can see [that] is discrimination. And so what does intersectionality mean? Intersectionality is a noun used to described interconnected nature of race, class and gender, and [these intersectioning] sort of social identities and related systems of oppression, domination or discrimination. So imagine the world where we don’t have to highlight any of the social identities, because that is the world where opportunity for all is achieved, and it is about creating a space for all of us to be together all of the time. So intersectionality really is actually a united front. So now that we have collectively acknowledged our feminist alliances … and I hope that you’re all with me … I understand that unless we recognise that not every feminist is White, middle-class, [unintelligible 00:07:45] gendered and able bodied, there is a danger of losing momentum, and now that we have unpicked the concept of intersectionality, and you’re all with me, it is time for me to tell you how we, the museum, take [all this ball of] controversy and created a space for these discussions, for quiet and empowering activism, with a great weave of contemporary Aotearoa New Zealand and traditional Maori and Pacific culture.

So what do museums want? We desperately want to be [in]. We are no longer happy to be the [Neri Kedge] with some collection cards; we want to be part of the conversation, and we want to be the drivers of the conversation, and we like to be the topic of the conversation. We want it all. And as Oscar Wilde put it, there is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about. Late At The Museum is a series of curated evenings, which involve topical panel discussions, live performances and late-night exhibition openings. This is the 10th season that we have been running the series, and each season has four evenings that take place during the winter, focusing on contemporary issues while linking to the museum collections and special exhibitions. The central part of the evening is the smart talk, and it’s a moderated panel discussion.

So what kind of topics have been most successful? The risky ones. The topics that are too out-there to discuss around the office water-cooler. So the topics that are within the scope of sex, drugs, crime and politics generally do really, really well. Late has become a safe place for dangerous ideas. Aotearoa New Zealand has a wonderful heritage of strong female figures: change-makers, activists, writers, artists, voices and risk-takers, from Kate Sheppard to Katherine Mansfield, Jean Batten to Janet Frame, Helen Clarke to Eleanor [Ketten] and Lorde. Despite the tyranny of [distances], these women have left their mark on the world, and these are all very radical women. Because of them, we are looking at the world in a different way. Without the right to vote and participate in the democratic governance, right to ownership and financial independence, right to education, like all the way, Eleanor Ketten, like Jane Austen, would have [hid] herself in order to write, and Lorde … well, Lord would be wearing something a little bit like Kate Sheppard [over here].

So for those of you that are not from New Zealand Aotearoa, this is Dame Whina Cooper, [Tefai au Temotu], Mother of the Nation. She was a respected Maori leader who worked for many years for the rights of Maori, and particularly to improve the circumstances Maori women, especially with regards to health and housing and education and welfare. So what about the Whina Coopers of New Zealand history hall of fame, and the celebration of the struggle that Maori and Pacific women face every day in our current society? Do they hold the same [mana] as the women I mentioned before? What are the indicators of inequality for them, and what are they facing now? How have they turned challenge into success, and can such a thing even exist? And to break down these issues and [hasha] some stuff, we have assembled a stage full of smart, capable women and one smart capable man: I’d like to introduce our intersectional badass panel, moderated by equally badass investigative journalists, Maori issues correspondent for Radio New Zealand National, Mihingarani Forbes, and then we have the poet, playwright, fiction-writer and musician, Courtney Sina Meredith, Maori women’s and LGBTQ rights advocate, Dr Ngahuia Te Awekotuku social and critical accounting researcher Dr Pala Molisa, and sister-specific [A K Rosanna] Raymond, an innovator of the contemporary [Pacifica] art scene.

Personally, like my dream is to go on a holiday with all of them. This Late at the Museum panel, [Hi mana hi wahine], essentially unpacking indigenous feminist theory was a response to exhibition [Corde Romai Corde Roato]: Talk to Me, Talk to Us, Talk to Others. The exhibition acknowledged that Aotearoa New Zealand is a culture that has been … spoiler alert … colonised. It also acknowledged that Auckland Museum is the home to many of the resulting spoils, and it allowed for some new conversations to develop between Maori artist Dr Aretha Wilkinson and Te Rongo Kirkwood, and the museum collections. This work, which is on your left, [unintelligible 00:13:00], by Dr Aretha Wilkinson, acknowledges the past in a form of contemporary taonga. Contemporary [gold are dormant], involving traditional materials and colonial [contact] materials such as gold.

So was gender inequality in New Zealand caused by colonisation? This is what Professor Ngahuia had to say:

Female voice:  So, to comment on the notion that decolonisation is a way forward for Maori and Pacific people, when actually, before the Victorians came, before the colonisers came, before all of that dreadful and yet exciting and quite astonishing history happened on these islands, Aotearoa was a battlefield. It was. These islands, these lands, this very hill on which the museum is constructed, were contested. To assume in any way that the 700,000 immigrants who arrived after 1840 and before 1890 were responsible for all the problems we have, I think is unfair and untrue.

Dina Jezdic :  I am sure that you will all understand how awed we all were to be listening to Professor Te Awekotuku. She is an activist and researcher who focuses on Maori culture, gender and sexuality, and continually speaks with confidence, power and history. I could listen to her for hours, actually, and you will hear her speaking again during this talk.

This is an image of a famous Maori [kawaha]. It’s a gateway named [Tiki]. It features as one of the major highlights of the [Te Maori] exhibition that toured United States in the ‘80s. The exhibition opened first at the Met, and it is important to note that it marked a historical breakthrough moment when Maori art was recognised and validated by the international art scene. It was truly groundbreaking, but it neglected to include representation of customary Maori women’s art. Not a single taonga was made by a woman.

So why are we actually having this conversation at the museum? To think that women’s art forms were somehow upstaged by art created by men is a fallacy, so we are told by Professor Ngahuia. … Can I get a hand here? I seem to have lost my slide. But when [unintelligible 00:16:06], that huge carved war canoe which graces the Maori [court], was first made and commissioned by a [unintelligible 00:16:17] chief in the 1830s, he traded that same canoe … you look at the artistry, the carving, the magnificence, of that object … he traded it for [Karamahine]. Who was [Karamahine]? She was a cloak. She was a woven garment. And she was considered of equal status and value as a carved Maori war canoe. Now, hearing that, when I first heard that story, it just, for me, having been raised by weavers, made so much sense. But it also turns upside-down in a really significant feminist way the stories that we hear, the notions that so many ethnographers and historians and Victorian gentleman collectors, and privileged Maori men, who curated the [Te Maori] exhibition, would have us believe, that women make craft and men make art. That is bullshit.

So to your left is the war canoe, that carefully carved [waka], and on the right is not the famous [Karamahine], it is the cloak which was the cloak that was mentioned, but it is a woven garment of extraordinary value in our collection that I wanted you to see as a reference point. This is a model for the kind of truth-telling approach that museums could and should be taking: factual, incisive, politically astute, connecting the past with the present and inviting quite a bit of argument, I would say. These conversations are about waking people up, it’s about ideas and histories and conversations that we all have an opinion on; it matters to all of us. This is true engagement, this is about the thought that begins in the mouth. This is also about learning and listening and actively participating. This model also allows us to learn about the scale and scope of our audience, and their interests. They are interested in the conversations around the readiness for the bicultural future, that embracing of indigenous and diverse voices, the word that collectively describes them as liberal. This is about building a community, this is about the truth, but also about the risk. It is about museums being local one day and global the next, but being global is a shared space for all of us to create. It is also about fulfilling our strategic museum goals, which are guided by bicultural foundation and values system.

Our two strategic documents … through them, the [unintelligible 00:19:15] Maori, which is a Maori dimension, and [Tueleva], which is a Pacific dimension, through them we are able to tell stories of our uniqueness and to use that word ‘diversity’, of a multicultural city and contemporary Auckland, because at the end of the day, representation matters. Today, we are all facing enormous challenges, and the social unrest is not a myth, and we’ve heard from many people referencing and point to the man that’s in power at the moment over in the United States. When I look at this picture, the picture of the leaders of the women’s march on Washington that took us all on a journey, I see humans that are not solely defined by gender; they are diverse, representing half of the United States, and any social justice movement, for the rights of immigrants, Muslims, African Americans, the LGBTQ community, the law-enforcement accountability for gun control, for environmental justice … all of these should count as a women’s issue. This picture is about the intersectional feminism. It is a great example of how a movement that recognises privilege is stronger than one that ignores it.

So what should museums do, and what is our duty and positions in times like these? It is not to amplify ignorance, it’s to collect ephemera that capture these stories. Personally, these kind of grab my attention.

So in the year 1893, New Zealand was the first country in the world that gave women full voting rights. Australia followed close second in 1908, and that is 15 years later. I’m trying to end on a good note, so I’m not going to tell you how long it took others. Quite a while. We still haven’t achieved [bodily self-determination], we still haven’t achieved equal pay for equal work, we still haven’t achieved a feeling of safety to walk the streets alone at night. Last year, some of us thought that we would see the first woman president of the United States come into office … well, this didn’t happen. It is time for us to realise that everything we do as museums will be interpreted as political, so we need to establish what set of values we’re going to stand behind, because the stakes are too high, and if we are disengaged, museums will cease to be relevant. We also have to make all viewers feel welcome. We have to be the catalyst for difficult conversations, without being intimidating and off-putting. We have to be inclusive. It takes a mass movement to solve all of our massive problems. I hope you’re ready and willing to be part of it, because the change does not come about politically, it comes about socially. Programmes [like] Late at the Museum, [Henmana hewahine], create an opportunity for the museum and the disenfranchised to speak together and say ‘Come, walk with me.’ So in the words of Ngahuia:

I think feminism actually is a work in progress, and it’s a work for which we should all be very proud. [Kyudo Koto].

And most importantly, [unintelligible], I’ll leave you with Erica [Bardra], because she’s the one who coined the term, [Kiya Kaha Mana Wahine].

Any questions? …

Male voice:     Hi, thank you so much for that.

Dina Jezdic :  Can you wave your hand?

Male voice:     Oh, hi.

Dina Jezdic :   So that I can … oh, yeah, cool, thanks.

Male voice:     Hi, I’m Adriel. I was wondering … I know with a lot of museums, when dealing with marginalised communities … oftentimes I’d … they already consider it a risk to deal with feminism in a bubble, or race in a bubble. Did you get a certain kind of resistance as … in terms of whether or not people felt like the public would understand intersectionality in the first place, and how do you navigate assumptions that intersectionality is like an upper-division sort of a thing that you have to kind of get past sort of the basics first?

Dina Jezdic :  I think it was … like I said, I think we were very lucky that we had that exhibition, and it was two women Maori artists that were being represented, and sort of we took that as a cue to kind of have this conversation. And we didn’t actually use the word ‘intersectional’, and we didn’t even pretend to be more than that, or to complicate it. I think we just called it the women of colour feminist theory, and unpacking that, and … like I said, we invited some pretty amazing humans to just sit on the panel and just talk about their experiences. I mean, I didn’t include the rest of the speakers, because what Dr Ngahuia did was, she related her [unintelligible 00:24:56] to the actual museum, and so that was actually easy for me then to demonstrate here as to why we were having that conversation, how does it relate to our collections, how does it relate to … you know, why we’re doing it, why is this happening, as you say, why are we … it’s almost like validating why should we have it in the museum, and why shouldn’t this take place somewhere else, like in a really cool space … you know, not in a museum.

But … and I think that the resistance … there necessarily … I mean, it didn’t come from internally, either, but I think there were those questions as we were kind of putting this together … yeah, we should do it, it’s a really good idea; we have frameworks that … like I said, the [Hequada He Maori] and the [Tueleva], the two sort of frameworks that are guiding kind of values and principles that allow us to kind of say that this is a strategically important thing to do. But I think there was a lot of people who were like … who’s going to come? Like, who is this for? And really having for us to kind of understand who was our audience, and that is like, yeah, everyone came. It sold out, it was … 450 people bought the tickets two weeks before the actual event, and basically, we had to turn away so many. And I think that it just shows that these conversations are not being had, and I think people are quite ready, they want … even though they may not actually know all the terminology, I think maybe the museum allows them to come there because they already feel quite comfortable, they’re comfortable with the surroundings, they’ve been to a Late before, so it’s kind of like, hey, this is not something I know much about, but I’d like to. I’d like to know more. So, yeah, let’s buy some tickets.

Anyway, I hope that answers your question.

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