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The raving thoughts of a misanthropic academic

May 28, 2015

A Visit to the Museum


Te Papa Tongarewa Museum here in Wellington, New Zealand is every bit the epitome of a modern state museum. But what makes this one especially interesting is that its cavernous halls are home to some of the most exquisite collections of Māori artifacts in the world. Our group from the University of Wyoming traipsed through this morning for a quick 90 minute tour of the museum's Māori highlights. 

Our tour guide was a surly woman. Short. Somewhat portly. The tenor of her voice bespoke an annoyance with the very premise of answering questions. Naturally, this effect was amplified on those rare occasions when one of us dared to ask one.

This seems to be a thing with tour guides on this trip. In a separate incident while touring Parliament yesterday, a different guide actually yelled at a poor girl from our class when she paused to use the restroom before the tour even started. Later, the same guide badgered my colleague, a staunch feminist, over Wyoming's decision to grant women the right to vote.

To be clear and fair, this guide was very much in favor of women's suffrage, but his point seemed to be that New Zealand had led the world on this score by becoming the first country to grant women the right to vote as opposed to being merely a state. My colleagues position was that Wyoming's decision on women's suffrage was actually done under "false pretenses." Now that I think about it, I suspect they were talking past one another.

Nevertheless, fireworks ensued and we all enjoyed the festivities, albeit a bit awkwardly. The name "Te Papa," according to our tour guide is derived from the Māori words for treasure and basket. As a result, the museum fancies itself as a treasure basket of sorts, or to put matters less obtusely, the home of the nation's treasures.

At Te Papa, one of the more interesting parts of the collection was the Māori "meeting house," or wharenui in the photo above. This particular wharenui was actually stolen (or "confiscated" to quote our guide) from one of the New Zealand tribes as a showcase piece for visitors to Parliament as luck would have it. Perhaps our guide from Parliament gave the tours.

For the indigenous scholar in me, all of this, of course, begs the question of whether the museum is actually a home to the nation's treasures or a safe house for the country's plunder.

Tomato, tomāto, I suppose.

In all, it was a lovely visit to the museum. It's no Smithsonian but the coffee was nice even if the tour guide wasn't.
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