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Recalibrating the Museum: The Politics of Stewardship and the Physical/Digital Repatriation of Te Hau-Ki-Turanga


In July 2012, New Zealand’s Parliament passed the Rongowhakaata Settlement Act, which returned ownership of the Māori meetinghouse Te Hau-Ki-Turanga from the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa back to its indigenous iwi, Rongowhakaata. The transfer of title set in motion several important developments for both New Zealand’s bicultural government and the intangible and tangible redress of Māori cultural heritage. This dissertation is an inquiry into the politics of stewardship, or care of cultural heritage, and related issues, concerning in particular, the control of conservation and interpretation at the local, national, and international levels. The history of Te Hau-Ki-Turanga’s creation, preservation, and display constitutes an important case study through which to address core questions that explore New Zealand’s history of struggles with power, control, and indigenous self-determination. Key questions include the following: How are New Zealand’s indigenous communities challenging and contesting the very definition of a museum and its role in modern times? Can indigenous self-determination exist within a Western museum infrastructure? Can such a museum ever be truly post-colonial?

Through three Te Hau-Ki-Turanga projects taking place between 2017 and 2020, the Rongowhakaata iwi is working both within and outside the New Zealand national museum to develop alternative models for reconnecting the meetinghouse with iwi descendants and disseminating information to the public on the iwi’s own terms. By looking at the case study of Te Hau-Ki-Turanga, we can begin to uncover the entangled power relations between New Zealand’s bicultural government and its Pakeha and Māori populations from the early nineteenth century to the present day.

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