Exploring Te Ao Maori: The Role of Museums

Article excerpt

Museums offer many opportunities for developing knowledge of the bicultural heritage of Aotearoa New Zealand. This article reports on research involving a kindergarten located in a national museum. It discusses children's growing understanding of te ao Maori (the world of Maori) through their regular visits to the collections and exhibits in the museum and suggests teachers in early childhood centres may find connecting with their local museum a valuable resource for enhancing bicultural practice.

Museums are storehouses of national treasures and artefacts. In many instances they house collections that tell stories of the cultural and social history of a people, a country, a region or simply a town or village. In a country with more than one culture, museums can provide a link between those cultures and be a means of preservation of cultural history and artefacts (Falk & Dierking, 2000). The benefits of children having experiences with authentic artefacts and resources such as are available through museums and art galleries have been described in research by Anderson, Piscitelli, Weier, Everett and Tayler (2002), Everett and Piscitelli (2006) and Piscitelli and Anderson (2001). Haggard and Williams (1992) suggest that leisure pursuits or informal learning opportunities such as museum visits are important for identity building and enabling people to understand others better. The early childhood national curriculum, Te Whariki, states in the introduction the expectation that "all children develop knowledge and an understanding of the cultural heritage of both partners to Te Tiriti o Waitangi" thus encouraging a commitment to implementing bicultural practices (Ministry of Education, 1996, p. 9). Therefore, museums can be a powerful vehicle for assisting us in our endeavours to provide opportunities for children, teachers and families to strengthen their understanding of te ao Maori and embrace ideals and principles meaningful and relevant for bicultural practice (Ritchie & Rau, 2006, 2010).

This article explores children's growing understanding and familiarity with te ao Maori through their interactions with the cultural artefacts and taonga (treasures) of the collections and exhibits at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa (Te Papa). Te Papa is different from many other museums because it represents artefacts and collections of a living culture rather than a civilisation or culture of a bygone era, providing opportunities for visitors to gain an understanding and appreciation of te ao Maori as a living, vibrant culture. This article discusses the value of responsive and reciprocal relationships between teachers, children and the museum in enhancing knowledge and familiarity with the stories, values and practices of Maori, the indigenous culture of Aotearoa New Zealand.

The information and data draw from a TLRI project undertaken during 2010 and 2011 with the teachers, children and families at Tai Tamariki Kindergarten, located downstairs in Te Papa in Wellington. Tai Tamariki is a full-day, mixed-age (3 months to 5 years) kindergarten licensed for 25 children under the umbrella of the Wellington Region Free Kindergarten Association. Many of the families attending Tai Tamariki are employed at Te Papa in a wide range of occupations, including curators, exhibition designers, publications and marketing staff, iwi (tribal) liaison staff, accountants, managers, electricians, carpenters, gift shop and cafe personnel and many more. The kindergarten employs 10 qualified teachers and has been in operation for just over 2 years.

The project was based on an action research or practitioner inquiry methodology that acknowledged the place of teachers and children as well as the university researchers in the construction of knowledge and the development of a more authentic understanding of their practices (Cochran-Smith & Donnell, 2006). The data were gathered through interviews and conversations with teachers, children and parents, researcher observations and analysis of teachers' documentation (for example, Learning Stories). …