Academic journal article Journal of New Zealand Literature

Objects of Empire? Displaying Maori at International Exhibitions, 1873-1924

Academic journal article Journal of New Zealand Literature

Objects of Empire? Displaying Maori at International Exhibitions, 1873-1924

Article excerpt

Kei reira rawa etahi o a taua nei taonga a te Maori/They even have some of our own Maori treasures there.

(Reference to Maori displays at an exhibition in Paris, Te Pipiwharauroa No. 60, February 1903.)


The Queen may have been amused, but her native subjects were not. The Maori exhibits at the Empire Exhibition at Wembley were greeted with Royal approval but a scathing response from a visiting Maori group. A photograph shows King George and a smiling Queen Mary visiting the meeting house Mataatua, the royal couple and their party standing in the porch of the old wharenui, a Maori guide at their side.1 It is easy to read this image as a statement about Empire-the sovereign in his place and the native people in theirs, frozen in the ethnographic past as objects of exotic curiosity. However, a facile reading like this is problematised by the rather different contemporary reaction of the prominent Maori leader T.W. Ratana. Ratana and his delegation, in London to present a petition on the Treaty of Waitangi to the King, were 'disgusted' with the display because, compared to the Burmese exhibits, the 'Maori hut' suggested to the public that Sve are low down in the scale of native races.' 'Because we have been treated so badly,' Ratana's secretary Moka told reporters, 'our party has refused to enter the New Zealand pavilion.'2

This objection to the display, understandable from Ratana's modernising point of view, is a sign that Maori at this time would not put up with images perceived to be condescending. However, it is important to remember that this protest took place within an imperial forum rather than outside it-after all, Ratana did not advocate taking up rebellion against the Crown, but sought to have the Treaty honoured. This episode therefore reflects a complex Maori response to the display of their culture, which was not necessarily critical of the exhibition per se but of the fact that it failed to convey their mana. A careful historical reading, taking into account indigenous perspectives of the time, reveals that Maori did not so much oppose the imperial ethos of international exhibitions as demand their proper place within them.3

Susan Pearce has described the exhibition as 'the characteristic construction of the modern age, like the printed book, the framed picture...'4 It has become a commonplace of museum history and theory that, as Pearce put it, peoples are 'made' through exhibitions.5 The formation of identity through visual culture-museum displays, world's fairs, tourism and department stores-is now a common if overdrawn theme.6 There has been a huge growth of writing in the last two decades, much of it looking at the rich archives of world's fairs, those vast and numerous phenomena which paralleled the period of western expansion and colonisation into other corners of the globe.7

This paper examines the representation of Maori people and culture at international exhibitions from 1873 to 1924, showing how visual display reflected discourses such as colonisation and imperial exchange, as well as native contestation and cooperation with those discourses. I examine the relationship of objects to subjects, how things on show shape, and are shaped by, the people who showed them. Surveying the period covered by the literature examined in this issue, from Maning to Mansfield, I examine the historical evidence of New Zealand exhibitions from the mid to late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, revealing a submerged history of Maori engagement with what Nicholas Thomas calls 'colonialism's culture.'8 like the texts examined by my colleagues in this volume, I argue that exhibits, pictures and objects-the cultures of display-are written and read through the ways in which meanings are inscribed and produced within them. By 'reading' a selection of archival material documenting Maori displays against the historical backdrop of Maori and Pakeha relations in New Zealand history, I re-assess those traces of Maori agency in the colonial archive, suggesting a new and more nuanced view of the history of international exhibitions, and the objects (and subjects) they create. …

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