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Speech for UNESCO Memory of the World 2019 inscription event – 17 Feb 2020

Delivered by Courtney Johnston during the UNESCO Memory of the World 2019 inscription event, at Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington on 17 Feb 2020.

E aku nui, e aku rahi, tēnā koutou katoa
Ki te whare, Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa, tēnā koe
E nga rangatira, e ngā kaimahi, e hoa ma – tēna koutou
Ko Courtney Johnston toku ingoa
Ko au te Tumu Whakarae o Te Papa Tongarewa
E mihi ana ahau ki a koutou kua tatū mai nei i tēnei wā ki tēnei hui
No reira, tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou katoa.

It’s always lovely to be back at the National Library, which is the place that I credit with instilling me with a strong sense of public service – as well as the wonders of what can be unlocked when we join the wealth of collections and taonga, knowledge and mātauranga, with the communities they all ultimately stem from.

It’s especially meaningful to be asked to speak this afternoon, when I am seven weeks and counting into my new role as Tumu Whakarae | Chief Executive of our national museum, Te Papa. I’m really grateful for the invitation and opportunity because for me, it’s the beginning of my contribution in this new role of drawing together Te Papa with our whanaunga National Library and Archives New Zealand.

Te Papa, National Library, and Archives New Zealand share a two-fold responsibility. We are all charged by the nation to collect, care for, and make accessible our countries’ heritage – across many different forms and formats, from books to bugs, speech manuscripts to squid specimens, tapa cloth to Te Tiriti.

We are also all charged by the nation to be of service to our wider sectors – to provide leadership and assistance to archives, libraries, museums, and iwi around the country, to ensure all our history, all our treasures, and all our people are equally cared for and receive the benefits of these services.

I believe we all also share a mandate. This is very specific in Te Papa’s legislation: we exist to be a forum for the nation, to be a place where New Zealanders can gather to understand the past, enrich the present, and meet the challenges of the future. This mission, I believe, is shared by the National Library and Archives New Zealand – as the magnificent He Tohu collaboration proves.

Whether it be through physical visitation or digital access, encountering collection imagery and items in publications, TV shows, and touring exhibitions, or fuelling individual research and knowledge-development, we all contribute to ensuring New Zealanders have a strong and active sense of where we come from, and the tools and materials needed to collectively build a picture of our future.

I also want to note Ngā Taonga here – although we four institutions all have somewhat different and confusing relationships to government and can’t quite call ourselves siblings, I think modern families can overcome the details and choose to function together seamlessly in our public service and our aspirations to serve the nation.

This of course is all built on the extraordinary foundations of the collections we care for. Someone recently asked me – seeking to get me to “think outside the box” – to imagine a future where Te Papa has no collections. And I responded that I didn’t actually think this was a useful provocation. We are charged by the nation to collect, care for, and make accessible and useful our national heritage. Without collections, we would be something else – we might be something incredible, but we wouldn't be the national museum. Collections are simply what make us us.

Tonight’s event recognises the importance of collections – as records of our histories, and as fuel for contemporary thinking and understanding.

These are not passive things – they are active and potent. They contain information, insight, and records that illuminate our understanding of how our climate is changing through the meteorological records created by farmer and lay preacher Richard Davis, now held by Auckland Libraries; that connect us to the men of the 28 Māori Battalion through the records of their waiata and conversation in te reo Māori held in the World War II New Zealand Mobile Broadcasting Unit Recordings, now held by Ngā Taonga; that restore balance to our history of scientific and medical leadership through the respect paid to the papers of Dr Muriel Bell, now held by the Hocken Collections.

These records – and the others being recognised this afternoon – are all still with us today because someone believed that it was important that they be saved and shared. So in closing, I want to acknowledge not just the institutions, but the individuals – the creators, collectors, and donors who enrich New Zealand’s memory and future every day, when they chose to place the taonga they have made and cared for into the public realm.

Ngā mihi nui kia a koutou katoa – thank you everyone.