Speech for Talanoa Mau at NZ Festival – 24 Feb 2020

Delivered by Courtney Johnston during the Talanoa Mau conference as part of NZ Festival, at Te Papa on 24 Feb 2020.

E aku nui, e aku rahi, tēnā koutou katoa
Tēnā koutou e te mana whenua
Ki a koutou hoki o Rongowhakaata
Lemi – tēnā koe
E ngā manuhiri tūārangi – tēnā koutou
E ngā kaimahi o Tawhiri – tēnā koutou
Tēnā tātou – Tātou kua tae nei
Ki te whakarongo
Ki te whiriwhiri whakaaro
Ki te kōrero atu ki te kaupapa e karanga ana
Kia a tātou katoa.

I loved, from the first moment I saw it, the description of today’s event – a coming together of people, a giving of voice to new and unheard ideas, a gathering that will help us all carve a path into the future.

As the new Tumu Whakarae of Te Papa, the collective creation of a path into our future is very much top of my mind.

Te Papa was created, and our founding legislation directs us to be, a forum for the nation to present, explore,and preserve the heritage of its cultures and knowledge of the natural environment, in order to better understand and treasure the past, enrich the present, and meet the challenges of the future.

The building we are meeting in today was designed in the 1990s to reflect Aotearoa’s history and evolving identity. It is layered in meanings, which are not always that easy to detect.

From the ground to the sky, the building takes us on a journey from nature to culture: from Bush City on one side and our iwi planting area on the other, through Te Taiao on Level 2 and up into our mana whenua, Treaty, Pasifika, migratory history, and art galleries. A void – or meeting space, depending on how you look at it – allows people and ideas to circulate and see each other across these zones. 

From the north to the south, two patterns of migration are brought together. The steeply sloping wall that falls from Rongomaraeroa to the harbour was designed to evoke the landing site of a waka and symbolise Māori arrival. The grid-like pattern of brightly coloured panels designed by Milan Mrkusich on the southern face of the museum, which “greets the city” – or “graces the carpark”, depending on how you look at it – was designed to reflect the patterns of European settlement.

Drawing these two sides together is the central wedge, which divides and unites Te Papa – depending how you look at it. This space holds the Treaty exhibition, makes explicit the founding document of our nation, the place where we all find our footing as New Zealanders.

The architects talked about how this space cleaves the museum – a curious verb, which means to split apart with a sharp instrument, or to join together in the closest of contacts – depending on how you look at it.

These are all architectural tricks, to some extent – the fancies of 1990s post-modernist theory, mixed with the breaking down of old museum structures that characterised the new museology of the time.

For me, as I have been thinking and evolving myself into this new role, of understanding what contribution I have to make to this task of understanding the past, enriching the present, and meeting the challenges of the future, it’s been one of our least remarked upon architectural features that I keep returning to.

As you walked in this morning, you likely passed the three boulders that adorn our forecourt. Mostly, you see kids clambering over them, or tourists taking shelter from the wind while they wait for the bus.

But the boulders are also there to hold the founding concept of Te Papa, developed through nation-wide consultation and adopted by Government in 1990.

This founding concept introduced the concepts of unified collections, the narratives of culture and place, the idea of forum, the bicultural partnership, and the multidisciplinary approach to delivering a national museum for diverse audiences. These took us from a national museum and a national gallery to a Te Papa; from the temple on the hill to the themepark on the foreshore – depending on how you look at it; from a monocultural organisation to one that strives to embody the Treaty partnership, and address the harm and injustice done by the museum system in the past; from a place that told people what was important and true to a place that asks people what importance and truth look like to them.

And it centred all matters of concern to Te Papa on the conceptual framework that the three boulders symbolise:

  • Papatūānuku – the earth on which we all live
  • Tangata Whenua – those who belong to the land by right of first discovery
  • Tangata Tiriti – those who belong to the land by right of the Treaty.

To my mind, the greatest challenges of our future, the greatest need for a meeting place of minds, lives within these three pou: how do we, as people of different backgrounds, cultures, beliefs, and values, make our lives together in this place, and how do we make our lives with respect and care for our environment, the mother we cannot live without?

I wanted to touch, in conclusion, on one last founding principle, which I think has bearing on today’s kaupapa.

The creation of Te Papa was led by two people: Kaihautū Cliff Whiting and Chief Executive Cheryll Sotheran. The creation of this co-leadership model was undertaken to embody – to put out into the world in the form of two people, working in partnership – the Treaty relationship Te Papa is built upon.

Arapata and I are co-charged with the ongoing growth and development of this bicultural museum. The system we work within – governmental, bureaucratic, legalistic – does not recognise co-leadership. The system likes one person, one job title, one line of accountability, one signature.

Co-leadership is, in some ways, harder than single leadership. It demands respect, empathy, trust, and a sense of self that is not diluted but rather strengthened by sharing authority. Co-leadership rejects individualistic behaviour, and demands collective thought and action.

That, I believe, is the great beauty and strength of it. Co-leadership cannot be signed off and put aside in order to get on with the business. It must be built every day, through conversation, the sharing of perspectives, the resolution of differences. We must accept that this work will never be completed, will always require further growth and negotiation. It is an inspiring model for a museum that seeks to be a place for all New Zealanders to take part in this same endeavour.

And in this vein – of coming together to understand ourselves, through conversation, occasional confrontation, and the opening of hearts and minds – I am grateful to Lemi and the Festival for choosing to hold Talanoa Mau here at Te Papa, and to you all for being here. By being here, by taking part, you are enabling us to perform our duty for Aotearoa. I look forward to sharing the next two days with you.

No reira, tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou, tēnā tātou katoa.