Whanganui museum looks to fill Māori curator vacancy

6:01 pm on 5 July 2021

Whanganui Regional Museum is searching for its first Māori curator.

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Whanganui Regional Museum is seeking a dedicated curator for its taonga Māori. Photo: LDR / Moana Ellis

Museum director Bronwyn Labrum said it is shocking there is no Māori curator in Whanganui given the significance of the taonga Māori collection, but years of underfunding have made it difficult to maintain the museum let alone grow it.

The hunt for the right person can now begin following the adoption of the Whanganui District Council's Long-Term Plan, which confirms an extra $150,000 of museum funding for the next 10 years.

A marketing and communications coordinator has been appointed to help lift the museum's profile and the long-standing vacancy for a natural history curator will also be addressed. But Labrum said the need for a dedicated curator taonga Māori has become more pressing as the museum deals with increasing custodianship demands, including more requests and interactions with tangata whenua and others about taonga and repatriation.

She said the internationally renowned collection of 5000 identified Māori taonga is related to the people of the river and the region.

"The entire collection is extraordinary. It's the taonga that give the collection its international significance. You've got very significant objects like the waka Te Mata, which are housed in the Māori Court that was built in 1968 specifically to show off the taonga collection.

"Given the significance of the collection and such calls on it, we should have more than one person caring for our taonga Māori. I think it's scandalous that we don't have a Māori curator.

"There hasn't been any proactive collecting, and we get lots of requests for information, requests from people to come and view the collections, and people who want to deposit things here because they know they'll be looked after. The curator will be able to deal with those things."

Whanganui Regional Museum director Bronwyn Labrum

Bronwyn Labrum said the Whanganui museum needs to sit alongside the library, the gallery and the war memorial hall as part of a total package. Photo: LDR / Supplied

Labrum said the museum appreciates the council's support but the increase in funding is long overdue following underinvestment by previous councils.

In November, the museum board and its then acting director, curator Libby Sharpe, asked council for an additional $75,000 annual contribution.

In an oral submission to the draft Long-Term Plan in May, Labrum - the newly appointed museum director - told council that without the extra funding the museum would have to cut costs, staff and operating hours, but $75,000 would still not be enough to fill staff vacancies, including two vital curatorial vacancies in natural history and taonga Māori.

Councillor Helen Craig moved a motion to double the amount requested, and the council agreed to increase its contribution from $975,000 to $1.125 million annually.

The museum will need to find further sources of funding to expand its potential, Labrum said, but she was not keen to take up councillor Alan Taylor's suggestion to charge for entry. She said research had shown entry fees lowered visitor numbers, and she believes the museum warrants the district's support.

"Cultural organisations are as important as rubbish collections, repairing roads and footpaths, paying for sports, all of those sorts of things. We hold this extremely significant collection of taonga in trust for people of the future, and it's got to be looked after properly by experts who know what they're doing. It really needs ongoing, secure support.

"Culture and heritage is a huge part of this city going forward. It seems to me that the museum needs to be front and centre. It needs to sit in this wonderful precinct alongside the library, the gallery and the war memorial hall. It's a total package.

"At the moment, the spotlight is on the Sarjeant Gallery - not that I'm begrudging them at all - but if you don't have the museum up there on an equal footing, you're missing a leg that is really important.

"Here you've got natural history, cultural history, taonga, a huge visual record of photographic collections including glass plate negatives … everything you want to know about Whanganui is here."

The museum is run by a trust governed by a volunteer bicameral board of civic and iwi representatives.

It's hoped that a curator taonga Māori will be appointed by September to work in tandem with the existing part-time Kaitiaki Taonga Māori, whose role is split 60-40 with museum education.

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