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On ownership and returning

On ownership and returning

By Shanti Mathias
Wed, 23 Mar 2016

Held in January, the Urbanlife Summer Youth Programme is a week-long Museum event which connects Auckland youth (15-24) with artists and taonga through a series of creative workshops and back-of-house tours. Urbanlife participant Shanti Mathias shares her insights and perspective on the ownership and accessibility of taonga.


Shanti Mathias at Urbanlife.

Image: Max Mamaev.

Today I found it really interesting talking to Chanel Clarke, Curator - Māori, as she told us about returning items that have been taken from people. Of course, items come to museums in all sorts of fashions, but sometimes they haven’t gotten there fairly. So who does the item belong to?

The legacy of imperialism, as well as injustice all over the world has led to essentially stolen objects being in museums, which is wrong. At Urbanlife, we have all sorts of cultural backgrounds, which make it even more interesting to consider.

There are lots of other examples of people just taking objects without respect. The ongoing case of the Elgin Marbles is one such example, where a British colonialist took some of Greece’s most important marble carvings, which are housed in the British Museum, which doesn’t want to give them back. Of course, with Māori objects, like the whare we were sitting in, the fact that there are original owners and histories attached to museum items is hugely important.

I really loved hearing about how the Museum tries to make its items more accessible to the people they belong to, as well as taking care of items place in their trust. Understanding history is about seeing it, not just keeping it in spaces away from the people who have an emotional or even spiritual attachment to it.

This reflects the way the museums have changed since they were first set up. For a long time (as far as I can tell) they were about having the most valuable, interesting objects that allowed the (white, male) curators and visitors to interpret history with themselves as the rescuers and interpreters of other people’s history. As an Indian, I know that that happened a lot to objects from my own culture.

Taonga at the Red Fort in Delhi.

Image: Shanti Mathias.
That said, museums have shown people the world through things for a long time, and they are very important as carriers of that legacy. I love hearing about how the Auckland War Memorial Museum is involved in that.

The legacy of the past will continue to affect museums. In order to understand and interact with our taonga, it’s important to consider how the things we treasure got where they were, and how we can continue to care for them.

Urbanlife is all about understanding what is special about taonga. As representatives of the cultural values, they can tell us a lot about ourselves. In conversations with all the other people here, I’ve learnt so much about the world and some of the people who live in it. As my Urbanlife experience comes to an end, I hope that I can continue to think about justice and ownership of the things that are important to me.

To make history - or culture, or the world - accessible to people, they need to see evidence that it existed, proof of how they came to be. If that means that something fascinating and valuable is not in a big famous museum, then that’s something I can accept. 

  • Post by: Shanti Mathias

    Shanti Mathias is a high school student who loves history, books, and museums, because she's fascinated by stories. When not at school, she can be found playing music, reading, running, writing, talking and being the editor of the newspaper at her high school. She was privileged enough to attend Urbanlife over the summer, where she learnt a lot of amazing things about heritage. She believes that everyone has a story to tell, and at museums and festivals, through conversations and novels, you can find - and tell - your own. Shanti blogs at Virtually Read