From being the only Pacific academic staff member in 1996, to leading the ground-breaking Pacific Collection Access Project 2019 while speaking her Tokelauan language and surrounded by Tokelauan community members “who would have camped in the Museum if we’d let them”, Curator Pacific Fuli Pereira’s career at Auckland Museum is defined by an absolute shift in the way consultation is carried out and a dedication to descendant communities of makers and owners of collections in the care of Auckland Museum. For Tokelau Language Week, she reflects on some lessons she’s learned, how change is made, and what she hopes to see happen next. 

I am Pandora Fulimalo Pereira. I hail from the islands of Atafu and Fakaofo, Tokelau. Born in Apia, Samoa, I was raised in Porirua, Wellington, attended university there, and now live in Auckland, New Zealand. I had never in my wildest dreams imagined myself working in a museum, let alone as a Curator at a museum. But here I am, twenty-odd years after I first came to Auckland Museum, the Curator of an internationally significant Pacific collection, senior of the first all-Pacific heritage team caring for Pacific collections and having established the ground-breaking Pacific knowledge-holder–focused Pacific Collections Access Project [PCAP].

I came to museums through a two-year internship programme and cannot emphasise enough the importance of internships for providing training and first-hand experience for young people in their chosen fields. That’s why the Pacific team have determinedly taken on as many interns and volunteers as we’ve been able. As Pacific people, it’s our duty to provide opportunities and to push for much more for our communities. 

Image: Tokelau weavers explaining the finer details of a Tokelauan fan. L-R Fuli Pereira, standing; Mrs Ioana Erika, Mrs Feagai Foai, Mrs Sefulu Kalolo, Mrs Matafele Pereira.

I came to the Museum in 1996 as a full-time staff member – the Associate Ethnologist – having been at Te Papa helping them with their first Pacific gallery in the new building on the water-front. Of a staff then of about 100 people, I was the first Pacific academic appointment and it wasn't until several years later that another person of colour was hired as ‘back of house’ staff. I had replaced the one Māori ‘back of house’ staff member when he resigned. To say Auckland Museum was a Eurocentric institution is an understatement, but we’re making in-roads and, to be fair, there has been a lot of support from my senior managers over the years.

I inherited the care of the World collections when Roger Neich retired in 2010; they consist of Africa (2732 items), Asia (2659 items), Australian (1391 items), Americas (1321 items) and Canada (89 items), as well as the Pacific collection (27, 894 items) which I had taken over in 2006 when the Curator Pacific position was created. 

Learning to listen

In 1996 we started planning for what would become the Pacific Masterpieces and Lifeways galleries that you can see now. We needed a consultation group so Roger Neich and I pulled together a group of elders, community leaders, knowledge-holders and artists. I think my colleagues just about fell over when about 45 people of Pacific descent arrived at the first consultation meeting. That was probably about as many Pacific Island people as anyone had ever seen in the Museum, and they had all come to be consulted about their new galleries. That was our very first Pacific Advisory Committee [PAC] in 1997.

We met with the PAC every six weeks in the early phase of gallery planning, but we noticed after the first three or four meetings there were fewer and fewer attendees. The issue was we’d selected exactly those community representatives that other institutions were also consulting with, resulting in a group of people in high demand and stretched too thinly. We knew then that our expectations were out of step with what was possible, we were asking people too much of their time and needed to find a better way of consulting with communities. An indication of the frustration, I think, was summed up by one of the PAC members, author and poet Albert Wendt, when he stated ‘you people should consider museums an anathema, the new world of technology has rendered museums an anathema. Just put collections into storage and have virtual tours of objects.’ In 1997! I thought to myself, well there goes my museum career!

I took the lessons to heart, we tweaked the makeup of the advisory group, considered the way we as an institution consult with communities and the value they bring to the institution. 

New era

In 2010 the time came to create new concepts for the renewal of the current Pacific galleries. I again was asked to establish an advisory group, and considering the lessons learned, suggested a specialist sector representation focus rather than country-based representation. So, it became Pacific teachers advising us our education programmes, Pacific journalists suggesting people to involve in the telling of our stories and histories, etc. 

On left: Mrs Matafele Pereira showing the way in which pola (house blinds) are suspended in old-style Tokelau houses.
On right: Mrs Feagai Foai and Mr Etuale Vavega (cousins) being photographed proudly holding pola (house blinds) made by a common ancestor of theirs.

Because of this sector representation, the new PAG (Pacific Advisory Group) is younger (and in Polynesian terms ‘young’ can encompass people in their 40s and 50s!). Because the PAG members are sector-focused, they’re much more clued-in to the pressures that the next generation of Pacific people are under and better in tune with their aspirations and needs. I’m very grateful to PAG for their insights and advice, and for helping shepherd through to fruition the three-year Pacific Collection Access Project (PCAP).

Welcoming people properly

I was being interviewed by a fourth-year university student recently regarding her research project when I mentioned attempts to instill Pacific cultural protocols during PCAP and she said “I came to one of the PCAP open days with my mum and grandmother, and you guys welcomed us properly. My grandma saw nifo'oti (a bush knife, but also a dance club) and we were so excited to see a nifo'oti exactly like my grandmother’s one, in the Museum. And then at the end of it, you fed us! We had lunch together! We didn’t expect that you guys would host us properly." And I thought how fantastic it was to finally be able to behave in culturally appropriate ways in the institution that is such a foreign place for many of our people. 

Image: Fuli Pereira in discussion with knowledge holders Mr Foai Foai and Mrs Ioana Erika during a Tokelau knowledge holder session of the PCAP project.

Through PCAP, I was able to bring my whole self to the workplace – that is what has been impactful for me on a personal level. It's not only for my own people, the Tokelauans, who weren’t the only group that would have camped there if we'd have allowed them to. We tried to model Pacific protocol and appropriate cultural behaviours in the hope that Teu Le Vā in action would filter through to the rest of the Museum. PCAP was my opportunity to speak my Tokelau language and behave as a Tokelau woman – doing so showed our Pacific communities that this is a place for them, that their cultures and histories are important and be intimately involved in the enhancement of knowledge of their material culture.

The Museum has built part of its reputation over the years on the strength of its Māori and Pacific collections. Our reputation overseas is based on these amazing collections. Yet, it never made sense for me that our collections are better known by European researchers, curators and PhD students than by the people who live on our doorstep, the descendant communities who have deep cultural connections to them. 

I think PCAP was one of the best things the Museum has ever done and proved that it can operate in a different way. It’s an opportunity at an opportune time, especially at this time of the Black Lives Matter movement and the decolonisation of Museum processes. There's a lot of talk about decolonising our collections and our ways of thinking, but we've still got a lot of work to do in New Zealand. Affecting change in a one-hundred-and-fifty-year-old colonial institution is heavy going, and to be honest quite heart-breaking and soul-destroying, but one of Angela Davis’ (political activist, academic, author) quotes really resonates with me and sustains me – “Optimism is a political act”. And so we have no choice but to carry on, and try not to fall too often into the final statement of the same quote – “Cynicism is obedience.”


Header image: Pola, 1970.208; Auckland War Memorial Museum
Background image: Ili, 1992.205; Auckland War Memorial Museum