Museum musings

It’s not often that I would use the term ‘political correctness gone mad’, but I think that it may apply in this caseTe Papa (New Zealand’s national museum, located in Wellington) has taken traditional Maori teachings VERY seriously and has suggested that women who are pregnant or menstruating should reschedule their visit to a specific exhibition of Maori artifacts.   This stance has been defended by claims of cultural sensitivity towards Maori (even though some Maori representatives have said that there’s no hard-and-fast rule), but, as somebody who commented on the linked article pointed out, this cultural sensitivity didn’t apply when Te Papa exhibited art that would be considered offensive by many Christians, for example (‘virgin in a condom’ – the name gives it away).

I’m sure that the media are responsible for a lot of the angst over this issue, but I imagine that the quote below may be fairly typical of the attitudes of ‘the man on the street’:

“Te Papa is taxpayer funded. It’s a public museum that is supposed to be inclusive of everyone. Religious and cultural beliefs should be ignored if they’re going to insult or oppress women for any reason.”

But wait!  An explanation has been provided:

However, Margaret Mutu, head of Maori Studies at Auckland University, said women should not be offended by the request.

“The reproduction area is extremely powerful and can do damage to things that are not tapu. It’s about the power of women, not about stopping them.”

Mutu said the objects were obviously dangerous and the hapu they came from would have told the museum about how to treat them.

“They are tapu and pregnant or menstruating women are tapu. It would be very unwise to put the two up against each other.”

Mutu said in her hapu, women were also prevented from going onto gardens or fishing areas while tapu.

(‘Tapu’ means ‘sacred’.  And life in Matu’s hapu sounds awesome – I’ve got to say that I’m tempted to start playing the ‘it’s my tapu time of the month’ card in order to get out of chores.)

Maori culture has become a huge part of mainsteam New Zealand life and I’m proud to be from a truly multi-cultural country.  However, in the past many cultures had beliefs that pregnant or menstruating women are either precious vessels that need to be sheltered from everything, or unclean.  Haven’t we moved on from those attitudes?  And all sorts of items are sacred, depending upon which culture you belong to and which belief system you follow: why aren’t we seeing mayhem ensue as menstruating women walk past crucifixes, for example? 

And it cracks me up that the article mentions ‘feminist bloggers’.  I tend to regard feminism in its purest sense: devoid of emotion, politics and wisecracks and in accordance with the dictionary definition, as a concept which advocates that women should be entitled to equal political, economic and social rights and opportunities as those afforded to men.  In that context, I read ‘feminist’ as a description and wonder who in the Western world would describe themselves as anything but feminist.  But that’s me: I’m a simple girl.

As for the actual issue?  I’m a bit ‘meh’ about it (so you’re probably wondering why I bothered writing about it at all, eh?  Fair enough).  On one hand, I can understand the hang-wringing from people who are offended by this and I do think that Te Papa is being a little too PC.  On the other hand, if I was visiting Te Papa and it was my ‘tapu’ time of the month, I think I would just take my chances with all the tapu colliding and see the exhibition if I wanted to do so – I don’t think that I am either unclean or vulnerable when menstruating, so I wouldn’t worry about it.  It could also be that people who aren’t worried about the perceived risk of threat from a belief system to which they don’t subscribe might also be unlikely to go to the exhibition in the first place.  I would go to the exhibition, but I wouldn’t worry about it.  Does this make me devil-may-care?  Or just disrespectful?  And now that I think about it, is this request any different to the people at St Peter’s in Rome insisting that you can’t go inside if you’re wearing shorts, or have bare shoulders?  Yes and no.  In the St Peter’s example, it’s about respect, whereas in the Te Papa example, it’s about a superstitious belief that women could be ‘harmed’ if the viewed the exhibition while in a delicate state.

I’m not surprised that the people who run Te Papa have found themselves in this predictament, though.  When we lived in Wellington in 2004 I went there for a job interview (to be the personal assistant to the chief executive: a role for which I was gratutiously over-qualified).  I didn’t get the job and I think that one of the main reasons was my inability to explain how I was going to live out the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi in my day-to-day working life.  The Treaty of Waitangi has played a huge role in modern NZ society and I have no issue with that: if my great-great-grandparents had been tricked out of their ancestral land for the sake of a couple of blankets and a rusty musket I think I’d be quite bitter to this day.  However, applying the principles of the Treaty to life as a PA?  A bit challenging.  I answered that I would treat everybody with respect and courtesy, because that’s my schtick at work: I didn’t think that there were cultural sensitivities that affected this approach.

If I want to work in the charitable sector in New Zealand I think I’m going to have to come up with a better answer…

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