Sunday 3 January 2016

To the Museum

Yesterday we all went to the Museum of New Zealand, Te Papa Tongarewa. This is a fine museum - lively, enterprising, welcoming, well designed - and it has much to commend it, especially to children, thanks to the range of interactive exhibits. It is also full of Maori art and artefacts, ranging in size right up to a full-scale meeting house. Now, this stuff is no doubt of great enthnographic interest, but from the purely aesthetic point of view (i.e. mine), there's no denying that it is for the most part hideous and dispiriting. The compulsion to cover every inch of every surface with elaborate repetitive patterns seems downright pathological and the effect is very wearing, while the grotesque faces that stare out at the unfortunate viewer at every turn - grimacing hideously, eyes bulging, tongues protruding - seem to bespeak a culture of terror and darkness, rather than the prelapsarian idyll we'd prefer  to imagine. Yet Maori imagery and symbolism is incorporated into virtually everything visual in New Zealand as so much benign and innocuous decoration, and no visitors to Te Papa seem anything but delighted by the overwhelming profusion of Maori material.
 The Antipodean nations used to be known for their 'cultural cringe' towards the vastly richer culture of the mother country. Now the cringe is directed towards the earliest inhabitants - in Australia's case, in a determined over-celebration of Aboriginal 'art'. You could call it political correctness (and you wouldn't be far wrong), but New Zealand's celebration of Maori art probably has more to do with the Kiwis' fundamental niceness and good nature, for which God be thanked. However, I think I shall have had more than my fill of all things Maori by the time I head home from here.


  1. Are you actually trying to get us deported?!? I actually like the patterns - remind me of celtic runes - and always rather guiltily enjoy the haka with it bulging eyes and sticking out of tongue (remembering the gorgeous Jonah Lomu with thrilling joy). But yes, aggression is a strong element in the old Maori culture - as with almost any tribal people - plenty of it apparent in Western art from the various mighty clashes of religions and peoples. Anyway, all the Maori kiwis I have met these days are every bit as lovely as the incomer variety.

  2. That is indeed my plan. I await the knock at the door...
    And I don't like Celtic art much either.