new zealand electronic poetry centre


Ian Wedde



Ian Wedde

Museums Aotearoa ‘Engaging Practices’ symposium, Auckland 1997.


A Day at the Footie

My thinking about foundational histories has recently been informed by the situation in which I currently work - in a national institution of culture, the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. This new museum aspires to incorporate the widest possible range of human cultures, natural sciences, and commercial activities. On a Saturday morning early in the 1997 football season I went in to work there. The newspapers had recently been featuring the daring heist of a major painting by Colin McCahon. The painting was the celebrated Urewera Mural which had been located at a remote Visitor Centre in Te Urewera. The mural was the result of a controversial commission in 1974 - controversial not least because of the attitude to it of an influential section of Tuhoe, on whose lands the Centre, and the mural, were located.

The reasons for Tuhoe anger over the painting are complex. They touch directly on the relationship of memory and culture; how these are inscribed in land; how this inscription may be represented; how that representation may involve language; and how that language may, or may not, be invested in, or owned in some sense, by agencies outside the iwi itself. There is an important distinction to bear in mind here, as in the case of historical representations of Maori as portrait subjects, between the objective value of the art work, often vested in the artist’s signature; and the value of the art’s object as such: the wholly present significance of what is represented. A Western value system tends to prioritise the economic value of the art as coextensive with the artist’s reputation; Maori will tend to prioritise the social value of what is represented, as coextensive with whakapapa (genealogy) and whenua (place). The two systems are by no means mutually exclusive; but there is a powerful tension between them which increases as they are moved further apart. Because the economic value of McCahon’s work is notoriously increasing in step with his reputation, there is increasing pressure, in the case of the Urewera Mural, to mark the value of what the painting represents, in step with Tuhoe ownership of that significance. In a sense, there is tension and even competition between artist’s signature and Tuhoe sovereignty.

The fact that Colin McCahon's painting intended to affirm Tuhoe's inalienable connection of their whakapapa with the whenua of Te Urewera is sadly relevant here. In a sense, the mural lipsynched the statement by Tuhoe, twenty years later, that 'the kaitiaki of our rivers, mountains and hapu must not be replaced by corporate structures.'(1)

It was supposed that the mural had been taken by 'Tuhoe radicals'. The press was equally mesmerised by Maori political activism, and by the reported value of the painting (in excess of a million dollars). The most commonly proposed scenario for the heist, was that the economic value of the painting made it a valuable political hostage against which such issues as land rights could be negotiated. While such a scenario preserves a germ of the tension described above, it does not even begin to understand the depth and intensity of that tension.

I intended, that Saturday, to work through the morning and then go to the All Black versus Argentina rugby test match at Athletic Park in the afternoon. I had a couple of tickets from one of the Museum's art curators, who is Maori and comes from up the coast close to Tuhoe territory. Several carloads of John's friends had come down for the game.

While I was working, a couple of members of the Museum's senior management appeared and told me that Te Papa was involved in negotiations over the heisted McCahon painting. They asked if I could stay on call. I said I was going to the football, but that I'd take my phone to the game.

I went to the game with one of my kids. My cellphone was in my jacket pocket, and I wondered what I might be able to do if it rang. My son and I took our seats with my colleague from the Museum and his friends from Gisborne. Most of them were Maori. One had taa moko - a full facial tattoo. They had a Maori Sovereignty flag which they hoisted when the All Blacks scored tries, which was often (Christian Cullen was sensational). They sang the New Zealand national anthem with passion, and joined in the 'Ka Mate' haka at the beginning of the game. As the try count mounted in the All Black's favour, they rose repeatedly to sing 'Don't Weep For Me Argentina'. Among them was a Welsh nationalist, with a Welsh national flag, who from time to time would shout, 'World Cup, Cardiff 99!' I was waiting for my phone to ring, for news about Colin McCahon's Urewera Mural to enter the arena. But not for long. Like everyone else, I forgot about everything except the game. I was living in the present of one of Tana Umanga's weaving, almost derisive, scoring runs.

The phone didn't ring. One reason it didn’t, was probably The Museum of New Zealand's real and symbolic association with the Crown. The very last place you would expect the tension between economic and whenua value to be resolved, is ‘in Wellington’, so to speak - within the territorial jurisdiction of what is widely perceived as the Crown’s span of control, in direct conflict with Tuhoe’s rangatiratanga (sovereignty) in respect of the painting.

I like to imagine that another reason my phone didn’t ring, was that everyone involved, in Te Urewera on Tuhoe land, or ‘in Wellington’ on the Crown’s, was watching the football. This great national ritual was also the occasion of profound forgetting. The occasion was not so much about remembering who we were, as about forgetting who we are.

Rule of thumb: occasions of ‘national’ celebration or trauma invite us to ‘forget our differences’ - as though differences needed to be resolved rather than understood before nationhood could be possible, as though memory had to be schooled in a kind of selectivity.


It's not just me

A project that sets out to investigate foundational histories will be fated to think about how we live in time, about how we remember and how we forget, and about memory and what it makes of culture. The project might even have to find a way of asking a strange question like, How do memory and culture differ? The project is going to have to think about the archive, which is the institution, in whatever form, of memory. It will have to think about museums, which are one of those institutionalised forms. It may therefore have to ask, How do museums and culture differ?

The language of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa's brand ('Te Papa, Our Place') has already reduced to logo dimensions a fundamental nationalising agenda. To this agenda, such institutions as national museums owe not only their political existence as legal constructs of the State which has composed their founding charter; but also their operational existence which depends on their successfully delivering on that charter. That operational dependency may not be the result of operational funding, which the State may require the institution to generate in large part; but it does depend on the institution's ability to show a return on the State's capital investment. To do this, the institution has to return value on its services: its public programmes including exhibitions, its research, its hire facilities, and its information products including publications, education programmes, and databases. The value it returns on the State's investment will often have to be commercial. Sometimes the value will be in trade, as in the institution's ability to generate products like exhibitions which it can swap for those generated by others; sometimes it will be diplomatic, inasmuch as the institution will send out cultural or scientific icebreakers, effectively skippered by the State, into economic or political zones of speculation; sometimes the value returns will be in reputation, a confidence-winning investment.

However the Museum generates and returns value, the vortex of its charter will always tend to draw towards a nationalising concept of unity, of the nation as being somehow contained and expressed within the architecture of the institution. Even where that architecture is seen as immaterial, distributed like the institution's information systems and electronic networks, still the metaphor of the institution as a centre is not necessarily diminished by much. No matter how distributed the institution may be in its effects, still the sense of a hub persists, from which these effects radiate. It is very difficult for a national institution of culture to dispute the metaphor that makes it the reductive programmer of cultural diversity, the ameliorator of difference: to build into its practice a constructive and empowering critique of 'our' and 'place'. 'Our', after all, is both an inclusive and an exclusive pronoun - how is the Museum to direct this in-and-out traffic? And 'place' is space culturally inscribed - for example in memory, in language, in art, and therefore in foundational histories and in myths of origin: how can 'place' be singular when it results from different cultural formations?

Because it must show a return on the State's investment in order both to secure its charter and to maintain its operation, the national institution of culture is locked into a market pattern: it has to maximise the consumption of its services. It has to do this not just for the obvious reason that it's a good thing for the greatest possible number of people to want, and get, its services; but because of the nature of its political contract. In a democracy, that contract is going to require agglomerative strategies: how to find the few promises that attract the many votes; how to identify the myths that dissolve difference; what are the ties that bind?

The official name which sits above Te Papa's brand ('The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa') expresses the institution's function: to be a repository of the nation's cultures; to be the nation's institutional memory; to be the showcase of its foundational histories - not just for internal consumption, but for consumption by international tourists. Even allowing for the concept (enshrined in the Museum's mission statement) of that repository as a forum where difference is marked, it is still hard to dispute the model that sees difference contained within the institution: we are likely to believe that within this architecture (this nation), difference is managed, and may even be programmed.

I offer these general remarks as a disclaimer of sorts. This disclaimer has two parts. The first (as I’ve already said) is that my thinking about foundational histories has recently been informed by the situation in which I currently work - in a national institution of culture, the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. The second is that my thinking has also been informed for a long time, both before and since this employment, by a number of writers who have used the concept of nation as the key fulcrum for levering open investigations of culture. My thinking may be original in one sense, in that it arises from issues I confront every day when I go to work. In another sense, my thinking is not original at all, because without the great dictionaries of national biography, without Foucault's theorising of institutions, the grand critiques of writers like Edward Said, the local interventions of cultural theorists like Eric Michaels, the guerilla raids of Marian Pastor Roces - and so on - I would have no language with which to work and no critical history with which to measure revision.

There is a kind of paradox here, a 'creative oxymoron' as Simon Schama has termed it, in which I find myself benefiting equally from an observation platform within a national institution of culture at the very moment of its creation; and from a long revisionist, and recently highly critical, history of the nationalising agenda that is creating the institution.

For me, this is a privileged situation. After years of freelance work, during which I had no way of experiencing in myself the tension between the language of policy and the language of desire, I now find myself enjoying the binocular vision of paradox. My situation is also fabulous, in the sense that I can construe policy as fable, and I can see in action the process that transforms foundational histories into contemporary experiences for the leisure and education markets. I can range promiscuously across anecdote and theory, without worrying much about the shifts in register. It's not just me (I can tell myself), centred in my attempt to think; it's where I am, in the chaos of an event.


The Nationalist DNA

Histories of national identity have their grand taxonomic narratives: ethnicity, cartography, religion, cuisine, class structures, public language, political system, gender relations, etc. Thus, for example, there exists a nation described as Indian, Hindu, Asian subcontinent, vegetarian, caste-based, Hindi-speaking, democratic, patriarchal - less because such a nation exists in itself, as because it has been thus constructed, and its history written, from a point outside itself. Such constructions are often disputed from within; or, sometimes, reified as products, for market gain (an international food such as pizza remains 'Italian', even when one of its toppings is commonly, in New Zealand, pineapple - one of my kids was once humiliated into dropping his pizza slice on the floor of a pizza place off St Marks in New York City when, asked what he wanted on it, he replied 'Pineapple'; at which the pizza guy snarled, 'Where do you think you are, Hawaii?' Well, where did he think he was, Naples? Is there pizza there?). To the categories produced in this model, come the metacategories of tourism (powerfully connected to product reification), usually produced to a model that combines opposites: the Indian nation described above is both exotic and filthy, rich in history and poor in resource wealth, and so on; of xenophobia and racism; and of what is best described as positive stereotyping, different from the idealisations of tourism but related to them, as a result of which national characteristics such as spirituality are ascribed to one nation because another imagines their absence in itself. (Thus, also, the heat of a vindaloo prepared in Allen St off Courtenay Place in Wellington is less about a 'national' cuisine that is hot, than it is about the coolness of another; what has also been forgotten in the process is the vindaloo's origin at the meeting of 'Portugal' and 'India' in the early sixteenth century: does the cafe Masala's menu in Allen St remember this moment in 1997 - or is the menu an archive whose memory has been lost?)

An internalised construction of national identity, however, is more often an unstable, untaxonomic, impermanent web of contacts between often disparate or conflicted elements, often generated within a broad base of popular culture. Thus, sport and team colour may form a point of contact whose components have arrived from wildly unrelated sources. In Wellington, a soccer club has orange as its colour - why? It turns out that the club was founded by Dutch immigrants. But why are the Dutch associated with orange? Why, in particular, is orange the colour of the Dutch Royal Family? Does it derive simply from that family's origins in an eponymous Dutch town? Or does it also have something to do with the history of Dutch mercantilism, as a result of which Dutch national identity was infused with the colour of its most successfully imported dye? As it was also infused with an Oriental ceramic in Delftware - as (similarly) the English Crown came to be associated with a Lion whose roarings originated in the Chinese silk trade before Marco Polo; and an English ceramic ('willow pattern') derived from another Oriental model. These motifs memorialise, and may unlock the memories of, patterns of migration, trade and exchange. They mark culture as mobile and predatory, running along the same lay lines as commerce. They warn us that the hegemony of even the most isolated traditions, needs to be disputed. Museums may contain many such motifs, and the narratives they can unlock.

Such details as team colours often conceal narratives which, as it turns out, contribute more to the sense of an identity than the standard taxonomies of race, religion, and the like. When shaken, the ‘team colour’ kinds of motif often let fall such stories as those of immigration, revealing in the process immigrant nations whose commonality has more to do with their having left 'home', than with their still being there. The 'team colour' type stories also reveal other nations - in this case the 'nation' of soccer fans, and the sub-nation of New Zealand immigrant Dutch within it. Such nations are not captured by nationalist taxonomy; yet their pointillist total of details may contribute more to that sense than the standard taxonomy.

In the gentle and wise opening passages of Culture and Imperialism, Edward Said made a number of assertions, and asked several questions, which may provide me with some footing for these generalised remarks. He suggested that imperial cartographies laid the groundwork for what is now thought of as a global world. The patterning of communications, trade, resources, travel, meteorological information, and so on, 'was first established and made possible by the modern empires.' (2) (There exist, in other words, meta-memories which may often be congruent with imperial pasts; and which exist in presents which are obscured by the shadows of empire.) He suggested that the inheritors of imperial history, both metropolitan and in the formerly colonised world, 'feel a new urgency about understanding the pastness or not of the past'. (3) (Those striving to move their present out of the shadow of empire, or striving to understand what has become of empire, have in common an understanding of the implication of memory with a present.) He discovered 'an aspiration to sovereignty' in all nationally defined cultures; and, contrapuntally, asserted that 'cultures actually assume more "foreign" elements, alterities, differences, than they consciously exclude'.(4) Like Jonathan Friedman, though with a different emphasis, Said suggested that societies have sometimes constructed their pre-colonial cultures, their 'traditions'; that what was involved, for example, in the Algerian imaging of its pre-French colonial past was less a recovery of history - a remembering - than a mobilising of liberationist power.

Culture, in other words, is constructed as well as remembered; it is invented as well as retained; it builds on old maps, including rejected ones, even as it draws fresh boundaries for itself; it is constantly in revision; its sense of the past, and whether it is past, is galvanised in its present; what is perceived as 'foreign' in a culture, and what is not, is determined by that culture's 'aspiration to sovereignty'.

From the vantage point of a national institution of culture, in the market for leisure and education dollars, and charged by the State with the duty to tell the nation's stories, something like the following national institution DNA chain, or algorithm, may be hypothesised at this stage. I use the metaphor of a DNA chain here, because of the degree of inevitability set in motion by the originating building-blocks of genetics; and of an algorithm because, as a method of computation or as the originating terms of a software programme, the algorithm is directed at producing a specific outcome, safe from random factors. The ‘nationalising DNA/algorithm’ goes like this, building on the crucial pairing of 'nation' with 'identity' (the pairing that makes inevitable both the result and the process of getting there):

nation-identity® mass (‘forgetful’) audience® long term investment® overcapitalisation® resistance to revision® cultural gridlock® anachronism

Charged with helping to develop concepts and themes for the Museum's programmes and research, I should find this DNA/algorithm alarming, and I do. It draws the concept of 'identity' towards a centre massively capitalised as architecture (both material and networked), and in that centre it invests and discovers meaning in a model of archive - a model that says our society's sense of the past (and its pastness) is primarily retrospective, because retrospective is what the collecting of material culture must inevitably be. The gloomy consequence of the nationalising DNA/algorithm assembled above, is that culture, that unstable, hybrid, endlessly revised patterning of space, value, body, consciousness, meaning, and material, is locked within a national capital (metropolitan as well as economic) with the implicit conclusion that culture is what has already happened, and that the nationalist interpretation of (and forgetting of) what has already happened is what will bring difference together at points of common understanding. And that these interpretations (for example exhibitions) will not only not need to change much, because they will have got the points of common understanding (and forgetting) right; but will not be able to change, because of the amount of capital invested in them. In this model, capital severs, or insulates, the archive from memory, if memory is what animates the past in the present.

What are the examples of such an algorithm? Most national museums with long histories contain them: constructs in which the anachronising of culture has produced interpretations that are now, themselves, dated artefacts, some of which have become audience favourites - so that a diorama enshrining a racist or outmoded ethnographic representation of indigenous culture cannot, now, be revised because it is one of the promises that win votes (to pick up the democratic market trope again) - because it continues to show a good return on the national investment. And because what audiences remember is the diorama - the archive embalmed in capital - not what the diorama offers as negotiable memory.

The costs, both economic and in terms of public controversy, of replacing such favourites, have often frightened off the kind of funding required to rewrite the canon of identity, revise interpretations of collections, offer artefacts and narratives up for revaluation, open the archive to memory, establish new and different links with new and different communities, unlock investigations of the past (and its pastness) from capital, exfoliate the centre. Often, it has taken interventions from outside the institution of the museum, by artists like Fred Wilson or Lothar Baumgarten, who are interested in how values and meanings are inscribed in the collections of museums, to accomplish this upheaval. In the case of Wilson's intervention in at least one institution, the upheaval resulted not only in the revision of the collection display, and in the revealing of tensions in the different ways values and meanings are inscribed; but in the cataclysmic restructuring of the museum's executive as well. Lothar Baumgarten's stop-frame photographs of the Pitt River Museum in Cambridge are similarly radical interventions, only they work by dramatising and preserving the astonishing artefactuality of that anachronism.

So - what is an alternative to nation in the algorithm, that might introduce a random factor capable of unlocking many memories? Something that is not nationalist simply, something capable of gliding through the cartography of centralising nationality. What is alternative identity there? Something that is not ameliorative. What is the alternative to a lumpen, a mass audience, that audience whose dying exemplar is the ratings-driven broadcast model? A niched audience, one that is thought of as requiring many different points of entry to experience. What might substitute for overcapitalisation? Capital that is supple, with an inbuilt agent of change. What is the agent of change? Contemporary culture, which includes a contemporary valuation of the past. This is what will either dispel anachronism; or make it transparent.

What are the agencies of contemporary culture? There are many, but art is one of the most important. I am thinking of an art practice that incorporates many forms of image making, diverse technologies and materials, from the most conceptual to the most performative. Art animates memory in the present. That animated present is what culture is. Art constructs that present not as a pedagogic space, but as a metaphoric one. Without art as a key contemporary agent of culture, the museum may remain a pedagogic space, alienated from the metaphoric spaces of culture, an archive not a memory.

We seem to be approaching a position that says: memory without contemporary culture will make a prison of the archive, will solidify capital, will generalise the audience; it is this kind of memory that, yoked to nation, produces a nationalist identity.

It's like saying: the menu that has vindaloo down as nationalist home cooking, is like the archive that has no present memory from which to animate its past - the flavour has gone out of the past; it has become a serve-all garnish called tradition; its consumers are pleased not because it is hot, but because it is not cool.

The prospect that a new national institution might lock itself into that nationalising algorithm, needed to produce a core strategy in the conceptual development of the Museum of New Zealand. The telling of foundational histories was to be a great part of the museum's work. How could these narratives be constructed in a present that worked to keep its capital supple?


On the Waterfront

Te Papa - Our Place - the new Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, is scheduled to open in February 1998 on Wellington's waterfront. Here, on the sites of what were wharfingering and warehousing industries, culturally undervalued and even ghettoised as zones of ill repute in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, there are now being established the new, prime location institutions of culture. These locations retain potent traces of labour and trade.

In favouring this location, Te Papa has opened itself to charges of irresponsibility: the nation's treasures should be on rocky hills, not on quaggy reclamations. However, the Museum is also following an international trend. Such sea-level sites, and such traces of labour and trade, generate another analogy. This analogy works to secularise the Museum. Here, as not in elevated basilica or citadels, culture is remembered in a zone of work and exchange. The Museum's policymakers should ponder the symbolic relocation of cultural memory from hilltop to waterfront - from a sacred to a profane site.

What this symbolic relocation means in terms of customer focus is clear; what it means in terms of biculturalism is not - particularly since the Museum is inevitably associated, at the symbolic but also at the pragmatic level, with the Crown. What kind of archive of indigenous culture might Te Papa be, when it is actively positioned as profane, and passively as the Crown?

In rebuttal of enthusiastic uptake of 'memetics' (Richard Dawkins’ theory of the transmission and reception of cultural information) as an epistemology for the digital age, Richard Barbrook has recently reasserted labour and free will as the producers of human knowledge. (5) In its new, profane site, the Museum is more likely to favour a model of culture as the dramatic product of what people do and of how they choose to 'make a difference', than of the version of social Darwinism offered by memetics. Memetics offers a model of human knowledge and of culture that is largely involuntary, involving transmission rather than agency.

Not far beneath the surface of a distinction between the waterfront and the hilltop, between the profane and the ecclesiastic, between production and memetics, and possibly between a materialist and a whakapapa model of culture, lies a distinction between the language of the marketplace and the corporate language of policy.

The Museum's corporate objectives are not unique, but belong in an international constellation of revisionist thinking about the duties of public institutions of culture, particularly those with colonial histories. At their most promising, the revisions represent an alliance or partnership between museum professionals and audiences, for example between the Museum and the iwi or Maori tribes of New Zealand; or they oblige the Museum to think a bit harder about its role as the broker of a partnership between a museum audience (rather than an Artspace audience) and contemporary artists. At their most banal, the revisions represent little more than a second-rate market repositioning exercise, as a result of which minority cultures may well go under the ratings hammer.

Neither the romance of a new deal between institutions of national culture and audiences, nor the possible drama of daring revision, is well expressed in the language of the corporate document - any corporate document, not just the Museum of New Zealand's. Culture is unstable - and its products very often dramatise and celebrate daring, risk, romance and instability. Corporate cultural language does the opposite: unlike the culture it charters itself to serve, it must promise sustainability. It must stabilise as 'foundational history' within the archive, what marketplace culture would prefer to make fabulous within memory - including the irresponsible memory of art. Corporate cultural language must do this for its political and fiscal masters, and also to be accountable to its own processes. Even despite this drive to stability in the language of the Museum's corporate vision, however, its assertions of revision and its wooings of customers are enough to frighten off some of those who want more, rather than less, stability - for example, those who want to be certain that standards of curatorial accountability and scholarly excellence are not being sacrificed on the altars of commercial positivism. These people are often the ones who would like to lend items from their own collections to the Museum, but are frightened to do so. They may even be the ones who could gift their collections to 'the nation'. Also alarmed, and for similar reasons, may be the very iwi with whom the Museum is undertaking to write a new covenant.

The main challenge the Museum enterprise faces is its repositioning in terms of audiences and their wishes and needs - its 'customer focus'. This alone is enough to mean that the languages of consumer culture and the market are going to sound more truthful when made to speak of the Museum's intentions, than are those of the corporate mission. These languages (of consumer culture and market) are, however, dramatic rather than programmatic. They express desire where the corporate states policy. Corporate language has a duty to stimulate effective hierarchies of action. This structure is entirely bureaucratic: its purpose is to make policy statements cause actions which produce outputs whose outcomes can be evaluated and documented. Despite the wistful traces of idealism that cling to it, this language is effective not affective. This is why it sounds less truthful in the context of a 'customer focused' cultural enterprise, than the unstable, dramatic, performative languages of consumer culture and the market.

The languages of consumer culture and marketing are, by contrast, insubmissible to summative evaluations or performance measurements. Nor, as noted, can these languages express a decent bureaucratic need for sustainability in the use of capital. They are more likely to talk about excess, including the kind of excess theorised, or sensationalised, as cultural capital by Georges Bataille. And yet it is in these kinds of rhapsodies, rather than in policy directives, that our instincts want to hear the vision of the new Museum expressed. We want that vision to promise us the romances of startling new relationships, we want it to be daring enough to fail. We want to recognise in it our experience of culture, including the delights of hoarding, the emotions of family treasuring, and above all, perhaps, the promiscuity of taste and valuing which is the life of culture but, very often, anathema to the traditional connoisseurship of the museum. And, alas, at the same time, we want to know that the curatorial ethic of the Museum is not speculative, and that its collections - which are our collections - are secure.

This paradox creates a credibility gap between the reliable yet yearning corporate language of the Museum's 'vision', and the unstable language of the market it is committing itself to. It is a gap the Museum's critics are repeatedly attracted by. Some of these critics, or sceptics, represent iwi whose model of the archive is whakapapa, and who require the Museum's language to be effective and accountable.

It is, we have to remember, a fairly recent development that says museum collections are there primarily to stock public exhibitions. In the oldest museum or archive conventions, collections were not for exhibition. They were study collections, they were archives for scholars, they were there to preserve benchmarks of cultural and scientific production, and like the Maori waananga or houses of learning the knowledge they represented was often esoteric and restricted. The last function they were expected to have was the more or less democratic one of benchmarking or fetishising or symbolising myths of origin, 'foundational histories', or whatever. What they were more likely to do was enshrine and indeed legitimise the power of ruling elites.

Now, there is a growing shift in emphasis from the cognitive to the experiential functions of the museum - from the pedagogic to the metaphoric. The pressures for this change have come from the effects of mass distribution culture in the twentieth century - the cultures of film and of commercial television, in particular, and of rapid transit information systems; and perhaps more influentially, from the decline of the traditional research community associated with universities and museums.

Research has been increasingly bought up, and the rights to its intellectual property products secured, by the R&D divisions of corporates - the research budgets of Sony Corporation, of Microsoft, of Telecom, and most particularly of Nintendo, are way beyond the competitive reach of museums and universities. The cultural studies research budgets at MIT are, effectively, administered by the information and communications industries, and by the electronic leisure industries.

The practices of museums are increasingly open to public scrutiny and therefore dependent on public satisfactions and support; and are increasingly in competition not with the corporate research community, but with the leisure industries - in the market of shopping complexes, multiplex cinemas, theme parks, video arcades, professional sport, rock concerts, video rental and television.

Video arcades, and the electronic games industry in general, are interesting to the contemporary museum because the amount of research and development funding available to the electronic games industry exceeds what is available in any other sector of the burgeoning computerised leisure market. What professional sports, rock concerts, video rentals and television have in common, is their increasing involvement with virtuality. The repeated, multi camera angled replay is now a cliché of televised sportscasting. No one experiences a sense of temporal unreality as Christian Cullen or Tana Umanga scores the same try six times from six camera angles. Rock concerts are published in CD-ROM form, and will soon be on-line in formats into which archival footage is inserted, thereby collapsing the space between performance present and documentary history - complicating Said's question about the pastness of the past. MTV's inevitable elision of real-time and archival video at the convergence of terrestrial (for example satellite and cable) networks, and computational (for example LAN or mirror) networks, will effectively blur any distinction between the cached experience and the immediately transmitted one. In an emergent language, 'memory' is becoming 'cache', 'present' becoming 'real time' - and the experiential distinction between them is disappearing. It is already possible to download video into your home computer if you have the capacity and the patience. And the convergence of telecommunications with television has already produced a new communications environment in which restricted or concealed archives such as traditional museum collections, also appear merely anachronistic - making the institutional memory of the archive a site of contemporary reinterpretation, rather than of tradition. This anachronising effect is accelerated by the development of technologies such as cable modem by a factor close to 500. A large part of any major museum's national and international credibility in the new research/leisure market depends on its Web presence and how that presence has been customised, in terms of both compression and bandwidth, to serve what will be more an entertainment than an information medium - making the Museum a site for play in the present (for 'interaction' in 'real time'), rather than a treasure house of retrospective collections.

The contemporary information and leisure environment has created new communities - in particular, it has created new research and new leisure communities. There is an interesting information loop developing, in which the research and development budgets of games industries, for example Nintendo, are nourishing processes that can not only make information travel faster, further and in bigger payloads than ever before, but can also nourish the packaging of that information as entertainment.

How Te Papa manages the credibility gap between corporate and market languages - how it manages and staffs its research, how it negotiates the relationship between connoisseurship and entertainment, how it prevents its marketing from turning reactionary, ratings-driven, broadcast policies on narrow-cast communities - how well the Museum plays this paradox, may in the end depend simply on how well it does contemporary culture. How well the Museum remembers, may also depend on how well it does contemporary culture.

Because, in the end, only contemporary culture can be inherently critical within the new Museum environment - can redeem art from information, experience from theory, meaning from interpretation, and language from effect. And it is 'information', 'theory' and 'effect' that, when they are the servants of nationalising agendas, transform culture into service delivery - cut out the affect, deliver the effect. Unless 'the museum' can build this critical principle into its material and virtual architectures, its infrastructures and its programming, it will lack an essential negotiability. Contemporary culture must be to the Museum's intellectual, spiritual and conceptual existence what the earthquake-resistant 'base isolators' are to its material architecture. Its incorporation of contemporary culture will be what stops the Museum cracking when the ground shifts. Contemporary culture will be the tool with which it investigates the pastness of the past, the traces of imperial cartographies, the nationalising urge to sovereignty, the denationalising embrace of the 'foreign' - the unheimlich nature of its cooking, the diasporas of its team colours. And somehow, the corporate language of policy must learn to include this speculative action among its sustainable effects. And policy must learn not to immobilise speculation by overcapitalising it: by investing so much in an effect that change becomes uneconomic. This is what the paradox can become - that paradox revealed by the media scepticism with which I began this chapter. The Museum must embrace something like the aphorism emailed by 'Marshall McLuhan' from beyond the grave: 'The worst thing for any organisation is efficiency. You get moving very quickly and you end up in the wrong place.'_ Contemporary culture is not efficient, sustainable or economic, and that is why the new customer-focused museums need it as an inbuilt agent of change. That is why they need contemporary culture to interpret the foundational histories whose record they maintain in collections.

The contemporary museum is not, cannot afford to be, a space of presentation, but of negotiation. It is, or should be, a place where effect and affect are negotiated into a weighting accessible to diverse audiences with diverse memories. Meaning and value will be negotiated in it. The relationship between memory and culture will be negotiated in it, and the credibility gap between museums and culture will become a place of alert critical play, rather than of closure.


Living in time

Let us end with a couple of images. One is a painting, highly valued on account of its artist’s signature, but also on account of its ambiguous sense of location; the other is from a magazine which serves Sony Playstation, the computergraphic videogame engine.

The painting is a famous self portrait by the New Zealand artist Rita Cook, better known as Rita Angus. It shows us a woman determined to be modern in 1937. Her gaze, which is as much saying, 'How do I look?' to herself, as it is directed at us; her cigarette - these assert her modernity, her desire to live in the present.

There are some other interesting components in this painting, for example Rita's impossibly long arms, which are in effect props for a camelhair coat and a green hat which mimic certain landscapes in Canterbury and Northern Otago which the artist was familiar with. The artist has reconfigured herself as a landscape, and/or she has reconfigured the landscape, that potent signifier of settler mythology, that essential bridge between arcadian settler art and disenchanted modern utopias - she has reconfigured this complex landscape as a drape upon the human figure. The landscape has become a human exoskeleton. And in the background, she has transformed the sublime mountainscape horizon of a Eugene von Guerard or a Nicholas Chevalier, into a horizon of dun-coloured urban rooftops.

What we have here, is the aggressively modern and self-reflective artist, her body draped in the nostalgic landscape of settler Arcadia, located in the disenchanted, progressive, urban utopia of modernity.

What we have in the case of Sony Playstation’s Lara Croft, or Tomb Raider as she is known to her millions of fans, is a woman determined to live in the past. The past, here, is a lifeless tomb, containing 'clues' not memories, whose most compelling and marketable feature is its claustrophobia. Those of you who like Playstation games will know that Tomb Raider 2 advertises itself as being even more claustrophobic than Tomb Raider 1.

One woman, Rita Cook, lives in the past, but the past as a drape from within which she narrowly eyes herself in the present.

Another woman, Tomb Raider, lives in the present, in a Sony Playstation or onscreen as a backdrop for U2, but she constantly turns her back on the present and runs effortlessly ever deeper into a past figured as a claustrophobic tomb seeded with obscure clues but empty of memory.

What is the space that Rita is looking into? Of course it is a mirror, but is it also the display space of a museum? And Tomb Raider - that space she runs into, that tomb full of clues - is it also a museum?



1. Te Awa: Tuhoe Submission to the Department of Conservation on 'Conservation Management Strategy' Documents, Vol I and II, 29 September, 1995, Ohutu Marae, Ruatoki. Quoted in Geoff Park, 'I belong with the wild side of New Zealand', 1997.

2. Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism, Chatto & Windus, 1993, p. 4.

3. Ibid, p. 6.

4. Ibid, p. 15.

5. Richard Barbrook at the Ars Electronica symposium on metetics, Linz, Austria, August 1996.

6. Gary Wolf, 'Channelling McLuhan: the Wired Interview,' Wired, January 1996, p. 101.



Last updated 11 May 2001