Image © Te Papa
Museums. Musty old places to look at musty, and dusty, old things – with an emphasis on musty. That’s what they are, right?
They used to be, explains Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa chief digital officer Melissa Firth. “In the nineteenth century, it very much was about objects in cases,” she says. “The future is obviously not something you can put in a display case. It’s about a conversation. Now that we’re in a post-truth society, never have museums been more important.”
In other words, she says, museums aren’t just about the past – they’re about the future. “Te Papa should be a safe place for challenging conversation,” Firth says, adding that some of those topics could include climate change, Māori cultural development, gender roles, and more. “Cultural diversity and gender diversity is something we can talk about. Museums are almost like islands of rationality where inclusion is absolutely part of the culture.”
And that inclusion, Firth says, can be especially important for women. “Museums can be a platform for women to have conversations and participate in society in the production of meaning and what’s important to society,” she explains. “We need to create opportunities for participation.”
Some of those new opportunities, she explains, can include a focus on new technologies, like virtual reality (VR). “We need products that meet human needs,” Firth says. “In VR, you are the point of view. I think there’s immense storytelling potential for that.” Some of that storytelling potential, she says, can include such things as understanding the experiences of Māori and Pasifika women.
But a museum can’t be “all talk” about these things, Firth says – they need to actually do something to further the conversation. To that end, Te Papa has invested heavily in its new innovation hub, Mahuki. Te Papa has poured about $1 million into the project, as well as $150,000 from Vodafone New Zealand, which sees 10 companies from throughout Aotearoa participate in helping to further develop their technologies and business ideas.
Firth says such an investment can help broaden the spectrum of audience engagement, as does such things as social media outreach. “The language of innovation can often sound quite male,” she explains. “for some women that can be quite intimidating.”
But Mahuki – which means “perceptive” and relates to ideas that spring to the mind – can help by putting adding the “A” (for “arts”) in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and emphasise the human element of innovation and the design of products for the future – an area which she says women traditionally have excelled at. “As our world is increasingly impacted by technology, our technology needs to meet human needs and behaviour. The social conscience in the technology industry needs to be further developed. We need more empathy.”
But focusing on new technologies doesn’t mean museums should shy away from fostering dialogue and sparking discussions, Firth says. As an example, she points to a breakfast held at the museum this year to celebrate Te Papa’s acquisition of the Women’s Social and Political Union Medal for Valour that had been given to the late New Zealand suffragette Frances Parker. At the breakfast, an older woman – who Firth says could be described as a staunch feminist – proudly shared what it meant to fight for equal rights when she was a young woman. At the same time, younger women talked about how gender isn’t just a binary. “Those little conversations can turn into bigger discussions.”
And those discussions matter because they can shape our future – as well as learn to appreciate our past – Firth says. “Women have just as much right for participation as everyone else – just like every group.”