Museum Anthropology Leaders: Paul Tapsell, University of Otago, New Zealand, Part 1 of 2

Exclusive Museum Anthropology Blog Interview with Paul Tapsell, Professor, School for Maori, Pacific, and Indigenous Studies, University of Otago, New Zealand. 

This interview is the fourth installment in our series, Museum Anthropology Leaders, where blog intern Lillia McEnaney will be interviewing various anthropological museum professionals. 

This interview was conducted over written email correspondence. 

This is Part 1 of 2. 

When in your education did you decide to pursue museum anthropology? Why? 
I grew up in a museum family. My Irish grandmother married into my tribe in the early 1920s. Our tribe is famous for weaving and carving with over 50% of all museum-held taonga (Maori ancestral treasures) having originated from our Bay of Plenty region. In the early 1960s my grandmother became really concerned at the continuing loss of our taonga to outsiders or being abandoned by a new generation more focused on surviving colonization. She established the Rotorua Museum, inviting my wider tribal elders to loan our taonga (long-term) as a way of protecting them for future generations to access. The support was overwhelming and to this day these taonga are still actively used in our culture, especially during life crises, like mourning rituals or tangihanga. As a grandchild I grew up surrounded by these taonga. I was unaware of the uniqueness of our museum: taonga still belonging to the community, but available for visitors to view. Having grown up in such an environment I struggled to engage with "normal" museums where my people were objectified. After a sheltered life I remember visiting the BM as a young adult and being horrified with the apparent licit displays of the dead and their possessions. 

Thereafter, I avoided museums because they made me feel uneasy. Back then the last thing I ever imagined was that I would end up in a museum career! Through my 20s I internationally pursued competitive sports and enjoyed engaging other cultures, reflecting on my own kin community values in a globaly exciting context. It were these cross-cultural interactions that framed my future academic leaning toward Social Anthropology, complemented by Archaeology, Maori Art History and Psychology. In 1990, as I completed my BA the Curator position opened up at Rotorua Museum, which by now was a New Zealand recognized professionally-run institution. I was reluctant at first to apply, but my tribal elders had other ideas and convinced the Mayor, District Council and not least me (!) that the time had arrived to begin traveling the pathway set by my grandmother. Three years and a bucket load of experiences later I dared to imagine a career in museums, but it had to be inclusive of source communities, exhibiting cultures in alignment with originating values. 

I completed my MA in Social Anthropology, focussing on a museum-held taonga, names Pukaki and in 1994 was invited by Schyler Jones to read for a doctorate in Museum Ethnography at Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford. Greatest influences on choosing/maintaining an academic framed path in museums were my mentors, Sir Hugh Kawharu, Sir Raymond Firth, Dame Anne Salmond, Karen Nero, Harry Allen, Peter Gathercole, Peter Ucko, Howard Morphy, Chris Gosden and Nick Thomas. 

Could you provide the readers of the blog with a brief description of your day to day job at as a professor at the University of Otago? 
Although I am currently on sabbatical my work day continues similar to term time - lots of field research, reading and writing - but without teaching (although I am still supervising a couple of post grads and serve on a couple of committees). Most difficult part of my job is balancing tribal responsibilities (kin) with my work priorities (office). Fortunately my fieldwork takes me from
Dunedin (University of Otago) to my tribal homelands in the North Island twice a month. This provides opportunity for me to fulfill tribal duties as well as sitting on local and national government appointed committees.   

What project have you worked on are you most proud of? 
In the 1990s the return home of Pukaki tommy tribe was special, fulfilling my elders' dream to see their revered taonga home;
In the 2000s it was the Ko Tawa exhibition, touring museum-held taonga back into communities of origin; and
Currently, the Maori Maps project, assisting reconnection of Maori youth to their home tribal communities. 

4. What was the most challenging project or aspect of a project that you have worked on?
The Ko Tawa Project presented multiple challenges, not least museums' reluctance to release taonga to visit communities of origin in an exhibition that had no glass cabinets. This project demonstrated to museums - yet again - that Maori communities remain worthy Treaty partners and are committed to bettering Nationhood on the basis of inclusion, recognizing it is Maori culture that provides NZ's international unique point of difference.