If you were fortunate enough to catch Takerei Norton’s NDF talk in November last year, you saw something special. Takerei is the Archives Manager for Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu, and around 2007 he began a cultural mapping project. The project saw the mapping of the Māori placenames of Te Wai o Pounamu (the South Island), with each placename verified by documentation (notebook, map, waiata, etc) and by the local marae. It was a grassroots project with central iwi support, and the results have been nothing short of astonishing (and coming to an internet near you in November, Takerei says).
During his talk, Takerei mentioned one of the key strengths of the project was that it was iwi funded, meaning they hadn’t needed to partner with other bodies or institutions and consent to external constraints. New Zealand’s cultural institutions had not been especially helpful, he intimated.
In October last year I joined a project run by the Port Nicholson Block Settlement Trust, a corporate and administrative arm of Taranaki Whānui ki te Upoko o te ika (the Wellington-based iwi of Taranaki Whānui). They wanted to create a digital archive centred around Matiu Somes Island. The archive would store their knowledge with regard to the island. One of my duties was compiling a flora and fauna database of island species, so for resources I turned to our major collecting institutes - the National Library, Archives NZ, Te Papa, Ngā Taonga - as well as DoC. And I quickly hit a dead end - they barely had any I could use.
Instead, I sourced images, audio, and text from private and community collections, such as www.terrain.net.nz, Forest and Bird, www.naturewatch.org.nz, old faithful Wikipedia, and a man called Les McPherson to whom I spoke for thirty minutes about Ashburton’s weather (and who you can thank for many of Radio New Zealand’s bird calls).
In perhaps my most frustrating find, Te Papa, DoC, and Birds New Zealand put together a wonderful encylopedia of New Zealand birds at http://nzbirdsonline.org.nz/, an ideal resource for my research, except for the fact that everything is copyrighted. Around since 2013, I can’t understand why so little attention was paid to the creative commons potential of the project.
(It needs to be pointed out that Te Papa came to the party in other, and frankly, more important, ways. Te Papa’s assistance in taonga research is ongoing and a huge benefit to the project. DoC, too, has been receptive to some of our requests, and has given permission for some fauna photographs to be used, albeit after I found them on a CD in a cardboard box in Petone Library. I also acknowledge the work done by Digital NZ, which led me to many discoveries. I expect Digital NZ have experienced the same frustrations I’m detailing here many thousand-fold.)
Then there’s the cost. Ngā Taonga starts with an archival management fee of $60/hr (+ GST), and then you have technical costs (digital conversion etc) on top of that. A digital copy of a photograph at the Alexander Turnbull Library costs $30. Te Papa’s images, those that you need to license, start at around $25. My part of the project features over 500 images. If we’d been reliant on resources from these institutions my part of the project would never have gotten off the ground.
I realise that there are costs associated with all of these services, and there is the ever-present obstacle of copyright. But the crucial point is that when we wanted material for this archive, our major GLAM institutions were of little use to us. We had to turn to private and community collections generous enough to let me use their stores.
I also wonder if this is part of an often-discussed blindspot for NZ’s GLAM institutions when it comes to science. I remember reading that last year’s Museums Aotearoa conference only had one (?) scientific presentation. But I’m going to leave this paragraph here because I don’t know enough about that.
Back to what I do know: for many researchers our national GLAM institutions are seen as much a barrier to research as they are a help. They are expensive, prohibitively so, and their collections are often bound up in so many complicated permissions, some justifiable, but many outdated and ridiculous. Unless something drastic changes, projects like Ngai Tahu’s and Taranaki Whānui’s will exist despite our collecting institutions, rather than because of them. And I can’t imagine any GLAM institution being happy with that.
With my part of the project completed, I’m left with the question: who are these institutions for, and who are they serving, if not projects like this one? When talking about leadership, GLAM institutions should be enabling people and communities to lead their own projects as much as they should be leading themselves.