Chantal Knowles is Head of Human History at Tāmaki Paenga Hira Auckland Museum. With more than 25 years of museum experience, she has a deep understanding of how objects and collections can be used to support and sustain human histories. She's one of three co-directors at the Māori and Pacific textile and fibre centre, Te Aho Mutunga Kore, alongside Curator Māori Kahutoi Te Kanawa and Curator Pacific Fuli Pereira. We spoke to her about how museums are changing their role in today's society, and how Te Aho Mutunga Kore is helping Auckland Museum move towards a more collaborative, community-led model. 

MELINDA WILLIAMS Chantal, are you able to give me a little background on yourself and how you came to your role at the museum and with the Te Aho Mutunga Kore project?

CHANTAL KNOWLES Sure. Museums are part of my upbringing. I’ve spent nearly 30 years now working in museums. I was trained at the Pitt Rivers Museum at the University of Oxford, which many would describe as a very Victorian colonial museum. A really good place to learn about museums because it was about how you can research and get to know objects to share that knowledge. I went from there back to my home, Edinburgh and worked for 14 years in the National Museum of Scotland where I was the curator for Oceania, Africa and the Americas. From there, I was asked to go to Queensland Museum because my passion has always been the Pacific. That was transformational for me because in Edinburgh, the communities that were connected to the collections I cared for were generally remote. And once I was managing the team in Queensland, our communities were all around us so we could have regular engagements. I'd always known that collection storage was quite difficult. 

People talk about [museum collections] as treasure troves, but there's also something quite overwhelming about the quantity of material that museums hold. It does feel uncomfortable. And yet it also has the joy of the fact that something that is so old remains preserved. So it's got this tension.

Working at Queensland Museum was just a fantastic experience. We had a really close working relationship with the Papua New Guinea National Museum and Art Gallery, which reminded me that the borders that Empire drew were not the connections and the pathways that communities had. So we needed that connection because the connection were longstanding and far and extended, far further back than Queensland's existence. And so that kind of movement of people and how people connect that is not really well understood through maps.

And then I decided that I really needed to spend some time thinking about museums. I was really struggling with a level of discomfort about how museums categorise and classify objects, which is so at odds with how they're considered culturally. And makes museums potentially harmful places for people to engage with objects in. And so I stepped out and started my PhD at Monash Indigenous Study Centre,  looking at how objects have been centred and stored and the systems that we construct around objects, how we have silenced the breadth of voices.

And then this job came up here. This museum has always had an incredible reputation for what it holds, but also the research that its curator do. It has also had Indigenous curators in place for a significant period, which is really creating a more safe workplace. Still, we have Western hierarchies at play within the structure of the museum that belie the different knowledges that we bring. We’ve talked a lot about the importance of co-directorship, the importance of being centred in Kaupapa Māori, considering the Pacific, and the value of having a Pākehā within the co-directorship because this is the history of the story behind all these objects, which were collected from colonial times on.

MELINDA So your role is in helping people understand the context of how objects at the museum have come to be there and how the information that’s been gathered about them has been shaped by how they’ve been regarded historically?

CHANTAL When you come into a collection, you may get out a mat or a cloak and say, "What do we know about this?" It has a number on it and the information may be really limited but, actually, museums square information away in all sorts of different ways. So I guess where I see myself now is someone with inside knowledge of navigating museums, supporting people to navigate where knowledge and records can be found in the museum. I'll never be the authority on a particular type of object. What I do is guide people through all the different levels of the ways that things have been stored and documented so it's in front of them for them to pick up whatever is meaningful to them, not what I might see as a priority. 

One of the real pleasures for me is the way that we work together and we're guided by Kahutoi and Fuli in really that talanoa way of working and discussing everything. We are guided by Kahu in the Kotahitanga Model, where we work together for shared outcomes. And it's challenging. When you're in a hierarchical role, it's challenging. That's what I love, because I learn every day. It stretches me, it pushes me, it causes me to reflect. I can see how a relatively small thing like Te Aho Mutunga Kore can have a long-term impact on the institution internally and on our relationships externally. There is no better reason for having collections than to care for them for communities. For me, this is a museum really growing into its potential and leading the way. Museums need to listen more. We do a lot of telling through our exhibitions, but we need to be really reflective and listen, because that's where the real innovation can come.

MELINDA How did Te Aho Mutunga Kore come to be from the museum’s perspective? 

CHANTAL About 10 years ago, the museum proposed a Future Museum that was planned as an extension and we really prioritised our textile and fibre collections because they run across all the collections. The imagined new build will never happen, but when I came to the museum two and a half years ago, I asked, "What aspects of the Future Museum did we not achieve?" And they said, "We never did our textile and fibre centre."

So we started to think about what that might look like within our current footprint. Once we got underway and started to see how the communities were engaging with the collections, the museum was willing to convert the current Te Aho Mutunga Kore space from an office space to an object space. In museum speak, that takes it from ‘dirty’ to ‘clean’. Objects are kept in clean spaces to keep them pest-free, mould-free; they’re all controlled temperature. We use inert materials like Tyvek so that there's no acid in contact with objects. So now we have a clean space, which means we can bring things directly up from the collection stores. The collection stores can be really overwhelming and difficult for people. We always offer people the chance to see them, but sometimes it's just too much.

MELINDA Kahutoi mentioned that there are more than 400 cloaks in storage alone, and I think I've read there's more than 700 kete? I can understand why it can be very difficult for people to take in all together.

CHANTAL Yes. Te Aho Mutunga Kore’s space allows people to take a break and spend time with significant items that relate to them, or just to get a sense of what the collections are. Justine Treadwell [Associate Project Manager] and Jasmine Tuiā [Community Navigator] are really good at selecting objects, bringing out an array out so that people can see and decide, "Well, this is where we want to focus." It's about creating that opportunity for connection, so having a dedicated space really changes that level of connection. It also means that we can leave people with the items and step out so they can take the time that they need. For me, that’s indicative of how much the museum has really jumped on board and realised the value. 

MELINDA Have there been any moments or experiences that have come as a result of opening Te Aho Mutunga Kore’s space that have been particularly meaningful for you?

CHANTAL Often what we are doing is getting objects out for people to look at in detail. They might be practitioners, they might be researchers, but what we see with these communities is that they're not coming in with our museum lens. They're coming in with their cultural lens and their practitioner lens. They can look at a whole collection and then one thing will become their focus and that’s transformational for me. For the textile and fibre community, a lot of their work has happened elsewhere. But having a link to the museum and a link to the staff creates a level of engagement and trust that we are at their service. We are able to support them in terms of materials so they can be experimental and work together to revive practices. Or just to get good at it because they're spending time on it. We've been able to import materials for them, like pandanus, which is really complex because of biosecurity. It's a barrier that's a bit too high for the communities, but the museum is always bringing things in through biosecurity, so it's not as hard for us.

So for me, the highlights are where the museum's knowledge really frees up the creativity of the community. We're reducing barriers for them. And it's the unknown. We're being led by others. Museums are very structured and we do things in a very structured way. To be responsive is quite exciting because it takes us in a completely different direction and it allows us to consider our collections differently from the structural knowledge that is the Western concept of how we divide everything up. Instead, we are starting to see objects holistically again, within their cultural space, not the museum space. And that just changes it entirely. We talk about decentering the museum; taking that focus away from the museum itself and onto the community, and the leadership away from the museum and into the community.

MELINDA I was going to ask what your hopes are for the next 12 months, but if you’re being led by the communities, perhaps your direction will emerge from them?

CHANTAL My hope for the next 12 months is to secure further funding. And so that's kind of where I see my role: to secure the funding, secure the space for Te Aho Mutunga Kore. It's been incredibly uplifting to find every part of the museum really on board. It does feel like we have the opportunity to extend here, and my job is to work with funders and donors to create a lasting legacy.

We know it’s really important that museums start to see themselves differently; more rooted in this place than in a Western British concept of what a museum is. The museum of the 1850s was an extractive museum that was about collecting things for others to extract knowledge, to extract materials, to understand things better, to make money from it. The museum of the 21st century is something quite different. But these are huge institutions with ingrained practices. So questioning those practices is one thing, but really transforming those practices is another.

MELINDA Can you elaborate a bit more on the practical ways the 21st century museum is departing from the traditional museum?

CHANTAL I think we no longer see ourselves as owning material. We see ourselves as custodians. So we care for things in this place, but not for the museum’s own needs. It’s for the audience, the public, the community. Museums have always had a public-facing element, but a lot of that element was about education. It was about telling people: "Here's what you need to know, here's how you further yourself." But actually, there's a lot we don't know. The knowledge about these objects, it's held with people like Fuli and Kahutoi who bring together both the museum's data and what the museum's collected over the years, but also bring that cultural knowledge.

But one person can't hold all the knowledge for all the indigenous cultures and one person can't hold the knowledge for the entire Pacific. Museums were problematic spaces in my childhood. They were just windows on the world. But in my nearly 30-year career in museums, they've become more problematic because we really need to think about the purpose of what we hold. 

Te Aho Mutunga Kore allows people to get such extended engagement with the items we hold. It could be days, it could be hours, it could be repeat visits, but it transforms what engagement looks like. But also part of our ethos is that it’s not our knowledge to gather. So the community may choose to share what they’ve gained from the engagement and see the museum as an important repository for the knowledge going forward. But that's not our call. In the past, museums were there to gather everything and hold it. But of course that meant the museums held the knowledge they saw as important, rather than what the community would see as valuable. So that's the change. It seems like it's a small change, but in practice it's developing quite a different way of working.