Why does Te Papa hate women so much (and other outraged thoughts)

I'm outraged at the outrage created by the outrageous position taken by that outrageous institution, Te Papa.

I like museums. I celebrated my wedding in one - in the Otago Museum's "Animal Attic", to be precise. And now I have a toddler daughter, I'm rediscovering the joy of puttering around the exhibits looking at things like 18th Century Japanese pottery, dioramas of pre-colonial Maori village life and stuffed rabbits.

I even like Te Papa, despite its unhealthy fascination with exhaustively cataloguing "the-beer-can-through-the-years" under Phil's somewhat bizarre custodial watch.

But boy oh boy - when you see headlines like "Pregnant women told to keep away" and "Anger at Te Papa ban on pregnant women", you just know a hornets' nest is going to explode.

So ... boom, and boom, and boom, and boom.

However, before we all hop on board the outrage express to apoplexy station, let's take a few deep breaths. First up, Te Papa's "ban" isn't on pregnant and menstruating women generally. It relates only to a special, invitation only tour "behind the scenes" of the Museum. So Te Papa isn't (and nor could it be) telling anyone to stay away from the public displays.

Second, the "ban" doesn't actually appear to be a ban at all. As Arts, Culture and Heritage Minister Chris Finlayson makes clear in this later Herald story, "It's an advisory requested by the iwi, but it's for people to make up their own minds."

[Update: Te Papa itself has made this clear also, in this statement ... people should read it before rushing to judge what the Museum's position is.]

In other words, the cultural beliefs of the creators and donors of the taonga in question dictate that women who are menstruating or pregnant should not be around them, both for their own safety and to protect the wairau of the taonga themselves. But if a particular woman really, really wanted to see the taonga in contravention of these beliefs, they can choose to do so. I mean, Te Papa hardly are going to call on security staff to physically throw them out of the building!

Of course, you might ask why a pregnant or menstruating woman would wish to go on this privately arranged tour, knowing that the taonga they are going to view carry this cultural significance and meaning. I mean, even if I happen to believe it is silly not to eat pork products because of a purported instruction from G-d several thousand years ago, I wouldn't choose to wander through a synagogue chewing on a bacon butty. Nor would I choose to walk through St Peter's wearing a T-Shirt like this (possibly NSFW), despite my atheistic worldview.

"Ah!" you might say. "But this is different, because a synagogue is a private place of worship in which the religious group can dictate the rules of entry and behaviour. Te Papa, however, is a public, tax-payer funded institution, and discriminatory practices ought not to be allowed here. Equally, pregnancy and menstruation are not the same as a choice about food or clothing - they are intrinsically bound up with gender, which is not a chosen characteristic (or, at least, not as easily chosen)."

That really gets us to the crux of the issue. Yes, Te Papa is a publicly funded institution, and yes it is treating women differently to men. But it is doing so because it made a promise to those who gifted the taonga into its care that it would look after those taonga in keeping with their cultural beliefs, and those cultural beliefs view women and men as having different (albeit complementary) social roles. So to even have these objects for visitors to view, Te Papa has agreed to respect a worldview that thinks "discriminatory" practices towards women are not only acceptable, but necessary.

Furthermore, you need to view Te Papa's promise in light of museum politics and history. The way we've used museums in the past isn't that pretty. All those bones and skulls of "primitive people" dug up and stuck on public display (or piled up in boxes in the basement awaiting some PhD student's interest). All those objects of religious and cultural significance yanked out of context and put up as curiosities to walk past on a rainy Saturday afternoon. All that information about other peoples blithely presented as "the Truth", without any attention being paid to how they might see themselves.

Such mono-cultural, Euro-centric practices have sparked a backlash, such that Museum curators now are acutely conscious that the exhibits they oversee is not just "stuff" to get displayed in interesting and informative ways. They know that each piece carries a story and a meaning, which will shift depending upon who is viewing it. And they are aware that they owe obligations to a range of differing groups as to how each piece is cared for, displayed and explained.

(In fact, I suspect that most of the recipients of this invitation - "regional museum staff" - would have fully understood Te Papa's position on this issue. That might be why there's a conspicuous absence of outrage amongst the people who actually received the email - and a whole lot more noise from people who have nothing to do with museums at all.)

So what is Te Papa to do? If you want these taonga to be in the hands of our National Museum, as a part of our common cultural heritage, then the price is promising to respect the cultural traditions of its owners. Maori just aren't going to give up custodial oversight anymore without such an assurance in place. But if you think that our National Museum shouldn't ever make such promises, then you have to accept that no-one - pregnant, menstruating, or whatever - gets to see the taonga (unless the donor Iwi grants you private access on its own). In which case we'll have a "National" Museum that only holds and displays items that it can get hold of under a policy of "use and display according to non-discriminatory practices derived from Western enlightenment traditions."

Hence Te Papa's compromise position - whereby invited guests are warned in all seriousness of the risks that they face should they view the taonga while pregnant or menstruating, with it up to individual women to decide if they really, really want to visit under those conditions. This might strike some as a "mealy mouthed" approach, but I actually think it was properly respectful. I mean, what else was Te Papa to say?

"Yeah, look - we've got all this cool stuff from some Maoris, but in order to get hold of it we have had to promise them we'd warn women who are preggers or having their period that they might be harmed if they break tapu and view it. It's complete rubbish, of course ... I mean, c'mon! ... but anyway we had to tell you. But if you come anyway, we don't really care."

Would that be a better or more desirable approach for our National Museum to take?