The tangible artefacts one expects to encounter in museums only tell half the story. The other half is intangible, the aspects of cultural heritage that cannot be contained in glass cases or accessioned into collections, such as ‘practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, [and] skills’ (UNESCO 2003: 5). In recent decades, especially since the establishment of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2003 (UNESCO 2003), museum curators have more openly engaged with the intangible. Exhibition of intangible cultural heritage (ICH) is by no means a simple task and its ephemeral quality, the prospect of catching shadows, might immediately seem an impossible task.
This article explores the motivations/intentions of curators in choosing film to exhibit ICH in museums through the example of Māori (Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Hine, Ngāi Tū) artist Lisa Reihana’s in Pursuit of Venus [infected] (iPOVi) (Figure 1). iPOVi has been featured in many exhibitions, including Oceania at the Royal Academy of Arts, London (29 September – 10 December 2018) and Musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac, Paris (12 March – 7 July 2019). iPOVi has been called variously ‘panoramic pantomime’ (Smallman 2018: 9), ‘digital wallpaper’ (Jefferson 2018: 6), and more, in an attempt to define this indefinable masterpiece. The seamlessly looping/scrolling film depicts scenes of simultaneously unfolding historical narratives of Captain James Cook’s voyages and the colonisation of Moana Oceania, as well as the dynamic ICH of various Indigenous peoples of the region, on a digitally rendered background.
In exploring how film is used to represent ICH in museums, the research consists of analysis of both iPOVi and the history of its exhibition. It is important to note that the term film, as used throughout, encapsulates pre-celluloid photographic/film media, as well as digital and video media. This use of the term refers to the product (i.e., iPOVi) as a film but largely because of its relation to the process (i.e., filmmaking). This also alludes to Reihana’s self-identification as ‘a film-maker operating in the art world’ (quoted in NZ Herald 2015: 26). Primary source data from Reihana alongside interviews conducted with curators of iPOVi are used to explore how ICH on film engages with surrounding collections, exhibitions, and museums; in other words, the relationship between the medium of film, content, and context. iPOVi is singular but tracking the exhibition of a work that is continually developing across its exhibition life and its exhibition in various contexts provides a diverse and valuable set of motivations/intentions relating to how curators engage with the challenge of bringing ICH into museums. Conclusions are drawn not only regarding the aptitude of film to represent ICH in museums but how ICH practices are present in every facet and stage of the artwork: filmmaking process, content, and culturally contextualised medium and exhibitions. I argue that the medium of film can act as a bridge between conceptual theories regarding tangible and intangible heritage. Through the case study of iPOVi, I further argue that filming ICH can become a heritage process in itself. This is because the medium, content, and context of filmed heritage in museums are inextricable products of ICH, taking part in such processes before, during, and after production.
Intangible heritage is a relatively new terminology and framework that essentially divides heritage both discursively and in the field. The definition used when referring to intangible heritage throughout this article is UNESCO’s (2003: 5) definition:
The ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage’ means the practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, skills – as well as the instruments, objects, artefacts and cultural spaces associated therewith – that communities, groups and, in some cases, individuals recognize as part of their cultural heritage. This intangible cultural heritage, transmitted from generation to generation, is constantly recreated by communities and groups in response to their environment, their interaction with nature and their history, and provides them with a sense of identity and continuity, thus promoting respect for cultural diversity and human creativity.
The ‘manifestations’ (UNESCO 2003: 5) of this definition include:
iPOVi displays ICH practices in accordance with UNESCO’s (2003) definition and criteria such as singing, dancing, rituals and ceremonies, spoken (and sung) languages, and traditional art/craft techniques. Furthermore, some aspects of cultural heritage depicted allude to the intangible processes that brought them about, such as the art of tatau (tattooing).
The initial version of iPOVi, entitled in Pursuit of Venus, which depicted Indigenous peoples of Moana Oceania enacting ICH practices, later became ‘infected’ in content and title with the presence of European colonialism. To use Reihana’s phrase, showcased on the wall of the British Museum’s Reimagining Cook: Pacific Perspectives (29 November 2018 – 4 August 2019) exhibition, ‘Once people have encountered each other, history is changed forever… and that’s the infection’. In this article, I focus on iPOVi as a process (including earlier versions) and product of work. The ‘infected’ version of the work not only expands content, now including more Indigenous peoples and displays of ICH practices as well as scenes of encounters with European colonisers like Captain Cook, but also expands in terms of the medium itself. The most recent version is an Ultra HD, five-channel video projection that runs for 64 minutes (then loops) and includes surround sound audio with sound effects, dialogue in multiple languages, and singing and music (Devenport 2017: 11).
iPOVi was significantly inspired by an early 19th century panoramic woodblock wallpaper called Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique (The Savages of the Pacific Ocean) (Figure 2) designed by Jean-Gabriel Charvet and manufactured by Joseph Dufour (Rice (n.d.): 3). It sought to depict peoples of Moana Oceania and supposedly their tangible and intangible heritage as seen, illustrated, and described in accounts from the Cook voyages and beyond (Dufour 1804: 7). The descriptions of peoples of Moana Oceania depicted in Dufour’s (1804) prospectus are brief and reductive, the general tone often devolving into racist misrepresentations.
The Dufour wallpaper itself is a paragon of colonial misrepresentation from the title, foregrounding perceptions of ‘savagery’, onward. Reihana’s inspiration, thus, apparently came from not what is there, but what is missing – essential flaws, historical gaps, and racist misrepresentations. When Reihana (2012: 12) describes initially seeing the Dufour wallpaper, she cites a disjunctive experience of intended familiarity actually giving rise to feelings of unfamiliarity when she came to ‘realise that although it claims to represent the Pacific, the characters attire and the unfamiliar flora are unlike anything I associate with my Polynesian roots. This fascinating concoction was a fabulation located in someone else’s elsewhere’. It goes without saying that identity is a central facet of heritage and so its corruption to the point where continuity of identity through this work is not even possible, seems to support the distancing of such works from the remit of any kind of heritage practice, rather than providing inspiration for new heritage practice.
The lack of recognition stemming from misrepresentation persists as long as works are left unchanged, static, and silent. Reihana instead saw an object extravagantly designed and produced by the enterprise of colonialism and decided to decolonise it (to invoke Reihana’s (2012: 38) goal of her own work as she frames it in reference to Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s Decolonising Methodologies), setting her work in opposition to the original Dufour. Through Reihana’s camera, the colonial is decolonised, the static medium is abandoned in favour of the dynamic, the wallpaper – free of European presence (save for the small-scale scene of the death of Captain Cook) – is ‘infected’ by the European presence, and ultimately the silent subjects tell their tales. It is, thus, no surprise that Reihana’s work has been exhibited in museums across the world by curators embarking on their own quests to decolonise their institutions.
The death of Cook is what Rebecca Rice, curator of Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa’s Dufour wallpaper, refers to as the ‘moment of rupture to this narrative… reduced in scale and a background detail in one panel’ (Rice (n.d.): 5). Reihana (2012: 7) too acknowledges how ‘the inclusion of Captain Cook at the infamous moment of his death in Hawaii is THE site of rupture, and provides inspiration to reappraise this pictorial fantasy’. Rice ((n.d.): 5) characterises this ‘rupture’ as a ‘sanitisation’ due to how, in the Dufour wallpaper, ‘features are generalised, and there is reduced attention paid to traditional practices of body adornment, piercing, and tattoos’. The generalisations described here are notable corrections to the Dufour wallpaper that Reihana makes in iPOVi. Notably, while the omission of Europeans and their impact can be viewed as an erasure or hiding of a significant chapter of history, the diminishing in scale of Cook’s death scene is argued by Dufour (1804: 30) to be because of the logistics of the medium/format of panoramic wallpaper, where the size of Cook and his killer had to be significantly scaled down in reference to Cook’s ships. It is apt in the context of decolonising practice that the very presence of colonialism in the work, embodied by Cook, that is hidden away under the auspices of a consideration of medium/format, actually became the central theme in Reihana’s (2012) monumental ‘re-staging’ of it.
Situating this research in a more traditional body of theoretical literature presents challenges due to the singularity of iPOVi pushing the boundaries of what film is as a medium. In choosing a case study film that is a contemporary artwork but one that heavily invokes the aesthetic of panoramic wallpaper, is projected in a cinematic format, and whose content is composed of intangible and tangible heritage within historic events, I purposefully situate this research at a crossroads in heritage and museums discourse and within an established body of literature extending anywhere from cinema to museum studies to visual anthropology. The trajectory that can be seen in this literature is reflective of the trajectory in the field of heritage and museums regarding decolonisation. As seen with the UNESCO (2003) Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, application of Indigenous theory and worldviews in new media works and subsequent showcasing of such works in museums, there is a seismic shift breaking away from the constraints of established colonial history and conventions. Recognition of heritage that the Western gaze has not traditionally been able to see (nor hold or exhibit), inherently decolonises foundational understandings of heritage and thus museums that house and exhibit it. By showcasing new media works that depict, explore, or even embody Indigenous theories and worldviews, the colonial establishment and its histories and ideas are implicitly challenged. It is not simply that decolonisation allows engagement with questions surrounding intangible and tangible heritage or art and artefact, but allows museum visitors to question whether such dichotomies are meaningful in the face of such cultural complexity and artistic ingenuity.
The field of visual anthropology has been significantly re-evaluated in recent decades (e.g., Banks and Morphy (1997); Grimshaw (2001)). Banks and Morphy (1997: 283) suggest there is a surge in ‘indigenous media production’ but also in anthropologists giving stronger consideration to these types of visual culture and other unconventional ones. This trend can potentially be extended to more unconventional subjects such as new media works like iPOVi. Conversely, Tobing Rony (1996: 160) examines historical portrayals of the other, which is most provocative in her exemplification of the monster movie genre as emanating from anthropological practice where ‘King Kong is not only a film about a monster – the film itself is a monster, a hybrid of the scientific expedition and fantasy genres’ because ‘the “monster,” like the Primitive Other… could be used to study and define the normal’. The connection Tobing Rony (1996) makes between ‘the other’ and ‘monsters’ and how film was weaponised to perpetuate this depiction for the masses of ‘normal’ non-others (i.e., Westerners) is comparable to the Dufour (1804) wallpaper’s goal of perpetuating Enlightenment ideals in contrast to the supposed savagery of the titular Sauvages. Tobing Rony (1996: 132) exposes how this portrayal exists as a cinematic trope but also reflects colonialism where ‘contact leads not to complex cross-cultural adaptation, but to monstrous hybridity’. Colonial contact represented as ‘monstrous’ is reflected in iPOVi’s evolution to include the ‘infection’ of European contact.
Much of the literature and theories applied in this research borrow from the field of material culture. While this might seem at worst contradictory or at best ironic, the more provocative material culture theories actually conceptualise theoretical avenues for application to ICH. Gosden and Marshall (1999: 169), drawing upon Kopytoff (1986), while still focusing on tangible heritage, implore readers to ‘consider material culture in its different moments of production, exchange and consumption… within its social context and consequences. This new focus directs attention to the way human and object histories inform each other… [their] biography’. Gosden and Marshall (1999) are clearly critical of exclusive focus on materiality yet do not explicitly consider how their theory can be independently applied to ICH.
A similarly relevant material culture theory is Thomas’ (1991) notion of ‘entangled objects’. Thomas’ (1991: 4) theory shifts the discourse of material culture where it is not otherness and exoticisation scholars should focus on but rather how ‘objects are not what they were made to be but what they have become’ because of the entanglement of (often colonial) encounter. What is essential about Thomas’ (1991: 5) theory is not simply that the entanglement happens in situ but extends potential sites for it, where ‘creative recontextualization and indeed reauthorship’ in museums continues to be an inevitable form of entanglement.
A similar concept from the Latin American Indigenous perspective is Soto Labbé’s (2015: 114) ‘las arrugas de los lugares’ (‘wrinkled places’) described as ‘a metaphor that expresses the respect we have before the remnants of human experience’ in the process of ‘musealising’ ICH. This notion, not simply of age but how cultural knowledge and experience of ICH practices are embodied/lived, the constellation of events writ into the skin, is a powerful imagistic companion to Thomas’ (1991) theory.
This is a relevant body of literature in its wider conceptualisation of digital technologies in general and their use in museums. Some texts are generally associated, like McLuhan’s (1964: 1) notion that ‘the medium is the message’. Similarly, Benjamin (1935) famously explores the effect of media but applying his concepts to iPOVi shows the limitations of them on new media and on Indigenous film works. Benjamin (1935: 4) is critical of the limitations of photography/film because ‘the authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning… which it has experienced. Since the historical testimony rests on the authenticity, the former, too, is jeopardized by reproduction’. Benjamin’s (1935: 4) contention that the history of the original artwork or biography (to use Marshall and Gosden’s (1999) term) characterising the ‘aura’ of the original is threatened through ‘mechanical reproduction’ is simply untrue with iPOVi. His critique is based largely on Western notions of authenticity contrary to burgeoning Māori discourse about the potential of virtual/digital taonga (cultural treasures) considered as valuable as supposedly original versions (Brown 2008; Ngata, Ngata-Gibson, and Salmond 2012), and the concept of remediation. Remediation (popularised in relation to new media by Bolter and Grusin (1999)) essentially allows Benjamin’s (1935) ‘aura’ to be transferrable from its so-called authentic original medium to a new medium.
Hopkins (2006) presents a powerful response to the delegitimisation of oral histories and other ICH practices that do not fit frameworks of traditional cultural preservation. Hopkins (2006: 342) claims that, contrary to Benjamin’s (1935) ‘aura’ of originality, ‘it is through change that stories and, in turn, traditions are kept alive and remain relevant’. Hopkins (2006: 342) does not maintain Benjamin’s (1935) critique of media, instead claiming that ‘embracing new materials and technologies, including video and digital media… does not threaten storytelling traditions in these communities but is merely a continuation of what aboriginal people have been doing from time immemorial: making things our own’. Hopkins (2006) acknowledges how new media in essence become something novel through interactions with Indigenous ICH/art practices. Brown (2008: 59) and Ngata, Ngata-Gibson, and Salmond (2012:229-230) explore this potential through the concept of ‘virtual taonga’ or ‘digital surrogates’ of taonga. Ngata, Ngata-Gibson, and Salmond (2012: 230) operate with a taonga definition that exists beyond the tangible:
includ[ing] the Māori language and its local variants; genealogies and oral histories; the traditional arts… as well as visual and ‘plastic’ arts… The knowledge and practice of these art forms, as well as their artefacts… forming knots in the network of whakapapa or kinship, the fabric uniting (and dividing) Māori existence.
Brown (2008) and Ngata, Ngata-Gibson, and Salmond (2012: 242) describe how taonga are defined by context where ‘the taonga-ness of an object, digital or otherwise, is determined by the quality of its relationships… Artefacts that have become detached from their stories and whakapapa are only potential taonga until these connections are re-animated’. Film might hold the potential to re-invigorate this context and re-establish relationships of these objects with others, even in museums. Furthermore, Ngata, Ngata-Gibson, and Salmond (2012: 242) acknowledge that it is not only that traditional taonga depend on relationships, but that they make taonga, stating ‘any artefact creatively generated out of these relationships can be a taonga, no matter what its form’. Thus, filmed heritage (like iPOVi) might be considered similar to taonga in some contexts, blurring the line between what is conventionally considered the dichotomy of art and artefact.
Interviews formed the most significant basis for answering the research questions regarding how curators use the medium of film to exhibit ICH in museums. The initial motivations for choosing film and the intended impact or role of iPOVi, in terms of its representation of ICH in exhibitions, could only be truly elucidated by asking those who curated exhibitions about such motivations/intentions.
Exhibitions by the five curators interviewed span six countries and, also, span the life of the artwork from its first exhibition (as part of Reihana’s degree of Master of Design from Unitec Institute of Technology) at Alberton House, Aotearoa New Zealand, to its ongoing exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Canada. The curators and their exhibitions are listed below. Exhibitions before 2017 exhibited in Pursuit of Venus, and those after, in Pursuit of Venus [infected]:
Interview questions related to the curators’ initial choice of iPOVi for their exhibitions and followed these intentions to their execution in the final exhibition. The line of questioning then sought to investigate the relation of iPOVi to other tangible and intangible works in the context of the exhibitions, attempting to unearth what film as a medium does in these contexts and what these contexts do to film in turn, according to those curating it.
The interviews yielded transcripts totalling approximately 39,800 words. To process this amount of qualitative date, the transcripts were coded through discourse analysis. The coding was conducted without computer software, however, with or without software there are limitations due to codes being taken out of the data by the researcher, the length of the interviews (and therefore abundance of the codes) vary, and the code or specific language associated with it appearing do not necessarily indicate a stance on the concept or issue it represents.
While every effort was made to organise an interview with Lisa Reihana, owing to her demanding schedule and the expansive exhibition of iPOVi globally, unfortunately this did not happen. After processing the curator interviews, I also processed the most closely related interview with Reihana in terms of length and content regarding iPOVi and its exhibition in Oceania (Reihana and Marlow 2018). While this obviously did not exactly match interviews I personally conducted, as the questions were not the same, it was nevertheless useful to take an interview with a similar premise and discover how the codes appeared from the perspective of the artist.
The most frequent theme in the interviews overall pertained to medium and logistics of the artwork and exhibition, and the most prominent (most frequent in the most answers to each question) theme pertained to the context of exhibition or the institution the artwork was exhibited in. The most frequent theme was also consistent in Reihana’s interview (Reihana and Marlow 2018) (prominence of codes was not applicable due to the questions differing). The frequency of this theme can be attributed to how often the size of the work was addressed, typically linked to the idea of iPOVi being multi-layered and immersive. Berghuis described the progression of iPOVi and how ‘the projection is now on a scale that is larger than life, but it then becomes a different work as well, it becomes more immersive’. Ryle also claimed how, in reference to iPOVi’s display at London’s Oceania, ‘it needs to be seen on that type of scale… sometimes [you’re] just so fully immersed in it, I mean there’s just so many layers to it’. While themes regarding layers, scale, and immersion, were grouped together, it is the curators who made the link between these elements collectively creating a multi-layered immersive experience. Ryle contended that iPOVi ‘has left indelible marks on a lot of people’s lives’ expressing how the medium generates ‘access points to get right into your eyes, right into your brain, right into your heart’. Other curators echoed this rhetoric of immersion such as McIntosh claiming that ‘because it was moving and engaging and sort of storytelling… everybody just got drawn into it’.
While the curators praised the immersive quality of the work, some also claimed there were limitations to how far this immersion could represent the real. Thomas specified how ‘[Reihana is] not in the business of making… documentary films or any kind of… what people might call… “educational films” under other circumstances’ and McIntosh concurred, claiming iPOV is ‘not quite a documentary as such’. While Thomas and McIntosh specifically shifted categorisation of iPOVi away from the ‘educational’ or ‘documentary’, Reihana has notably, with previous artworks, designated them exactly that. Regarding her animation film, A Maori Dragon Story, Reihana described a failed attempt to enter it at ‘a short film festival in the documentary section… if I’m telling a story with animation but it’s tribal history, it’s a documentary’ (in Reihana and Marlow 2018). While iPOVi does not depict tribal history in the same way to perhaps warrant its designation as a ‘documentary’, Reihana’s intention of challenging the idea of what film can be when it is depicting cultural heritage is extremely significant. In relation to this power film has, McIntosh reasoned that museums have ‘got so many… items in their collection and how do you properly get the message across in terms of the storytelling behind them? And that’s where I think film does have a vital part to play’. McIntosh privileged the significance of pairing tangible works and collections in general with ‘storytelling’, ICH, and contextualisation through the medium of film.
The complexity and use of this type of new media in museums begs the question: what really is iPOVi? Thomas strictly stated that ‘I think it would be a sort of mistake to see that work as anything other than a work of contemporary art… It’s absolutely a piece that engages with the re-enactment of heritage and so on, but it does so very much from the… perspective of art practice’. However, Thomas did acknowledge his exhibition (Oceania) it appeared in as being a dynamic space of heritage practice, believing that the ‘AROHA in Action’ protest (Figure 3), carried out by Moana Oceania arts organisation Interisland Collective, ‘was really positive… it sort of just helped underscore that this was not a lot of historic stuff but stuff that was really significant to a variety of living people from the region’.
McIntosh, Ryle, and Stanhope similarly classified the work primarily as an art object and Berghuis linked this contention to his conceptualisation of remediation. Berghuis argued that with another artwork, Digital Marae, Reihana ‘not only represent[s] her culture or re-present[s] her culture, but she was able to create her own culture in a contemporary form’. Despite works like iPOVi no doubt being art, Berghuis presents a powerful argument that Reihana perhaps also ‘creates culture’ through art. Reihana also sought to contextualise iPOVi by enacting ICH practices at the opening of Berghuis’ exhibition, Suspended Histories. The rationale was an elaborate and powerful metaphor involving a replica of a historic waka (canoe) where:
[Reihana] said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we can get that waka to Amsterdam, work with these rowers from Leiden, and basically have them reverse history by rowing back up the canals that the ships used to leave Amsterdam to go to the Far East and to loot everything and colonize? And in this case, the waka would come and arrive in the Netherlands!’ And quite quickly she decided to do a peace ceremony with it.
The context and institutions of exhibition, as alluded to in the above example, was notably the most prominent theme to emerge in the curator interviews. This is immediately understandable due to questioning the curation of iPOVi in the context of exhibitions and/or institutions; yet the continued relevance of both to iPOVi and vice versa was clearly something profoundly significant to the curators’ (and artist’s) intentions for exhibiting it. Furthermore, comments along these lines were often associated with discussions of colonialism or encounter due to both the institutions and exhibitions often being connected to colonialism.
In terms of exhibition goals, curators like Thomas and Stanhope were engaging with colonial and hidden histories, particularly through previously silenced Indigenous voices. Berghuis perhaps most explicitly acknowledged this context and goal within iPOVi but also in how these extended outward into the exhibition space by claiming Suspended Histories ‘became very much about the presence of the artwork but also the layering of the artwork on top of the historic collection, the history of the house [Museum Van Loon], the history of colonialism. And… overlaying that literally onto the building, the rooms itself’. This intention was brought to fruition because Berghuis stated that iPOVi was ‘put… into contact with the specific room, the Drakensteyn Room, and the Jurriaen Andriesen wallpaper that covers the wall of that room, so we made it a site-specific installation’ and compared this to the exhibition at the colonial-era Alberton House. At Alberton House, McIntosh claimed Reihana’s choice of venue owed to ‘the old distinctive sort of wallpaper’ and its antique cabinet. Reihana sought to contextualise her work in reference to the wallpaper but also perceived the cabinet as a kind of, as McIntosh said, ‘portal into what collectors have’ and how it:
did show that Europeans promoted or displayed or exhibited works in a controlled sort of way. So here she was, putting a message through the little TV screens as… her interpretation of a way of life that had been captured and put into a cabinet like other… institutions or museums or distant people’s perceptions through books and other mediums.
Thomas also acknowledged the dynamism of the engagement with colonial history, describing how through its ‘layers’ iPOVi ‘animates’ tangible heritage ‘but I think it also animates the whole set of questions that the exhibition was engaged with around the drama of encounter… they’re kind of live questions rather than abstractions’. In Thomas’ exhibition of iPOVi at Oceania, Reihana (in Reihana and Marlow 2018) herself recognised that ‘people are seeing these incredibly beautiful taonga, artefacts, and then they’re seeing something that’s brought to life and can kind of understand or give a sense of how these artefacts have ended up in museums all around Europe… so I think it’s playing a really good role for Oceania’. The ‘role’ referred to here is a decolonising one echoed by all of the curators regarding their own exhibitions.
The significance of the intangible in terms of the decolonising ‘role’ of iPOVi in exhibition contexts is impossible to ignore. Berghuis went so far as to claim it was the intangible qualities of iPOVi that prompted the intended engagement with his exhibition through his notion of layering ‘suspended histories’ because ‘you would have initially been struck by the fact that suddenly there was chants, there was singing, and that of course then provoked you into looking at the layering of the video screen in front of the [wall] tapestry, thinking about the layering of history’. Both the intangible qualities of iPOVi and ICH practices around it help contextualise it in institutions and exhibitions. Thomas too recognised that iPOVi was contextualised in the exhibition and by Indigenous communities who created and viewed it, so that:
despite it being a contemporary work, it needs a certain amount of protocol around it… probably in most of the contexts where it’s been exhibited there have been blessings, there have been events… it is sort of marked in that kind of way. So, in that sense, even if it’s not a historic object it’s still something that belongs in that kind of context and regime.
This is a powerful idea of a feedback loop between culturally valuable content and the ‘regimes’ it is contextualised in where ICH is enacted within it and without.
Results of the curator interviews show that while exhibitions varied, curators largely held similar understandings of iPOVi, sometimes even echoing analytical language. While in many cases the themes curators privileged differed from the artist, the central decolonising intentions of animating complex forms of heritage and challenges surrounding Moana Oceania, engaging visitors to view events and consequences of colonialism in new ways, and ultimately using film as a means of these types of engagement were similarly seen across the curators’ and artist’s responses.
The usefulness of the medium of film in representing ICH and promoting decolonising practice in museums was clearly recognised by both the curators and Reihana, yet there is an absence of significant established discourse surrounding film’s connection to ICH and museums. This complicates understandings of works that are technically contemporary art but engage with cultural contexts and heritage content in more nuanced ways. The following discussion utilises theories and literature necessarily borrowed from other disciplines to problematise the constricted discourse surrounding ICH on film in museums.
It is essential to begin discussion on motivations of exhibiting iPOVi with the artist’s own. In answering my question posed at L’art contemporain des femmes maori – conférence/débat (Musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac, 13 March 2019) regarding the significance of filmed artworks in museums, Reihana explained that the intent with iPOVi was ‘first and foremost to show living people and practices’. Reihana (2019) also explained how she ‘like[s] to create a lot of images that bring mana [power/honour] back to our people’. This privileging of ‘living heritage’ in the museum or Soto Labbé’s (2015) ‘wrinkled places’, was echoed in the perspectives and language of many curators. Presenting dynamic extant cultures is a sharp contrast to the historical approach of photography/film used to preserve supposedly ‘vanishing Indian races’ famously undertaken by, for example, North American photographer Edward S. Curtis, who was given the name Shadow Catcher by Indigenous groups he worked with (Egan 2012). Contrarily, Reihana herself contends that ‘I’ve always thought of myself as I’m an image maker and not an ‘image taker’… It is an agreed representation’ (quoted in Brettkelly-Chalmers 2015: 11). Reihana (2019) also recognised the reverse of ‘bringing back mana’ – the belief in some Indigenous cultures that the camera could ‘[steal] their soul[s]’. Though having opposing results, ‘stealing souls’ and ‘bringing back mana’ are nonetheless both significant statements on the power of the medium of film and how when working within cultures, it is subsumed into them.
Remediation is a central concept from Indigenous appropriation of Western technologies during colonial contact to artists today using new media to represent Indigenous content. The concept of remediation is closely linked to media and worldview, notably aspects of two of the most frequent themes in Reihana’s interview (Reihana and Marlow 2018) (the medium and logistics of iPOVi, and Indigenous philosophies and worldviews). Remediation is also reflected in the rhetoric of immersion used by all of the curators as it relates to media and representation, particularly the concept of iPOVi bringing things to life. For example, Ryle claimed:
We’re fed so many misconceptions, who these people are… and continue to be… this is something that subverts it for everyone and replaces that, I think, with something really much more dynamic and interesting and full of life… I suppose she could have just as well gone and updated the wallpaper herself, traditional wallpaper, but instead we have something that lives and breathes.
Ryle suggested that the medium is the spark that gives life to the content. While this may initially seem to simply be an apt metaphor, it alludes to established theoretical practice as well as signifying the connection between content, medium, and cultural context. This is most explicitly stated by Berghuis (adapting Bolter and Grusin (1999)) when discussing the potential of iPOVi to possess cultural significance similarly to Brown (2008) and Ngata, Ngata-Gibson, and Salmond’s (2012) virtual/digital taonga. Berghuis explained that:
remediation is not so much the refashioning of old mediums into new but is actually the kind of reengagement of an entire extension of media practices into digital media… In heritage terms – if that intangible aspect, that performative aspect, the liveness of it, if that is translated into the actual medium of a video then it could have that role.
Berghuis’ assertion of what digital media is capable of is specifically relevant to his understanding of Digital Marae because ‘if [Reihana] cannot be… a traditional Māori carver, like her ancestors and her father then she discovered that she can do it in other media and in her case that was video… it’s a form of… liberation as well from traditional laws into creating contemporary art’. Reihana (2019) herself admitted how there is this ‘idea that only men carved’ and that she wanted to ‘transgress these cultural ideas while maintaining the integrity’ of tradition. In this case, Reihana (2019) specifically acknowledged how she appropriated filmmaking technology, ‘using the computer as my carving tool’. This is a significant intention because the medium was chosen to continue a traditional ICH practice and make an artwork still culturally valuable (and culturally operational) for museums.
Reihana (in Reihana and Marlow 2018) referenced another form of remediation particularly relevant to Indigenous peoples encountering Western technologies/techniques during the cultural genocide of colonialism. Reihana (in Reihana and Marlow 2018) explained how:
in traditional times Māori practiced preserving heads and when revered people passed away they would smoke them… the idea of that was that each year after a person has died you would bring them out and remember them, so it’s a sense of remembrance. But that became impossible post-colonization and that’s where photography came in and shifted and took over that process.
Reihana (in Reihana and Marlow 2018) acknowledged not simply the value and potential of remediation but also challenges presented in depicting heritage on film, for example, when heritage practices or objects have encountered centuries of attempted annihilation. Here, the intention of the medium was to circumvent cultural conditions imposed by an invading Western culture whereas with Digital Marae, Reihana circumvented limiting aspects of cultural doctrine to create nonetheless culturally influenced art. Both instances used new media to continue traditional ICH practices which is an exercise many scholars allude to (Thomas 2010; Hopkins 2006; Brown 2008; Ngata, Ngata-Gibson, and Salmond 2012; Clifford 1997).
Like Māori people using photographs in lieu of heads, Reihana also continues the trend of using new media to explore heritage that was attempted to be destroyed. One of the few extant ‘Heva tupapau, ‘the costume of the chief mourner’’ was displayed at Oceania (Brunt and Thomas 2018: 300) but Reihana had created and used her own in both iPOVi (Figure 4) and Tai Whetuki – House of Death Redux. An artefact like the Chief Mourner outfit and its associated ICH as enacted in iPOVi appearing together in a museum exhibition (Oceania) is an unconventional situation. This is due to what Alivizatou (2006: 47) calls the ‘‘unconventional’ relationship’ of an institution essentially dedicated to the material but not necessarily (nor simply) ‘living culture’. Alivizatou (2006:51, 52) acknowledges the potential for technologies like film to ‘treat aspects that objects alone cannot address… new technologies that help capture the more subtle and ephemeral dimensions of cultural production’ which, in a way, means that ICH in museums ‘enables the contextualisation of objects’. Alivizatou (2006) also acknowledges not simply that new media can ‘capture’ some aspect of ICH and, thus, bring it into museums, but that this can affect the tangible heritage surrounding it. Regarding the depiction of the Chief Mourner’s outfit, Reihana described the length of time it took to create as she had ‘never seen one… I wanted to create that costume so I could see what it looked like on a body as opposed to reading an account of this crazy killing spree that Joseph Banks went out on with the Chief Mourner’ (in Reihana and Marlow 2018). Reihana quite literally ‘created her own culture’ (to use Berghuis’ phrase) by creating the costume and having it performed in in a ceremony, even if it was a re-creation. Much like the patterns regarding medium and logistics in the curator interviews, it is clear that the prevalence of the theme was not simply due to the pertinence of the logistical aspects of iPOVi but rather because of essential links between the medium and ICH practices. While the intent of this research was initially to explore how ICH is exhibited on film in museums, it is clear that the filmmaking process and its connections to ICH practices are just as essential. Film is, thus, a medium that can both engage with and represent ICH. The ‘biography’ (to invoke Gosden and Marshall (1999)) of the digital museum object is defined by and only made possible through ICH.
The relevance of ICH practices being an integral part of the filmmaking process is seen in the requirement of permissions, process of gifting, and potential dangers of film. The requirement of permission to commit heritage to film suggests how even though ICH may be enacted on film, it still carries heavy cultural value, works within cultural doctrines, and is more than simply art. Reihana (2019) referenced how in the cross-cultural iPOVi, vignettes and their ‘stories’ could only be filmed with ‘permission’. Along with permissions, the very process of filmmaking was defined by the cultures Reihana worked within. Reihana (2019) explained how she ‘asked if [cast members] wanted to gift something or collaborate’ on the creation of their performance. As Thomas (2010) and other scholars of Moana Oceania acknowledge, gifting is a central ICH practice within many Moana Oceania cultures. Regardless of Reihana creating a contemporary artwork, the process was still dictated by ICH of the regional cultures. What is seen in iPOVi is, thus, often the product of ICH practices, as well as the re-enactment of ICH.
Because of close linkages between ICH and the content of iPOVi, this provoked challenges and even dangers. A particularly relevant example of the sometimes-hazardous nature of filmed representations is that of Chief Mourner’s outfit. Reihana (in Art Basel 2018) describes how ‘by taking this work which shows the chief mourner costume out on a killing spree, there was a really big worry by some of the local people whether you would create that energy back into the costume… we kind of make artworks to understand culture… and can potentially create something that is… culturally dangerous’. Reihana (in Art Basel 2018) reveals that the process of creating and performing in a replica Chief Mourner outfit transcends replication. Contrary to Benjamin’s (1935) notion of ‘aura’, even created as a prop to perform the ICH practice of the mourning ritual, there was the potential that the Chief Mourner’s outfit could have real cultural and spiritual power nonetheless. Notably, it is the film medium and its exhibition in the museum that created the potential for the object to embody that power. This exposes the powerful relationship between the museum space, dynamism of film, and heritage content that is depicted. Moreover, to counter potential dangers, the artist and museum consultants did not seek to destroy the link between the heritage content, film, and context, but rather incorporated more ICH – ‘some ceremonies that we could do to keep the work itself safe’ (Reihana in Art Basel 2018). What is clear from the requirement of permission, ‘gifted’ performances, and potential dangers of filming the Chief Mourner outfit, is that while iPOVi may be art that depicts ICH practices, it is much more complicated. Film embodies the power of what is depicted and bears the weight of cultural requirements and complexity of those involved in the filmmaking process.
The ICH related to iPOVi extends from the filmmaking process into the work and beyond it into the exhibition space. A poignant decolonising example at London’s Oceania was Interisland Collective’s protest, ‘AROHA in Action’, consisting of various offerings and bringing awareness to ‘the long term goal… to regain our autonomy and custody over our taonga and ancestral belongings and this moment, space and opportunity is the beginning of that journey’ (Walsh 2018: 6). Co-founder of the organisation, Walsh (2018:3, 4), also wrote, ‘We want our taonga to hear our voices’ and, by ‘making offerings of our voices, movements and gifts’, effectively made the museum a ‘contact zone’ (to use Clifford’s (1997) term). These ICH practices and offerings created a powerful shift in the exhibition. This action and others that took place around the exhibition show not only the historic relationships surrounding ‘entangled objects’ (Thomas 1991) within European museums, but also the entanglement of intangible and tangible heritage, and the active ‘biography’ of objects even while in museums (Gosden and Marshall 1999).
Like offerings, opening ceremonies can exemplify the heritage significance of an artwork. In Amsterdam, as Berghuis mentioned, Reihana’s performance consisted of rowing of the waka (Taahimana) through city canals to the museum by the Royal Dutch Njoord Rowing Team who, upon arrival, performed the haka (war dance) (in Pursuit of Venus (n.d.); Grever and Braat 2018: 79) mobilising ICH practices to contextualise iPOVi within the exhibition, the historic colonial house of the Museum Van Loon, and colonial history in the Netherlands. Reihana participated in a similar ceremony at la Bienalle di Venezia where ‘The Disdetona [boat] is the grand dame… That was really special – bringing the Pacific to the old world, arriving on their boat, and being greeted by their people. This performs a reversal of arrival, re-enacting these ceremonies and moments of encounter’ (Reihana quoted in Contemporary HUM 2017: 29). Reihana’s conception of these ICH performances are purposefully echoed in the very medium/format of iPOVi. Looser (2017: 461) draws upon ideas presented by Devenport (2017: 22) regarding how Reihana uses the medium of film to embody Māori Tā-Vā spacetime theory describing how ‘Reihana’s “double vision” takes advantage of the spatiotemporal flexibility afforded by modern recording technologies to create a syncretic form that expresses indigenous Pacific views’ citing specifically ‘the reverse cinematic pan… so that time appears to run backwards as it runs forwards, constantly diffusing the past and future in the present’. The notion of iPOVi’s format reflecting Māori ideology on temporality is essential but this concept was also actualised by Reihana through her ceremonies in Amsterdam and Venice. These were literal demonstrations of decolonisation of museums where she was attempting to run back the colonial clock, toying with tropes of explorers setting sail to invade other lands by doing the same in reverse. Reihana’s collaborative process entrenched in various ICH practices across its production and exhibition is the paragon of McLuhan’s (1964) ‘medium is the message’. However, this research shows that medium conveys more than messages; the film medium can itself become culturally bounded and, in some cases, it is the only medium capable of conveying certain messages. It is not simply that a medium is selected, content and style shape it, and the product is displayed; if it was this simple, themes pertaining to medium and logistics would not have been the most frequent in all the interviews with complex connections to all other themes. Rather, there is dynamic feedback between medium and content, medium and context.
The extent of the immersive quality of the medium of film made possible through embracing ICH was clearly a motivator for the artist and curators of iPOVi. Banks and Morphy (1997: 18) present a definition of film that signals the potential for how I conceptualise the connection of film and ICH in museums when they claim that ‘film, by recording the production of the object or the ritual in which the object appears, may be recording the object closer to… the ways in which it is conceived by the actors. It also may facilitate the analysis of the variable relations between object and process, between materiality and sociality’. Banks and Morphy (1997) briefly and unceremoniously suggest the possibility of a more holistic understanding of the value of film and what it can do in museums in relation to tangible and intangible heritage. I conclude, as they imply in their conjecture, that film, as exemplified through iPOVi, can act as a means to connect the ‘biography’ of the object, ICH practices echoed in ‘wrinkled places’, and tangible objects in all the ways they are ‘entangled’ (invoking Gosden and Marshall 1999; Soto Labbé 2015; Thomas 1991).
The ephemeral quality of both the medium of film and ICH seems to set them in a realm apart from the traditional museum. The conclusion presented here, like the medium of film, sits at an intersection of the three previously mentioned central theories of Gosden and Marshall (1999), Soto Labbé (2015), and Thomas (1991). Gosden and Marshall’s (1999) ‘cultural biography of objects’ includes intangible processes and events of exchange and manufacture not explicitly included in UNESCO’s (2003) official definition of intangible heritage. Soto Labbé’s (2015) ‘wrinkled places’ privileges the value of living cultural knowledge and the human component to heritage forms and how they are displayed in museums. Thomas (1991) signals the ‘entangling’ effects on tangible heritage that are the result of historical events of contact. What connects these theories to each other and allows them to provide a clearer understanding of ICH and museums is film. iPOVi shows intangible and living heritage content as well as the dynamic entanglements of heritages during contact, but it also embodies the biographical elements of ICH during the filmmaking process and continuing across its exhibition life. The inability to extricate the medium, content, and context of film from processes of ICH that define every aspect of iPOVi’s production and exhibition suggests that filmmaking itself can become a heritage process.
The potential consideration of film as a heritage process (throughout its production, exhibition, and viewing) allows museums to not simply exhibit heritage but become sites of ICH practices themselves. Film can, thus, be a powerful agent in decolonising museums. As seen throughout the interviews, works like iPOVi aid in seeking out a fuller, truer picture of the history and cultural events surrounding the tangible heritage museums traditionally display. Reihana created iPOVi and curators ultimately exhibit it largely to engage with these absences and showcase diverse perspectives. Film brings these perspectives and heritages into the walls of the museum, simultaneously becoming both medium and message, tangible and intangible, art and artefact.
Interview data was collected and processed during research for the completion of the Degree of Master of Philosophy in Archaeology at the University of Cambridge. Interview questions, discourse analysis codes, and interview transcripts can be found, respectively, in Appendix 1, Appendix 2, and Appendix 3 of the previously unpublished thesis by the author at https://doi.org/10.17863/CAM.45967 of Apollo - University of Cambridge Repository.
The additional files for this article can be found as follows:Appendix 1
Interview Questions. DOI: https://doi.org/10.5334/jcms.214.s1Appendix 2
Discourse Analysis Codes. DOI: https://doi.org/10.5334/jcms.214.s2Appendix 3
Interview Transcripts. DOI: https://doi.org/10.5334/jcms.214.s3
I would like to thank Lisa Reihana, not simply for the artwork at the heart of this research, in Pursuit of Venus [infected], but for her encouragement with this research. This research also hinged on the participation of expert curators who were extraordinarily helpful throughout the research process including Thomas Berghuis, Rendell McIntosh, Jason Ryle, Zara Stanhope, and Nicholas Thomas. For the opportunity to view reproductions of Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique, I would like to thank Rachel Cecil Gurney at de Gournay, London. Last but not least, I would like to thank Jody Joy, for prompting the initial idea for this dissertation topic and the help and encouragement that followed.
The authors declare that they have no competing interests.
Alivizatou, M. 2006. Museums and Intangible Heritage: The Dynamics of an ‘Unconventional’ Relationship. Papers from the Institute of Archaeology, 17: 47–57. DOI: https://doi.org/10.5334/pia.268
Art Basel. 2018. Decolonizing ‘Ethnography’: Contemporary Representations. Art Basel Hong Kong [online access at http://www.inpursuitofvenus.com/artist-talks last accessed 25 March 2021].
Benjamin, W. 1935. The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. In: Arendt, H (ed.) Illuminations. New York: Schocken Books, 1969. Available at http://web.mit.edu/allanmc/www/benjamin.pdf [Last accessed 25 March 2021].
Bolter, JD and Grusin, R. 1999. Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1108/ccij.19126.96.36.199.1
Brettkelly-Chalmers, K. 2015. Lisa Reihana in Conversation. Ocula, 12 May [online access at https://ocula.com/magazine/conversations/lisa-reihana/ last accessed 25 March 2021].
Brown, D. 2008. “Ko to ringa ki nga rakau a te Pakeha”—Virtual Taonga Maori and Museums. Visual Resources, 24(1): 59–75. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/01973760801892266
Contemporary HUM. 2017. An interview with Lisa Reihana. Contemporary HUM, 22 September [online access at https://www.contemporaryhum.com/lisa-reihana-interview last accessed 25 March 2021].
Dufour, J. 1804. Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique, tableau pour décoration en papier peint [prospectus]. Mâcon: Joseph Dufour et Cie. Available at https://archive.org/details/cihm_14114/ [Last accessed 25 March 2021].
Gosden, C and Marshall, Y. 1999. The Cultural Biography of Objects. World Archaeology, 31(2): 169–178. Available at http://www.jstor.org/stable/125055 [Last accessed 25 March 2021]. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/00438243.1999.9980439
Grimshaw, A. 2001. The Ethnographer’s Eye: Ways of seeing in anthropology. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511817670
Hopkins, C. 2006. Making Things Our Own: The Indigenous Aesthetic in Digital Storytelling. Leonardo, 39(4): 341–344. Available at https://www.jstor.org/stable/20206265 [Last accessed 25 March 2021]. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1162/leon.2006.39.4.341
in Pursuit of Venus (n.d.). POV: Amsterdam. Available at http://www.inpursuitofvenus.com/amsterdam [Last accessed 25 March 2021].
Jefferson, D. 2018. Lisa Reihana: a monumental, immersive new artwork reanimates the story of Captain Cook and first contact’. Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) News, 31 January [online access at https://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-01-31/lisa-reihana-in-pursuit-of-venus-reimagines-australian-history/9376114 last accessed 25 March 2021].
Kopytoff, I. 1986. The cultural biography of things: commoditization as process. In: Appadurai, A. (ed.) The social life of things: Commodities in cultural perspective, 64–91. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511819582.004
Looser, D. 2017. Viewing Time and the Other: Visualizing Cross-Cultural and Trans -Temporal Encounters in Lisa Reihana’s in Pursuit of Venus [infected]. Theatre Journal, 69(4): 449–475. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1353/tj.2017.0065
McLuhan, M. 1964. The Medium is the Message. In: Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, 1–18. New York: McGraw-Hill. Available at http://web.mit.edu/allanmc/www/mcluhan.mediummessage.pdf [Last accessed 25 March 2021].
Ngata, W, Ngata-Gibson, H and Salmond, A. 2012. Te Ataakura: Digital taonga and cultural innovation. Journal of Material Culture, 17(3): 229–244. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/1359183512453807
NZ Herald. 2015. Lisa Reihana: Close encounters of the Pacific kind. New Zealand Herald, 2 May [online access at https://www.nzherald.co.nz/entertainment/lisa-reihana-close-encounters-of-the-pacific-kind/72VN2BXALAU2TJ36KES67GSPBA/ last accessed 25 March 2021].
Reihana, L. 2012. Re-Staging Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique: Theoretical and Practical Issues. Unpublished thesis (MDes), Unitec Institute of Technology, Auckland. Available at https://hdl.handle.net/10652/2544 [Last accessed 25 March 2021].
Reihana, L and Marlow, T. 2018. Artists of Oceania: Lisa Reihana in conversation. Royal Academy of Arts, 3 October [online access at https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/article/oceania-video-lisa-reihana-tim-marlow last accessed 25 March 2021].
Rice, R. (n.d.). The significance of the Dufour wallpaper. Available at https://www.tepapa.govt.nz/learn/for-educators/teaching-resources/venice-biennale/lisa-reihana-emissaries/significance-of-dufour-wallpaper [Last accessed 25 March 2021].
Smallman, E. 2018. Why I made Captain Cook lose his breeches: Lisa Reihana on her colonial video epic. The Guardian, 15 October [online access at https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2018/oct/15/lisa-reihana-in-pursuit-of-venus-infected-oceania-royal-academy-london last accessed 25 March 2021].
Soto Labbé, MP. 2015. Wrinkled Places: Musealising Indigenous Heritage in Latin America. Museum. Museum, 67: 104–115. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1111/muse.12081
Tobing Rony, F. 1996. The Third Eye: Race, Cinema, and Ethnographic Spectacle. Durham, NC: Duke University Press: DOI: https://doi.org/10.1215/9780822398721
UNESCO. 2003. Basic Texts of the 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage. Reprint, 2018. Available at https://ich.unesco.org/doc/src/2003_Convention_Basic_Texts-_2018_version-EN.pdf [Last accessed 25 March 2021].
Walsh, J. 2018. AROHA in Action: RA Oceania, 1 December 2018. Available at https://www.interislandcollective.com/blog/2019/1/16/arohaction-ra-oceania [Last accessed 25 March 2021].