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Canterbury Museum apologises for longstanding, 'offensive' exhibit depicting early Māori life

Canterbury Museum’s 30-year-old exhibition depicting early Māori life in Aotearoa is set to be scrapped, with experts criticising the display as historically inaccurate and offensive.

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The dioramas have been a permanent exhibition since the 1980s but will soon be gone for good. Source: 1 NEWS

The four large dioramas have been a permanent part of Canterbury Museum since 1989, and show life-size figures of Aotearoa’s first people engaging in traditional practices.

However many aspects of the displays have drawn criticism, such as the physical features of the figures and the way in which they’re depicted as “Neanderthals”.

The first cave scene display which visitors encounter at the museum has already been partially obscured by window tinting. A sign on the window says it symbolises the fact hurt has been caused, and the museum is working with Ngāi Tahu on a replacement.

Anthony Wright, director of Canterbury Museum, has issued an apology for offence caused over the years, and says the museum has been aware for a long time that the dioramas are a misrepresentation.

"The dioramas in the Museum’s Māori Galleries were developed in the 1980s and present a colonial, early European perspective of Aotearoa New Zealand’s first people," he said.

"The four large dioramas dominate the galleries and have the potential to mislead some visitors."

Puamiria Parata-Goodall chairs the iwi liaison group Ōhākī o Ngā Tīpuna, which is working with the museum on what should happen to the displays.

She said the displays are offensive to Māori and leave a "sour taste in the mouth" as they portray early Māori as Neanderthals.

"They were a snapshot of a period of time where Māori stories were being told by everyone else but Māori. Stories were being told by our researchers, as opposed to the active participants," she said.

Māori Studies academic Dr Ella Henry said many of the aspects within the displays are inaccurate.

"There is literally no evidence to suggest that Māori lived in caves," she said.

Dr Henry said the dioramas show Māori life through a western colonial lens that "play into the notion of the noble savage, that imperial Europe needed to conquer and civilise, and vanquish the barbarity".

"It’s simply not true," she said.

In a statement, the museum said it has been attempting to address the issue for many years but was stalled by an appeal to redevelop the facility, and later by the Christchurch earthquakes. Covid-19 has since caused more delays.

Replacing the dioramas will now be a part of the $195 million redevelopment that is set to take place over the next few years.

Mr Wright said he’s not sure what will become of the displays, and that will be a part of consultation process with iwi, alongside what the replacement exhibition will look like.

Ms Parata-Goodall said she’s looking forward to being involved in the new display, which will create a new legacy for mokopuna.

"Let us tell our story. Let us tell the story we would like the world to know about, in a way that's appropriate to us," she said.

Public consultation is underway for the museum's proposed redevelopment.