By Vivian Mac Gillavry During the first year of my Bachelor study in anthropology, we were told that the best field research should take at least a year. You might just find out that the two days in which you can collect very relevant information, are in July and in January. It might be obvious that you would not like to miss those days. Unfortunately we only get three months to collect all our data for our master thesis.
During those three months, which are January, February and March (so too bad if your most important day is in July…) you have to collect your data according to certain university requirements. This consists of, for example, a particular amount of interviews with respondents in the field. That seems quite logical since you are doing a master’s degree and you are asked to follow certain rules and regulations but once you are in the field collecting data, it is sometimes hard to connect the two. For example the fact that you don’t know how many respondents you will find or if it is even possible to do a lot of observations. Sometimes the respondents say interesting things but tell you information off the record which gives it a more ethical dimension. Or thinking about how to not ‘pigeonhole’ your respondents by placing them in your theoretical framework.
I have been in New Zealand for seven weeks now doing a research in collaboration with the museum of ethnology in Leiden (Museum Volkenkunde) about a project that was established between the museum and Maori people in New Zealand. My research will mainly focus on how, and if, certain objects can be seen as so called ‘ambassador objects’ that represent a group of people or ‘culture’ in a museum space. This would mean that ‘objects can become ambassadors for the nation and symbols of cultural identity, working to give people a presence and identity on the world stage’ (Knowles, 2011: 241-242). This means the ‘ability of the object to ‘act’ and impart information to others to tell their own stories and thus ‘speak for themselves’ (Ibid., 232). During my research I will analyse this concept. The museum contacted a Maori arts organization six years ago and asked for a waka (canoe) to be displayed in Leiden. The first reaction of the organization and the Maori people that were involved wasn’t so positive since the waka is seen as an extremely important ‘thing’ in Maori culture, and not something to give away. The reason that I put thing between brackets is because of the fact that the waka is seen as a living taonga (which has many meanings but is often translated as treasure) and not an object, hence the first difficulty for me: how do you talk about this thing when it is hard to translate to ‘Western’ concepts that we are often using in our studies. And not only the translation can be difficult, also to capture the essence of the project and the feelings of the people that were involved towards the waka. How to translate those feelings to a Dutch audience that might see something different when they see the waka than the people here in New Zealand do.
The waka has been handed over to the museum 5 years ago and the connection between the Netherlands and New Zealand has been maintained by training a Dutch rowing crew (Njord Leiden) to paddle the waka in the canals of Leiden and in the waters of the Netherlands. Also a crew of Maori paddlers regularly visits Leiden to train the Njord paddlers again and to reconnect with the waka that lives in Leiden. The relationships that have been established between Maori paddlers, Dutch paddlers, the museum and Maori organizations have been growing in the past years. Even the New Zealand government got involved in some of the waka events since the waka came to the Netherlands, making this project a special project and a step in the changing museum policies. These changing policies are based on the fact that ethnological museums are starting to work more together with the people who come from cultures that are represented in the museum through material artefacts.
Back to the fact that you should actually be in the country for at least a year. I was lucky to be able to experience Waitangi Day, the day that commemorates the signing of the treaty that is seen as the foundation of New Zealand as a nation, although this is debatable and is a source of conflicts and protests (of which many have to do with the land that was taken from the Maori by colonizers – but this topic could be another year of field research altogether). On Waitangi day there are celebrations and protests at the same time. The week before the festivities, a camping ground is used as ‘tent city’ and many Maori people gather there to train with their waka crews for the celebrations. They invited me to train with a crew during the week and on Waitangi day I got to paddle in one of the waka. The biggest waka is only paddled by men and can carry around 120 people. All the waka paddle to the beach where the men and women perform a haka (a dance that combines movements and song which can be performed for many occasions) together (I learned three haka during the week but luckily the women perform behind the men so no one noticed that I still screwed up some parts of them). To be able to get a better understanding of the project, this week was perfect and very special to be a part off. I was able to interview a lot of the key figures within the project since they were all coming to Waitangi for the week. I don’t know how I would have gathered all this information or how I would have been able to interview all these people if it wasn’t for the 6th of February being exactly in the fieldwork period for me. I guess that in a way collecting data and doing fieldwork might also be about luck and coincidence, and grabbing those opportunities that are handed to you of course. Hopefully I will find more of those during the rest of my time here in New Zealand.
Knowles, C. “’Objects as Ambassadors’: Representing Nation Through Museum Exhibitions.” Unpacking the Collection. Networks of Material and Social Agency in the Museum. Ed. Sarah Byrne, Anne Clarke, Rodney Harrison and Robin Torrence. New York: Springer-Verlag, (2011): 231-247.