June 2018 exhibitions, MTG, Napier By Michael Hawksworth
MTG has a fascinating show on at the moment, but hurry because it’s not on for much longer. He Manu Tioriori, fresh from winning in the Exhibition Excellence – Taonga Māori category at the 2018 ServiceIQ New Zealand Museum Awards, presents with wit and flair 100 years of Ngāti Kahungunu popular music. The research undertaken by the museum’s team headed by Tryphena Cracknell and Charles Ropitini does what one hopes for from a museum project of this kind – it shines a light into an overlooked or forgotten corner of our culture to expose its influence on the evolution of mainstream performance and tastes. And it does this in collaboration with iwi – a fertile sharing of histories and perspectives.
There’s a lot of ground to cover – the energetic adoption and hybridisation of Pākehā music forms, big band, jazz, beat combo, you name it, with Māori traditions of ensemble, and kapa haka performance – map out the evolution of the particular flavour that infuses so much New Zealand popular music. If you’re a contemporary Hawke’s Bay musician, wondering how to reflect the idiosyncrasies and soul of local music history into your own work, then this show is an education, and necessary. As an exhibition, it could all have been so drily academic, had not the designers wisely opted to imbue it with the very exuberance and bop of the music itself. Though not exactly light on wall text and labels, the visitor is whirled around the show to the rhythms of its images – jazz graphics, band memorabilia, and vintage photos – to emerge enlightened.
One can’t help but notice that He Manu Tioriori achieves its ends with a lightness of touch and expression which somehow eludes Tenei Tonu, a diverse grab-bag of historical and contemporary taonga selected from the collection of the Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust, Rua wharo Ta-u-rangi, exhibited on the ground floor of MTG. Where the former show occupies a limited space without feeling cramped, the latter stuffs materials into a room not nearly big enough for them all to breathe.
Of course, MTG has been negotiating awkward spaces (and more) for a while now, and it’s been joked that, in defiance of the laws of physics, MTG’s renovation and expansion seem somehow to have resulted in less space. But it is thematic focus, judicious editing and user-friendly design that can mitigate spatial limitations. Whereas He Manu Tioriori achieves flow through its tight focus on a specific subject, Tenei Tonu attempts to shoehorn encyclopaedic scope into a similarly sized room, and delivers a largely unfocused fossick rather than an immersive experience. It’s the objects I felt sorry for. To finally be returned from your exile in the blind limbo of storage to the welcome bosom of your iwi, only to realise that you’ve been hung too high to be properly seen, or crowded next to a video display that shouts you down, or in a dim corner, unidentified, must be really disheartening. The taiaha, incredible objects (that without doubt merit a show of their own) are displayed in a way that makes it very difficult to appreciate their exquisite details.
It’s not all bad news, of course, but the excellent displays of waka and hoe as well as the imposing pou tokomanawa that stand at the entrance tend to remind you of what the show could have been. These objects radiate their wairua, because they stand apart from the digressive chatter in a space they can own. Like my music teacher at high school used to say, “Music should always be framed in silence.”