Bringing taonga into the future

Photo credit: Mark Beatty, National Library
Photo credit: Mark Beatty, National Library
New Zealand’s historical treasures should be actively connected to the future as much as they provide a natural link with the past.

Bachelor of Arts in Māori alumna Honiana Love, who was appointed Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision chief executive late last year, says the importance of a two-way street for taonga is often overlooked.

The Te Māori Exhibition in the late 1980s showed her the “real beauty of these taonga and the precious stories they shared”.

“I could see how lonely the taonga could be and how lonely we could be not having that connection.

“For taonga to connect with people, it is such a reciprocal relationship. I’d never really thought about it, but just felt how important it was that these taonga both linked us to our ancestors and we linked them to the modern world.

“And you don’t really think about that reciprocal relationship until you focus on that connection.”

Ms Love took up her role as Tumu Whakarae at New Zealand’s national audiovisual archive in December. She barely had time to get her feet under the table before the coronavirus storm broke, forcing the archives to shut.

Plans are now underway to reopen services as the country moves through alert levels, especially providing more remote services such as accepting requests for online viewing and use of the collection.

Ms Love’s years at Te Herenga Waka coincided with the arrival of her three children. She completed a BA in Maori, a Tohu in Māoritanga and, in 2002, graduated with a Master of Library and Information Studies (MIS).

“One qualification for each of the children,” she says.

She has been working at Ngā Taonga for about four and a half years and also did an 18-month stint about 10 years ago.

“I did work a little bit with film, at a very low-tech level. I’ve done wind-throughs of the nitrate material–helping wind the films through to release any gases that might cause those films to combust.”

The Archive now has about 75 full-time staff spread across three locations, in central Wellington, at Avalon in the Hutt Valley and in Christchurch.

So how does it feel being chief executive? “Oh well, you know. Baptism by fire—let’s have a global pandemic in your first six months.

“This is a really interesting time for the organisation. We have to come into the modern age with a collection that is both analogue and getting to be over 100 years old. How do we honour those past taonga by bringing them into the present for the future?”

Her love of old treasures and archiving started in childhood. “There were lots of things that interested me through my childhood, including my grandfather’s old 8mm films that he’d taken–some in Egypt during World War 2.

“The ones that really touched me were watching my mother and her sisters pulling Christmas crackers, and being in boats down at Rabbit Island, near Nelson, where they had a little bach.

“It really came to life in me when I was at boarding school in Christchurch at Te Waipounamu Māori Girls’ College. I used to polish the brass plaque dedicated to the memory of Te Moananui-a-Kiwa Ngārimu, who was awarded a Victoria Cross in World War 2.

“I wanted to know who he was and what he did and why we had a plaque under our tree in Christchurch for a Ngāti Porou man from up the [North Island] East Coast.

“Probably the watershed moment was when I got to be a guide on the Te Māori Exhibition when it came back in 1987 and toured around New Zealand. So at the Robert McDougall (Art Gallery in Christchurch), I got to spend some time with those taonga and the people looking after it.”

Ms Love says she grew up knowing about the marae “peripherally”, but only became more immersed in te ao Māori on being sent to boarding school.

In 1989, prior to starting at the University, she worked at National Archives as a preservation technician, preparing the Māori Land Court minute books for copying. Then she worked at the New Zealand Rail Library as a library assistant.

“When I first came to Vic it was to do a degree that meant I could go to Australia to do a scholarship in paper conservation. I did have some technical experience, but I moved more into the intellectual side once I’d finished my degree.

“My first year I got pregnant with my eldest son Rerewha i te Rangi and so life changed. I was doing my double major in Māori and history, because they were the things that interested me. I dropped that to do the [Diploma in] Tohu Māoritanga, and I did that while my son was a baby.

“I finished that, and when he was old enough and at the Kohanga up there, I focused on my history degree and completed that and had another baby, Tuparahuia, as well. Then I decided, what is vocational?

“I had worked as a library assistant while I was at Vic in my first year before I had my son, but what I really loved was archiving, so I did the Master of Library and Information Studies with an archives focus. That was a one-year course on top of the degree. I did it over two years and had another baby, my daughter Ohomairangi, as well.”

For her research paper she wrote a bibliography of what was in the Alexander Turnbull Library written by, or about, Māori women in the 19th century.

“You had to come up with a certain number of entries, I think it was 250, and list them and describe them. It was basically six months spent, days in there reading through screeds and screeds of information to find out things about Māori women.”

Ms Love was initially unsure of becoming a chief executive.

“The things I really wanted to achieve in my life were supporting people to find connection with their taonga, in particular supporting Māori and making a world that is somewhat inaccessible to Māori more accessible.

“I didn’t know whether being a CE would be the right step for me. However I have found, and I wonder whether it’s the influence of my tūpuna, that I feel a sense of purpose in being in a position to influence programmes of work, both at Ngā Taonga and across the sector

“One of my kaumatua who was very influential in supporting me used to say to me, ‘you are going to make a great kuia’. And I’d say, ‘what do you mean by that, uncle?’ and he’d say, ‘coz you’re so bossy’.

“It is a challenge that I am continuing to come to terms with–that, at the end of the day, things are my responsibility. So I have to think carefully about a decision, but I also have to listen to everybody and get a good sense of, am I making the right decision on the basis of what I’ve heard, not just on what I might think?”

The level 4 and 3 lockdowns were difficult for the archive. While staff worked from home, they could not access material and huge files could not be sent electronically.

“We were also seeing that people who would normally be using us were focused on other things, or couldn’t get funding for their projects.

“It’s all really a waiting game now. Our current plan sees us not returning to full service, including onsite access for the public, until we get to level 1.

“The positive about this is it is a moment to pause and reflect and figure out what is really important for us to be doing long-term.

“We have a real opportunity and some big challenges ahead of us. It is an amazing time to be leading our organisation.”