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McKenzie, Mina Louise


Ngāti Hauiti, Ngāti Raukawa, Te Ati Haunui-a-Pāpārangi, Rangitāne o Manawatū; museum professional

This biography, written by Margaret Tennant, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2024. It was translated into te reo Māori by Basil Keane.

Mina Louise McKenzie was a key player in New Zealand’s museums sector from the 1970s to the 1990s. As curator, and later director, of Manawatū Museum, she pioneered a model of museum practice which placed primacy on mātauranga Māori rather than western collecting practices. She carried this kaupapa to a wider stage through leadership roles in the Te Māori exhibition and in the development of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. Her personal story is deeply embedded in that of the wider Manawatū–Rangitikei area through her Māori and her Pākehā lineages, and because of the role she played in establishing the Manawatū Museum.

Whakapapa and early life

Mina Gillespie was born in Palmerston North on 2 February 1930, the only child of Nukuteaio Selina Potaka and her husband Arnold Gillespie. Through her father she was a member of the Seifert family, prominent in the local flax industry, and at the time of her birth Arnold was manager of the Miranui flax mill. Nukuteaio brought tribal affiliations to Ngāti Hauiti, Ngāti Raukawa, Te Ati Haunui-a-Pāpārangi and Rangitāne o Manawatū. The family marae was at Rātā, and Mina was to be a keen participant in its revitalisation during the 1970s and 1980s.

Another important strand to McKenzie’s identity came through her grandmother Esther Lyons Caselberg, daughter of the first shopkeeper in Mangaweka, Eli Caselberg, and his wife Catherine. From them came Eastern European Jewish connections, via the United Kingdom. McKenzie’s grandmother and great-grandmother ensured that the Jewish connections stayed alive during her childhood. McKenzie was to become an active member of the Palmerston North branch of the Union of Jewish Women in the later 1970s, linking up with other Jewish families and celebrating Jewish festivals.

Marriage and motherhood

McKenzie spent her childhood at Miranui and then on the family farm at Ōpiki before leaving to attend Whanganui Girls’ High School. She studied zoology at Otago University College from 1948 to 1950, later enrolling in arts papers at Massey University in 1963. While at Otago McKenzie met a young photographer, Barry James Woods, whom she married in Wellington on 18 December 1952. She worked briefly for the Department of Māori Affairs, and on her return to Palmerston North helped establish a regional branch of the Māori Women’s Welfare League in 1953. Mina and Barry Woods had two children together, but they divorced in March 1963.

McKenzie had two more children from another relationship before marrying Bruce Alan McKenzie in Palmerston North on 17 June 1965. Like her, he had strong family connections to Manawatū, and at the time of the marriage he was working for a long-established Palmerston North business, Bennett’s Booksellers. Despite surface differences, their shared ambitions, beliefs and interests made for a good marriage which lasted until Mina’s death. They had two daughters together.

Manawatū Museum

Like many women of the time, Mina McKenzie made the transition to a career and a wider profile incrementally, via unpaid and then part-time work. As the centennial of Pākehā settlement in Palmerston North approached in 1967, many leading citizens felt that the city still lacked many basic cultural amenities, such as a museum. The city council offered the newly incorporated museum society an old house for the temporary display of local history exhibits, and Mina and Bruce McKenzie were among the volunteers who enabled this facility to open in 1971.

Mina McKenzie’s increasing prominence in this group led to her being offered the position of acting curator with a small honorarium in 1974. The museum’s move to larger premises in 1975 saw her position become full-time; then, with the appointment of further staff, McKenzie became Manawatū Museum’s first director in September 1978. She was the first Māori to hold such a position in New Zealand. From then until her retirement in 1994 she was the face of Manawatū Museum, its most vigorous advocate and, increasingly, a force in the wider museums world.

Under McKenzie’s oversight, Manawatū Museum moved from a small house in Palmerston North’s Amesbury Street to larger premises in Church Street in 1975, and then to a larger site elsewhere in Church Street in 1994. None of these buildings were purpose-built, but McKenzie made them work despite their inadequacies. From the start she had the backing of a strong and supportive trust board, some of whom, like Massey University professor Keith Thomson, provided connections to government departments and other New Zealand museums.

McKenzie’s wide knowledge base, personal energy and vision, and mana in the community made her the right person at the right time to take up the director’s role. She was a wonderful communicator, able to interest audiences in objects as varied as colonial furniture and shell species from middens. McKenzie’s persuasive powers were fully exercised in fronting up to the Palmerston North City Council in support of funding applications. Her networking ability fostered strong community connections, and she encouraged her staff to join and actively engage with heritage and similar organisations. The education side of the museum flourished, with children from local schools engaging in hands-on activities of many kinds under her directorship.

Government work schemes of the 1980s enabled McKenzie to employ new staff, some Māori, and educate them about the need for culturally appropriate handling of taonga. Some of these appointees went on to have a high profile in the museums sector as directors, academics and private practitioners. They found her firm but fair and caring and inclusive; she created a stimulating environment where staff discussed complex ethical questions over morning tea. They participated in social events and went with her to city council presentations: they ‘moved as a group in a very Māori way’, remembered Warren Warbrick, one of McKenzie’s Rangitāne staff.1

McKenzie’s understanding of mātauranga Māori, and her Rangitāne and Raukawa whakapapa, were vitally important to Manawatū Museum. As a small, new entity it was able to develop without the historical baggage of its more established counterparts. It was less bound by existing collecting practices and could advance in ways more attuned to changing museological practice. McKenzie emphasised the ongoing relationship between Māori communities and the taonga tuku iho (treasures handed down) housed at the museum, and the role of iwi as kaitiaki (guardians) of these revered objects. She viewed Māori as ‘spiritual owners’ of their own cultural property and stressed ‘the necessity of the partnership with the tangata whenua which must be forged if we are truly to reflect our society.’2

Accordingly, Rangitāne, mana whenua of the land on which Manawatū Museum stood, were heavily involved in the museum project from the very start, and kaumātua such as Taitoko Rangiharuru Fitzgerald continued to advise on tikanga and accession policies. The Rangitāne Māori Committee met at the museum, with Mina as its secretary. With this association came the Rangitāne tīpuna vision of peace, mediation and biculturalism, to which McKenzie often alluded. Rangitāne felt confident placing their taonga tuku iho in the hands of an institution which had McKenzie as its director.

From the early-1980s until the early 1990s McKenzie was a key figure in most of the major initiatives in New Zealand’s museums sector. She became heavily involved in the Art Galleries and Museums Association of New Zealand (AGMANZ), and was its president from 1988 until 1990. McKenzie helped transform AGMANZ into Museums Aotearoa, a new organisation with a bicultural constitution.

Museums sector leadership

McKenzie’s museums career had already moved into a wider realm when she became president of the New Zealand committee of the International Council of Museums (a position she held from 1982 until 1987). This role took her overseas, and during one such trip she visited the Musée de L’Homme in Paris to see palisade posts from Puketotara Pā, which Rangitāne had presented to the Pascal family in the nineteenth century. She was so distressed by the unsympathetic treatment and crude display of these and other taonga Māori that she left the museum immediately and returned to New Zealand the following day. The experience reinforced her determination to write and talk more widely about the appropriate display of taonga from all cultures.

From 1985 to 1988 McKenzie was the only woman on the management committee of Te Māori, the major exhibition of Māori art which toured the United States and within New Zealand in the mid-1980s. This posed particular challenges, such as the different meanings museum professionals and Māori attached to the taonga tuku iho on display. McKenzie served on the exhibition’s Māori sub-committee and viewed herself as the bridge between the two groups, often the bearer of bad news if actions of one displeased the other.

Te Māori proved transformative for museums in New Zealand, and helped shift international perceptions of indigenous art away from the study of ‘primitive’ art and towards seeking an understanding of the work from the perspective of the culture which created it. It profoundly influenced the development of the new Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. McKenzie served on the museum’s development team in 1985, and contributed to Ngā taonga o te motu, which was both a plan for the new entity and a statement of ideals for museum practice in a bicultural society.

McKenzie’s efforts to bring iwi and museums closer together continued in the late 1980s. She pushed for the movement of Māori into museums in professional as well as advisory roles and, as chair of the Cultural Conservation Advisory Council between 1987 and 1991, advanced the training of Māori conservators. The first Kaitiaki Māori hui was held at Te Hou Hou Marae, McKenzie’s home marae at Rātā, in 1989.

Another important initiative which bore McKenzie’s imprint was the Taonga Māori conference of 1990, aimed at bringing together museums people responsible for Māori collections across the world. Overseas attendees visited marae throughout New Zealand and established relationships with Māori communities. The ongoing relationships built during the conference eventually led to the return of taonga to New Zealand. In recognition of this and other achievements, McKenzie was awarded a New Zealand sesquicentennial commemorative medal in 1990.

Community work and later life

By 1992 McKenzie had begun to withdraw from national leadership roles, though she remained important as a speaker, mentor and support for other museum practitioners. She was also an important figure in the establishment of the museum studies course at Massey University, where she was an honorary associate lecturer from 1990 until her death. In 1998 the university posthumously awarded her a Massey medal in recognition of her determination that museum studies had a place as an academic discipline.

In the local context, McKenzie’s other connections remained strong. She was appointed to the Manawatū–Wanganui Area Health Board, serving from 1989 to 1991, and was a long-standing presence on the Manawatū regional committee of the Historic Places Trust. For many years her Ngāti Hauiti connections underpinned her service on Whanganui’s Te Wehi o Te Rangi (waka) Trust. In recognition of meritorious service to Palmerston North, she was awarded a Palmerston North Civic Honour Award in 1993.

McKenzie had long pushed for a new purpose-built museum for Palmerston North, but this was not to be. In 1994, as part of a redevelopment, Manawatū Museum was merged with a new science centre as ‘The Science Centre and Manawatu Museum’, which was housed in a number of converted structures. Aware that the new entity would allow less space for her leadership style, McKenzie had not applied for the position of overall director, but played an active role in moving the museum collection to the new site. She finally retired in 1995 and took on a kaumatua role, continuing to smooth links between the museum and tāngata whenua.

In the background to McKenzie’s professional activities was a busy and hospitable home life, assisted by husband Bruce. The McKenzies’ children were supplemented at various times by wider whānau and other young people that the couple helped along the way. Tragedy intervened with the death of one of her sons in a car accident in 1988. In the mid-1990s, Bruce McKenzie decided to pursue a long-held ambition and open his own bookshop. Retired from full-time work, Mina agreed, and Bruce McKenzie Booksellers opened in December 1996. It had been trading for only three months when Mina McKenzie died suddenly at home of a heart condition on 11 March 1997, aged 67, survived by her husband and remaining five children.

McKenzie’s tangi was held at the Rātā marae, accompanied by a flood of tributes. Her professional achievements and personal qualities of passion, good humour and fierce advocacy for what she believed in were emphasised. Her roles as a bridge between Māori and Pākehā, between Jew and Gentile, between iwi and museum professionals, were acknowledged, as was the strain this imposed on her. Some colleagues noted that she could be challenging, one commenting that she prided herself on being a thorn in the side of those whose views she disagreed with. But McKenzie’s mana and her legacy in advancing the culturally appropriate handling of taonga at local, national and international level were undisputed. She was buried in the Pourewa Family Cemetery at Rātā.

  1. W. Warbrick. In conversation with author, 26 January 2022. Back
  2. M. McKenzie. ‘Forty years on’. AGMANZ Journal 19.2, 1988: 5. Back
How to cite this page:

Margaret Tennant. 'McKenzie, Mina Louise', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 2024. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/6m17/mckenzie-mina-louise (accessed 25 April 2024)