Invisible Auckland is a digital project created by students of Bryn Mawr and Haverford Colleges that lends readers an insight into the political, environmental and social structures governing the relationships between New Zealand’s indigenous Maori community and non-Maori residents. The project serves as a comprehensive journey through time periods which detail out the evolution of the interface between indigeneity and urban ecology, as perspectives that complement each other in some cases and radically diverge in others.

By exploring controversies around the themes of Maori concepts in urban public spaces, the content hinges on two figures that stand for the fraught politics of indigenous environmental planning: the Tuppawaka (a large water canoe for tourists) and the Taniwha (a “guardian spirit” which resides in water bodies.) These figures appeared in the political conversations before Auckland hosted the 2011 Rugby World Cup, which like all global games, fostered an opportunity to peddle appealing images of the nation to viewers, thus spurning massive investment in infrastructure and development projects.

The imagery of indigeneity is often prominent in such spectacles and perhaps especially so in New Zealand. Conspicuous displays of Māori culture served to ground the nation in a precolonial mythic past, to demonstrate a contemporary multicultural harmony, and to promote a unique brand of tourist-friendly environmentalism. Visible, commodified Māori culture is integral to New Zealand’s brand and also economically important to a vibrant, enterprising Māori creative class (including indigenous architects and urban planners). Yet the visibility of Māori practices in the city also exceeds and undermines the logics of nationalism and capitalism. Marking significant places with artworks, ritually greeting visitors, and conjuring the “lifeforces” of ancestral landscapes are sacred obligations that thrive in contemporary Māori worlds, including those that are inflected by spectacular modes of capitalism. These competing visions frequently occupy the same spaces and raise complex problems of representation, of what Māori culture looks like and who gets to speak for it. The encounters through which these images and spaces emerge comprise the architecture of “biculturalism,” a widely-touted policy imperative and aspirational national ethos in New Zealand.

Taught by Visiting Assistant Professor Jacob Culbertson of Haverford College, his two classes- “Culture & Identity” and “Anthropology and Urban Ecology” analyze the complex relationships between indigenous communities and challenges of urban development in the context of Auckland’s city planning. Both classes employed a methodology of “controversy mapping”- a pragmatist approach that emphasizes detailing the myriad events and actors that comprise urban and environmental infrastructures. At the same time, though, both classes drew on their very different syllabi to reach their own analytical insights. Through the course of creating this exhibit, we also created a website in tandem, which can be reached here:

Sponsored by VCAM with support from the Haverford College Libraries.