Story: Māori and museums – ngā whare taonga

Māori view taonga (treasures) as their ancestors, so how they are presented and treated in museums is very important. Taonga have been a common sight in museums all over the world since Europeans began collecting Māori objects in the late 1700s. However, they were treated as curiosities, divorced from the culture that produced them. From the late 20th century, more Māori worked in museums and iwi had more input into how taonga were presented.

Story by Paora Tapsell
Main image: Auckland Museum staff with with Tangonge, 'the Kaitāia lintel', in 2012

Story summary

All images & media in this story

Māori treasures in European museums

Since the first visit to New Zealand of English explorer James Cook in 1769, Europeans have collected Māori taonga (treasures) and put them in museums. At first they were seen as curiosities from an exotic culture. Later, they were seen as cultural artefacts. From the 1960s taonga were often seen as examples of primitive art.

However, to Māori, taonga are part of a traditional system of gifting and reciprocity, and are embodiments of their ancestors.

Māori engage with museums, 1870s to 1970s

Māori collaborated with museums in various ways – for example, some taonga, such as canoes and carved houses, were placed in museums to keep them safe. Apirana Ngata joined the board of the Dominion Museum in the 1930s, becoming the first Māori to hold such a role.

Te Māori exhibition

Te Māori was a landmark exhibition of Māori taonga that toured the United States, beginning in 1984. The taonga were placed in a Māori context and curated by Māori. The exhibition also later toured New Zealand. It had a great impact on both Māori and Pākehā and showed a new way to display Māori objects in museums.

Increasing Māori involvement in museums

After the Te Māori exhibition, more Māori began to work in museums and Māori-led exhibitions became more common.

The Te Māori Manaaki Taonga Trust was founded to assist museum-related scholarship. Kaitiaki Māori (Māori Museum Workers) was founded for Māori museum professionals.

The challenges of the new century, 1997 onwards

Despite the increased number of Māori working in museums, few Māori gained middle or senior management positions in museums.

Te Papa was set up to embody biculturalism, with a Māori co-director and a Māori team. Different iwi were invited to be hosts in its Mana Whenua gallery. Other museums have also appointed Māori to boards or specialist roles. Puke Ariki in New Plymouth created the first governance board that was half Māori and half Pākehā.

Iwi became partners in some museums, such as Kaitāia’s Te Ahu, while other iwi set up their own museums.

How to cite this page:

Paora Tapsell, 'Māori and museums – ngā whare taonga', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 20 May 2024)

Story by Paora Tapsell, published 22 October 2014