Story: Māori and museums – ngā whare taonga

Page 2. Māori engage with museums, 1870s to 1970s

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Despite the succession of ways that museums presented taonga (treasures), always with colonial Pākehā interpretations, Māori enthusiastically engaged with New Zealand’s museums. This engagement was, however, always for their own purposes. In the late 19th and early 20th century a number of Māori leaders and experts collaborated with Pākehā scholars, collectors and curators to preserve their people’s heritage. In the 1870s and 1880s Paora Tūhaere of Ngāti Whātua facilitated the safekeeping, at Auckland Museum, of Te Toki-a-Tapiri, a war canoe of great mana associated with many tribes.

There were a number of other examples of Māori using museums to protect their heritage:

  • Te Pōkiha Taranui and Gilbert Mair arranged the sale of the carved house Rangitihi to Auckland Museum in 1901. The sale was made for financial reasons, but was also to ensure Rangitihi was protected.
  • Māori leaders Apirana Ngata, Te Raumoa Balneavis and Peter Buck (Te Rangi Hīroa) worked with Elsdon Best, Johannes Andersen and James McDonald from the Dominion Museum, organising a number of ethnological expeditions in the early 1920s.
  • In 1927 Ngata obtained the Dominion Museum’s support for establishing the School of Māori Arts and Crafts at Rotorua.
  • From the mid-1920s Te Āti Awa carver Thomas Heberley (also known as Heperi) was employed full-time at the Dominion Museum. Heberley worked with ethnologist W. J. Phillipps collecting and displaying taonga.
  • Eruini Taipari and his Ngāti Maru iwi loaned the whare whakairo (carved house) Hotunui to the Auckland Museum in 1925, with the aim of preserving Hotunui.

Māori also attempted to halt the widespread desecration of their burial sites. In 1932 leaders of Te Uri-o-Hau in Kaipara wrote to George Graham of the Auckland Museum protesting against such disturbance. On another occasion Ngata intervened on behalf of Māori in the Waihī area.

Mākereti Papakura at Oxford

Mākereti Papakura, of the Tūhourangi iwi, won international fame as Rotorua’s ‘Guide Maggie’. By the late 1920s she was living in England and studying anthropology at Oxford University. She deposited her own substantial collection of taonga at the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford’s museum of anthropology. She also provided the museum with curatorial advice based on her own experiences and the teachings of her elders.

In the 1930s Ngata was the first of a long line of prominent Māori to hold a Māori governance position as a board member of the Dominion Museum. Auckland Museum governance did not follow suit until 1977, with the appointment of Hugh Kawharu, academic and protégé of Buck and Ngata.

Māori and regional museums

After the Second World War there was a new shift in the interaction between museums and Māori. In areas with large Māori populations, such as New Plymouth, Whanganui, Palmerston North, Napier, Gisborne and Rotorua, museums became important centres of regional identity. Such collections attracted the attention of a new generation of Pākehā curators and academics. Their work helped provide Māori with opportunities to re-engage with taonga held in local museums.

Māori activists of the late 1970s and 1980s, among them young Māori artists, turned their attention to the metropolitan museums. They protested against the colonisation of indigenous art, including the inappropriate acquisition of taonga and ancestral human remains. Over the same period less publicised tribal engagement in regional museums continued. For instance:

  • The Taranaki Museum revived their practice of appointing trustees over key taonga.
  • The Rotorua Museum actively exhibited and stored Te Arawa taonga under long-term loans.
  • Museum directors such as Mina McKenzie in Palmerston North and David Butts in Napier established elder advisory committees.
  • The national museum directors’ body, AGMANZ (Art Galleries and Museums Association of New Zealand), began offering a fellowship for a Māori curator in 1982.

Māori museum directors

In 1936 Peter Buck (Te Rangi Hīroa) was the first Māori to be appointed as a museum director, at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu. He held the position until his death in 1951. In 1978 Mina McKenzie became the first Māori to be appointed director of a New Zealand museum, in Palmerston North. As of 2013 Monty Soutar was the only other Māori to have been appointed as a museum director, at Tairawhiti Museum, Gisborne, from 2006 to 2009.

How to cite this page:

Paora Tapsell, 'Māori and museums – ngā whare taonga - Māori engage with museums, 1870s to 1970s', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 June 2024)

Story by Paora Tapsell, published 22 Oct 2014