Te Māori goes to the United States
The internationally celebrated Māori art exhibition of 1984–87, Te Māori, represented a critical moment, when New Zealand began to shrug off its identity as a British colony and imagine itself as part of the Pacific. Unlike any exhibition preceding it, in Te Māori taonga were interpreted as ancestors, challenging notions that they represented primitivism, artefacts or natural history. At the centre of this revolution was Māori co-curator Hirini (Sidney) Mead.
The organising committee sought elders’ understandings of their ancestors and extended descendants’ rights to veto the display of their taonga. Elders were invited to accompany Te Māori and lead the opening ceremonies. More than 100 Māori elders took turns to ceremonially open each of the US venues, beginning with New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in September 1984. The final opening, at the Field Museum, Chicago, involved local indigenous tribes welcoming their Māori visitors.
Standing tall in New York
John Rangihau said of Te Māori at the Metropolitan Museum of Art ‘They [taonga] represent living things for us Maori, they have to be seen and not left in a corner, or down in the basements of the museums of New Zealand ... Here they are being displayed in a most artistic way, in a way that says something about the culture of the people who made them. It says “We are here, we stand tall.”’1
The reaction in New Zealand
Te Māori made international headlines, while New Zealand’s own media awoke to the nation’s unique Māori point of difference. Global attention to things Māori challenged majority New Zealanders’ ideas of mono-cultural nationhood. Over the next three years the international recognition of Te Māori complemented the nation’s growing awareness of its obligations under the Treaty of Waitangi to address past wrongs.
Te hokinga mai – the return home
The return of Te Māori to New Zealand gave Māori and Pākehā an unprecedented opportunity to experience the power of taonga first hand. The four venues to host Te Māori were the National Museum in Wellington, the Otago Museum in Dunedin, the Robert McDougall Art Gallery in Christchurch and the Auckland City Art Gallery. The organising committee worked with each venue, facilitating wider Māori interaction, both as hosts and guests. Visitors were welcomed by elders and expertly guided by kaiārahi (Māori hosts) who were direct descendants of the ancestors on display. By the time of its closing in 1987 Te Māori had swept the nation up in ideas of Pacific identity underpinned by an emerging ideology of biculturalism.
The Impact of Te Māori
Rhonda Paku, a Māori curator, said of Te Māori: ‘It was a catalyst for Māori awakening to the fact that our taonga had real value elsewhere in the world. It was the first time I had seen our taonga on TV shown in such a cherished and valued way. It was an awakening to how we ourselves perceived the taonga as real treasures and not just things to be left in museums without a voice – we needed to provide that voice.’2
Te Māori and Te Papa
Peter Tapsell, minister of internal affairs in the newly elected Labour government of 1984, strongly supported Māori involvement in museums. The success of Te Māori influenced his 1985 announcement that a new national museum would be built, reflecting the coming together of two cultures represented by the Treaty of Waitangi. The Museum of New Zealand Project, planning for the new museum, involved a high level of Māori participation with many marae-based discussions. The final result was the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa in Wellington, which opened in a new building on Wellington’s waterfront in 1998.