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Māori and museums – ngā whare taonga

by Paora Tapsell

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.

Māori treasures and European museums

The arrival of English explorer James Cook in New Zealand in 1769 saw the first gifting of taonga (ancestral treasures) by Māori to Europeans. These taonga left an ancient Pacific culture of reciprocity and belonging, and entered a foreign system of legal title and museums. From this time on thousands of taonga were acquired by Europeans. Some were gifted, often as acknowledgements of agreements or relationships. Pākehā also bought, traded for and sometimes stole taonga. Museums and collectors in New Zealand traded taonga with overseas museums and collectors in order to acquire artefacts from overseas. Māori taonga eventually ended up in the collections of almost every major museum in the world.

Modern museums emerged out of the era of Europe’s industrial revolution and imperial expansion. Major powers, including Britain, France, Germany, Spain and the Netherlands, competed to conquer, colonise and exploit world resources. Items collected from indigenous people were hoarded and exhibited in institutions such as the British Museum, providing evidence of colonial expansion.

In the 21st century there are still large collections of taonga in overseas museums. Māori have sometimes tried to repatriate taonga, in particular human remains. In other cases, such as that of the carved house Ruatepupuke in Chicago’s Field Museum, Māori have come to agreements with the museum as to how the taonga should be displayed.

The age of exhibitions

New Zealand’s first museums were established during a time when international exhibitions were immensely popular, following the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London. New Zealand sent displays to overseas exhibitions, while a number of exhibitions were held in the colony itself. Generally Pākehā exhibited Māori taonga to illustrate European colonisation and progress. Occasionally, as at the 1876 Philadelphia International Exhibition, Māori were involved in presenting their own interpretations of taonga.

Museums in the colonies

Colonies also set up museums as they established colonial governments, reflecting the European domination of the Americas, Pacific and Asia. In 1852 New Zealand’s first settler government was established in Auckland. In the same year the fledgling nation’s first public museum, the Auckland Institute, opened its doors. This was followed by the Colonial Museum in Wellington (1865), the Otago Museum in Dunedin (1868) and the Canterbury Museum in Christchurch (1870). All placed Māori ‘curiosities’ on public display, mirroring the colonial intent to take over Māori-controlled resources.

The taking of Te Hau-ki-Tūranga

The carved house Te Hau-ki-Tūranga, from Ōrākaiapu near Gisborne, was built in the 1840s by Raharuhi Rukupō and others of the Rongowhakaata iwi. In 1867 Native Minister James Richmond confiscated the house. It was taken to Wellington and placed in the Colonial Museum, despite protests by Rongowhakaata. The house was still at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa in 2011, the year the Crown finally agreed that it would be returned to Rongowhakaata by 2017.

Curiosities, curios and artefacts

The labels museums used to describe taonga changed through time. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries the earliest collections of taonga entered the British Museum as ‘artificial curiosities of the South Pacific’. From the mid-19th century, as traditional Māori society began breaking down under the pressure of land alienation, Pākehā collectors easily acquired taonga and ancestral human remains. Māori items were displayed to local and overseas audiences as ‘primitive curios’ of a declining noble race, which was seen as inevitably giving way to British colonial progress.

By the 1920s anthropology was the dominant discipline for the scientific study of the human race. Taonga became specimens that were collated, exhibited and compared, as examples of ethnography, ethnology or natural history. Archaeology offered yet another new label to explain taonga: ‘primitive artefacts’.

Taonga as ‘art’

In the 1960s the modern art world, led by United States galleries, used taonga as examples of ‘primitive art’. Museums responded in the 1980s, labelling taonga as Māori art. What remained constant, throughout the many changes of how taonga were described by museums, was the way in which they were exhibited. Each era of labels for taonga gave a more accurate description of the belief systems of colonial nations than it did of the originating values of the Māori communities that created them. At the heart of these originating values, ignored by museums, were the obligations of reciprocity that went with the gifting of taonga.

Māori engage with museums, 1870s to 1970s

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.

Te Māori and its impact

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.

    • Quoted in Conal McCarthy, Exhibiting Māori: a history of colonial cultures of display. Wellington: Te Papa Press, 2007, p. 142. Back
    • Quoted in Conal McCarthy, Museums and Māori: heritage professionals, indigenous collections, current practice. Wellington: Te Papa Press, 2011, p. 63. Back

Increasing Māori involvement in museums, 1987 to 2000

New directions after Te Māori

The years immediately following the Te Māori exhibition saw an increase in Māori involvement in the museum sector. In 1988 the National Museum established a Wellington-based trainee scheme for Māori seeking museum careers. The course was run by weaver Erenora Puketapu Hetet and carver Rangi Hetet, along with Bill Cooper of the National Museum. Most of the young Māori on the scheme went on to work in museums.

The return of Pūkaki

The taonga Pūkaki, carved around 1836, is one of the most important tūpuna (ancestors) of Ngāti Whakaue and other Te Arawa iwi. Ngāti Whakaue gave Pūkaki to the Crown in 1877, sealing an agreement that would supposedly protect tribal lands. Pūkaki became internationally famous as a centrepiece of the Te Māori exhibition. The changing relationship between Māori and museums was reflected in the 1997 agreement by which Auckland Museum, guided by its Māori advisory committee, returned Pūkaki to Ngāti Whakaue.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s Māori museum and gallery appointments included:

  • Ngahuia Te Awekotuku, Waikato Museum’s first Māori curator, in 1987
  • Te Warena Taua, assistant ethnologist at Auckland Museum, in 1989
  • Paora Tapsell, curator at the Rotorua Museum of Art and History, in 1990
  • Jonathan Mane-Wheoki, first curator Māori of Christchurch’s Robert McDougall Art Gallery, in 1991.

Māori-led exhibitions

In the 1990s a host of Māori-led exhibitions began to shape New Zealand’s changing museum sector, bringing taonga and Māori art to centre stage. Some examples were:

  • Rotorua Museum’s 1991 Te Arawa exhibition – Te Korimako Tangi Ata / the New Dawn
  • Robert McDougall Art Gallery promoted a new generation of Māori artists, including Shane Cotton, Shona Rapira Davies and Michael Parekowhai
  • Waikato Museum, under Māori curator Barbara Moke, held the Te Ara o Tainui exhibition in 1998.

Māori organisation within museums

Māori began organising themselves within the museum sector. Hirini (Sidney) Mead and Te Aue Davis established the Te Māori Manaaki Taonga Trust to assist museum-related scholarship. Mina McKenzie and Bill Cooper organised Māori employees as a professional body named Kaitiaki Māori (Māori Museum Workers), which, in 1992, joined the newly constituted Museums Association of Aotearoa New Zealand (MAANZ).

These moves helped establish a national code of ethics, encouraging the involvement of local elders and better interpretation of taonga in museums. By the mid-1990s kaumātua advisory committees were created throughout the sector. Māori management positions were established, with Cliff Whiting appointed the first kaihautū (director Māori) at Te Papa. Mere Whaanga became manager – iwi values at the Auckland War Memorial Museum.

Te marae ki Te Papa

As part of its commitment to a bicultural approach, Te Papa included an operational marae, designed by Cliff Whiting. The marae was intended as a meeting place where people of all cultures could feel at home. The wharenui (meeting house) featured brightly coloured carvings of Māori and Pākehā ancestors represented in a modernist rather than traditional style.

Changes at Auckland Museum

The Auckland War Memorial Museum Amendment Act 1996 was a historic turning point for Māori. The act directly acknowledged the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi and Māori values associated with museum custodianship of taonga. It formally established a Māori Advisory Committee (Taumata-ā-Iwi) to the Auckland Museum Trust Board. Taumata-ā-Iwi comprised representatives of the local tribes Ngāti Whātua-o-Ōrākei, Waikato-Tainui and Ngāti Pāoa. In 1997 the Taumata-ā-Iwi guided the historic return of Pūkaki (the carved ancestor featured on New Zealand’s 20-cent coin) to his descendants, Ngāti Whakaue of Te Arawa.

Kaitiaki Māori and Museums Aotearoa

The Museums Association of Aotearoa New Zealand attempted in the late 1990s to integrate Māori values into its wider membership body. Many museum directors remained unconvinced Māori could add value to their institutions. In the mid-1990s these directors formed their own break-away group, the Museum Directors’ Federation. In 1999 Museums Aotearoa was formed, incorporating both the Museums’ Association Aotearoa New Zealand and the Museum Directors’ Federation, and Kaitiaki Māori (Māori Museum Workers) officially became part of Museums Aotearoa.

The challenges of the new century, 1997 onwards

The O’Regan Report, 1997

In 1997 a report by Gerard O’Regan on Māori involvement in museums was released. It highlighted the continuing challenges for Māori, including their struggle to enter middle and senior curatorial or management positions. The ‘Te Māori’ generation of qualified, museum-focused scholars was emerging from tertiary institutions. They still struggled, however, to gain employment recognising and using their cross-cultural skills.

Te Papa – the Māori team and Mana Whenua

Until 2000 Te Papa remained the only museum openly seeking to employ trained Māori museum professionals. Its Māori team was led by the kaihautū or director Māori. The bicultural Māori–Pākehā expression of the Treaty of Waitangi applied across Te Papa, resulting in two teams operating under two directors.

A major output of the Māori team was the Karanga Aotearoa Repatriation Programme, which aimed to repatriate Māori and Moriori human remains from overseas institutions, with the ultimate goal of returning them to their communities of origin.

The Māori team also established the Mana Whenua gallery, where different iwi were invited to be exhibition hosts on a rotating basis. Elders were based at Te Papa throughout each exhibition, providing the staff and visitors an opportunity to learn about particular tribal knowledge.

Developments at the Auckland Museum

Auckland War Memorial Museum also had a Māori specialist team, set up after sustained pressure from tribal leaders. This followed protests over the lack of consultation during the museum’s Māori gallery refurbishment in 1999. The tumuaki – director Māori executive leader position was established in 2000, followed by the setting up of a 15-strong Māori Values Team.

Māori at regional museums

Regional museums have also responded as best they can to Māori initiatives, given the constraints of local government funding. Porirua’s Pataka museum and art gallery was established in the 1990s under the directorship of Māori artist Darcy Nicholas. Puke Ariki in New Plymouth created the first governance board that was half Māori and half Pākehā. In 2006 the Tairāwhiti Museum in Gisborne appointed Māori historian Monty Soutar as its director, supported by a local Māori-dominated trust board.

Māori create their own institutions

Te Puia is the New Zealand Māori Arts and Crafts Institute at Rotorua’s thermal resort. At Te Puia, galleries with displays and interactives are combined with a school of carving and weaving. It is pan-tribal, Māori owned and operated, and staffed entirely by Māori. Te Ana Māori Rock Art Centre in Timaru is owned and operated by the Ngāi Tahu iwi. It uses exhibits and interactives to teach about rock art and also conducts tours to rock art sites.

As Treaty of Waitangi settlements progressed, some iwi began to consider setting up their own tribal repositories for taonga currently held by museums. Local iwi (mana whenua) continued to build relationships with museums. One such new joint museum initiative was Kaitāia’s Te Ahu – a community centre with archival repository – which involved representatives from Te Rarawa, Te Aupōuri, Ngāti Kahu, Ngāi Takoto and Ngāti Kurī. Another was Ngāi Tahu involvement with the Toitū Otago Settlers Museum in Dunedin.

Restructuring after 2008

Since 2008 a shift to a more conservative political climate led to a downturn of Māori dedicated positions across the museum sector. There was less willingness to place Māori in positions of influence beyond dealing with taonga or iwi relations. In the early 2010s Te Papa remained unwilling to formally accommodate its treaty partners at the governance table. Auckland Museum’s restructuring in 2008 included the dismantling of its Māori Values Team.

A new generation of tertiary-qualified Māori pushed their way into museum roles despite the downturn. The Massey University Museum Studies programme was established in the 1980s, followed by programmes at the University of Auckland, Victoria University of Wellington and the University of Otago. New Māori-curated exhibitions toured the world, fostering awareness of the communities in which these taonga originated.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Paora Tapsell, 'Māori and museums – ngā whare taonga', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 June 2024)

Story by Paora Tapsell, published 22 October 2014