Kōrero: East Coast region

Whārangi 11. Arts, culture and heritage

Ngā whakaahua me ngā rauemi katoa o tēnei kōrero

Museums and art galleries

Tairawhiti Museum in Gisborne is the region’s main museum and art gallery. It has a strong emphasis on Māori history in the region. The museum also boasts Wyllie Cottage — the oldest European house still standing in the Gisborne area.

Wyllie Cottage 

Wyllie Cottage was built in 1872 for James Ralston Wyllie and his wife, Kate (Keita), a Rongowhakaata woman of mana and daughter of early English trader Thomas Halbert. The cottage has seen a number of changes over the years and was once nearly condemned to demolition. Its brick chimney was reconstructed after it collapsed during the 2007 Gisborne earthquake. 

Two other smaller museums were the Gisborne Aviation Preservation Society Museum at the airport and the East Coast Museum of Technology at Mākaraka.

Art galleries included the Paul Nache Gallery, which specialised in contemporary New Zealand painting including contemporary Māori art; the Studio West Gallery, which displayed local artist Roger Shanks’s watercolour paintings; and Kahukura Gallery, which exhibited contemporary art.

Gisborne Art in Public Places (AIPP), or Toi Whanui Tairawhiti, established in 1999, installed artworks in locations around the district.

Public library

The H. B. Williams Memorial Library, along with 12 community libraries, serves the region. The region’s first library, Turanga Library, was opened in 1869 in a room in the courthouse. In 1967 the Williams family gifted a new building in memory of their father. The building is a classic example of 1960s architecture.


Wī Pere was one of four Waikohu district leaders who invited Te Kooti, after he had been given amnesty, to return to his home district. In preparation for the visit the beautiful meeting house Rongopai was built at Waituhi, near Pere's own residence. His mother Rīria and his son Te Moanaroa led the work. When the prophet's visit became imminent and the house was not complete, Rīria encouraged the young men to paint, rather than carve, the interior decorations. The result is one of the country's artistic treasures. The decorations include a painting of Wī Pere in parliamentary attire, with Rīria perched on his shoulder like a watching owl. In the event, Te Kooti never made a return visit to Poverty Bay.

Māori culture and built heritage

Several well-known traditional and contemporary artists and musical composers have their roots in the region including songwriters Tuini Ngāwai, Ngoi Pēwhairangi and Wiremu Kerekere.

Tairāwhiti is recognised nationally as a centre of excellence for kapa haka (traditional performing arts). A number of Tairāwhiti kapa haka groups, including Waihīrere and Whāngārā, have won prizes at the national Te Matatini competition.

There are 62 marae in the region, 47 of them north of Gisborne. Noted carvers Pine and Hōne Taiapa worked on many of these marae as part of Apirana Ngata’s cultural renaissance programme in the 1930s and 1940s. Some of the finest examples of Māori art are represented in the wharenui (meeting houses) at Porourangi (Waiōmatatini), Uepōhatu (Ruatōria), Te Poho-o-Rāwiri (Gisborne) and Rongopai (Pātūtahi) marae.

Promoting Gisborne 

In 2010 the Gisborne District Council launched the Tairāwhiti Navigations Project, which aimed to use the region’s rich culture and heritage for economic, cultural, social and environmental initiatives. Some initiatives focus on such things as paths and signage in the inner harbour, emphasising the meeting of two cultures – Māori and Pākehā – in the area. Others will promote the region’s wine industry. The project will also connect with other places where James Cook landed, so that it is integrated with the international ‘Footsteps of Cook’ tourism initiatives. 

Writing and writers

The Poverty Bay Herald was first published in Gisborne on 5 January 1874. Its name changed to the Gisborne Herald in 1939. In 2019 it was one of the last remaining privately owned and operated daily papers in New Zealand. Neighbouring Muirs Bookshop, established in 1905, has long been one of the best independent bookstores in New Zealand.

Joseph Angus Mackay, a newspaper man who lived in Gisborne from 1911, was active in gathering local history and published the book Historic Poverty Bay and the East Coast in 1950.

Rosemary Rees, daughter of pioneer William Rees, made a career as an actress and then as a writer of popular romances in the 1920s and 1930s.

David Ballantyne, who grew up partly in Hicks Bay and Gisborne, published two novels with Gisborne settings: the semi-autobiographical The Cunninghams (1948) and Sydney bridge upside down (1968).

Cartoonist Murray Ball, who lived near Gisborne, achieved greatest recognition for his long-running strip Footrot Flats (1976–1994).

Witi Ihimaera was one of the first Māori writers to gain prominence in English, and was the first Māori to publish both a collection of short stories and a novel. His early works drew heavily on his experiences growing up in Poverty Bay, and his novel Whale rider, made into a highly successful film in 2002, drew on the traditional story of Paikea.

Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Monty Soutar, 'East Coast region - Arts, culture and heritage', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/east-coast-region/page-11 (accessed 23 May 2024)

He kōrero nā Monty Soutar, i tāngia i te 25 Aug 2011, updated 1 Mar 2015