Maori taonga, collections and museums

Maori taonga, collections and museums

The correct treatment of Maori artifacts (“taonga”) within collections and museums can present difficult problems. This is especially true when the history (or “whakapapa”) of the taonga has been lost over time. This is a story about one taonga, a large “hei tiki” that was placed in the care of Cawthron Institute more than 60 years ago, and the very successful resolution of a difficult issue.

 photograph copyright G Robertson 2002 Not to be reproduced.

When I started at Cawthron Institute in 1988, I had not anticipated being landed with responsibility for the largest single private collection in New Zealand of Maori artifacts. This was the “Knapp Collection”, well over 5000 artifacts from NZ  (mostly) and Polynesia. It had been left to Cawthron Institute back in the 1940s, probably because at that time the institute ran a museum, open to the public. Little or no effort had been made to preserve the whakapapa of the items, they were almost all anonymous. The museum had been closed and the taonga had been stored in various places since then. But I want to concentrate on just one of them, that hei tiki.

Kept apart from the rest, living in the vaults of the Bank of New Zealand in Nelson, it was made from greenstone (“pounamu”). It was obviously regarded as something very special, even though no-one appeared to know anything about its origins. It was large, appeared to have been made from the bottom half of a ceremonial adze, and was not completely finished. The quality of the pounamu was superb, a beautiful translucent green.

Because of its sacred nature, every handling or movement of the taonga was preceded by a formal ceremony carried out by priests and elders (“kaumatua”). This sometimes caused the bank staff to be freaked out. I recall one occasion when we were all left alone in the bank vault to “do our thing”, surrounded by shelves full of brown envelopes containing goodness knows what!

I knew the importance of the whakapapa of a taonga like this, so in my naivety distributed photographs in the hope that some information would surface. I suspect now that this offended some. I had consulted with only a few people on that step and, as I was later to learn, this taonga roused strong and sometimes opposing feelings. But nothing much came in over the next few months and years.

Quite a few years later, however, we struck the jackpot! The curator of the huge photographic collection at the Nelson Provincial Museum, Maurice Watson, came across a picture of a high ranking Maori woman wearing a kiwi feather cloak and a large hei tiki. He thought it looked vaguely familiar, and found my picture of the hei tiki in Cawthron’s care. It was identical! Right down to the highlights and shadows – the light was coming from the same quarter in both images. (You can read more about the image that Maurice found here, on the NZ National Library website).

Merenako of Motueka, ca 1880s. Turnbull Library, Reference Number: PAColl-7344-44

The woman in the picture is Mere Nako, a high-ranking kuia from the Te Atiawa tribe (who had married a chief from the Ngati Rarua tribe). On that NatLib web page they simply refer to her as “Old Biddy”, no other details.  Rather offensive, don’t you think? She may well have been called that by some settlers but she was a person of great importance and authority. (see this page for an interesting aside!). She reached a great age, dying in 1888.

There are many, many descendents of Mere Nako still living. Not very long after Maurice Watson’s find, I was asked to bring the hei tiki along to the museum, to an evening meeting of some of these descendents. (By this stage, I had been through a rather longer ceremony which had granted me the right to handle the taonga, with safety.) Partway through the meeting, feelings started to hot up. “But this is ours!” “This belongs to us!” “Why do we have to ask you for permission to see it?” – the questions mounted. I didn’t know what to say, they were good points. So I shut up and said nothing (not my usual mode of behaviour, I must say!) It was the right thing to do.  Eventually a question popped up: “why was it given to Cawthron?” This set off a new round of discussions, more questions and few answers. Finally one woman turned to me and said “We’re pleased that you’re taking good care of our taonga for now. Thank you.”

There is a strong belief that such taonga will always find their true home. I knew that the true home of this hei tiki did not lie with the Cawthron Institute. A path needed to be found which would satisfy the Cawthron board (who in legal terms had ownership), but return the taonga to the descendents of Mere Nako. It was a slow process. Then there was the huge Knapp collection, which also needed to “find its true home”. Board meetings started to hear the words “taonga” and kaitiaki, kaitiakitanga (guardian, guardianship or stewardship) rather than “artifact” and “ownership”. We made progress, levels of trust rose, and relations continued to improve. When I left in 2005, the kaitiakitanga passed from me to the Chairman of the Cawthron board, Oliver Sutherland. I was confident that he would continue the work.

Well, he certainly did! I was delighted to receive an invitation in early 2009 to attend a ceremony at the museum, the signing of a formal memorandum of understanding between Cawthron, the museum,  local iwi (Maori tribes) and the descendents of Mere Nako. Through that document, the whole of the Knapp collection was passed over to the stewardship of the Nelson Provincial Museum and local iwi. Rules are set out which define who can access the taonga and under what circumstances (e.g. for special occasions). All were in agreement.

The signing took place in the museum, in front of a display case containing that photograph of Mere Nako and the hei tiki itself. No longer was it being shut away in a bank vault. One of Mere Nako’s descendents spoke, lots of us did. I found it an extremely moving experience, one which brought back memories of the kaumatua I had dealt with over 20 years, many of whom are now gone.

Perhaps this is just a temporary stop, not yet the true home for the hei tiki and other taonga. But it’s a good one, one which demonstrates how differing belief systems, concepts of ownership and values can be reconciled.

The correct treatment of Maori artifacts or treasures (“taonga”) within collections and museums can present difficult problems. This is especially true when the history (or “whakapapa”) of the taonga has been lost over time. This is a story about one taonga, a large “hei tiki” that was placed in the care of Cawthron Institute more than 60 years ago, and the very successful resolution of a difficult issue.

1 comment

Tena Koe I was pleased to read your comments about this kuia, I have a 1978 calander with the kuia in it, yes I to was sorrwed by “the old biddy” Well done to you, know I no her name thankyou.

Kia ora ra

The Whaangas from Rongomaiwahine

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *