Te Maori was the first international exhibition of taonga Maori (treasured Maori objects) from New Zealand museum collections. It was also a watershed in terms of bicultural museum practise within this country. For the first time, museums engaged with Maori in a meaningful way in the planning, display, and interpretation of taonga.
Te Maori was a huge success as a touring exhibition, in that the taonga were presented as works of art rather than ethnographic specimens, as previously defined by museums and Western cholarship. The exhibition laid the foundation for greater Maori participation in museums and art galleries. It also proved that taonga have a living connection, relevance, and significance to the descendants of their original owners – that they are ‘timeless anchor points’. (1)
The exhibition opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1984. From there it travelled to St Louis Art Museum, The MH de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco, and the Field Museum, Chicago. It returned to New Zealand in 1986 and was shown in the National Museum and Art Gallery, Wellington (Te Papa’s forerunner); Otago Museum, Dunedin; Robert McDougal Art Gallery, Christchurch; and the Auckland City Art Gallery. After the exhibition closed, the taonga were returned to the twelve New Zealand museums from which they were borrowed.
While Te Maori made its mark in the United States, it also had enormous impact in New Zealand. The total attendance at the four venues in this country was around 920,000. This was nearly 300,000 more visitors than had seen the exhibition in all the venues in the United States.
The idea for Te Maori first emerged in 1973. Discussions involved the American Federation of Arts, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the New Zealand government, and New Zealand museums. It wasn’t until eight years after the first of those talks that the New Zealand government formally approved the proposal and created a management committee, chaired by the Secretary of the Department of Maori Affairs. A Maori sub-committee was formed, ‘To ensure that Maoridom had a voice in all operations of the exhibition from the time of approval and agreement of the exhibition to the time of return.’ It was this committee, consisting of senior public servants, scholars, and arts and museum administrators, that ensured the traditional owners of the selected taonga would be asked to approve their inclusion. That round of consultations seeking permission raised the awareness of many Maori to the presence of their ancestors’ taonga in museum collections.
The Maori committee also ensured that the iwi representing the exhibition had representatives at each opening ceremony in the United States. Maori customs and protocol were observed at each venue, and Maori kaitiaki (guides) were trained to interpret the exhibition to visitors.
‘Te Maori continues to be a focus for scholars interested in the evolving relationship between Maori and museums. . . . . Tribal kaitiakitangi (customary practices relating to guardianship and authority over taonga) were recognised by museums during Te Maori, and consequently this recognition has been taken into individual institutional negotiations with tribes at the local level. Nowhere was this more evident than in the planning for the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, in Wellington.’(2)
1. Mead, Hirini Moko. (1985). ‘Te Maori: a journey of rediscovery for the Maori people’ republished in Mead, Hirini Moko. (1996). Maori Art on the World Scene: essays on Maori art. Wellington: Ahua Design & Illustration and Matau Associates. pp.207-211.
2. Butts, David. (2001). ‘Maori and Museums: the politics of indigenous recognition’. Unpublished paper.
The following publications can be found on the Discovery Centre bookshelves or in Te Aka Matua Library and Information Centre on Level 4. Photographs of Te Papa collection items may be ordered from Images on Level 4.
Mead, Hirini Moko. (1986). Magnificent Te Maori. Auckland: Heinemann.
Mead, Hirini Moko. (1996). Maori Art on the World Scene: essays on Maori art. Wellington: Ahua Design & Illustration and Matau Associates.
Simmons, D R and Brake, Brian. (1986). Te Maori: te hokinga mai, the return home. Auckland: Auckland City Art Gallery and New Zealand Te Maori Management Committee.
Installation view of Te Maori exhibition at the National Museum, Wellington 1986 photograph by Ken Downie