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Design: Tina Tiller.
Design: Tina Tiller.

OPINIONĀteaNovember 22, 2023

I’m not sure how to feel about the new Māori court exhibit at Auckland Museum

Design: Tina Tiller.
Design: Tina Tiller.

It’s great that Te Rā has returned home. But her journey back has raised ethical questions about how museums operate and what should happen with taonga going forward, writes Tommy de Silva.

I was awe-inspired while exploring New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in January 2019. One exhibit in particular stood out more than any of the Monet, Pollock or Van Gogh paintings – the ancient Egyptian Temple of Dendur. No, not a scale model, nor a recreation, drawing, painting or photograph, but the full scale, real deal straight from the desert with Roman graffiti and all. But alongside my sense of awe, as an Indigenous person, one question about the temple dominated my thinking: was it stolen? 

Victims of colonisation across the globe are, unfortunately, very familiar with our stuff being stolen by foreign imperial powers. From precious art and artefacts, plus flora and fauna, to literal human remains, colonisers have stolen our treasures to display in their museums and art galleries for centuries (or worse, to sit idle in overseas archives). 

Fortunately for the Met, its visitors and Egypt, the Temple of Dendur was not stolen. It was gifted to the USA after they helped Egypt document or save dozens of historical sites that were set to be flooded by the creation of a new dam lake. I was pleasantly surprised to discover this, since I assume that all Indigenous artefacts in imperial museums were unethically acquired until proven otherwise. 

The Temple of Dendur inside the Met.
The Temple of Dendur inside the Met. (Photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

One such artefact which may have been acquired via unethical methods is Te Rā, the last remaining ancient Māori seafaring sail. The roughly four-and-a-half metre long harakeke sail is held by the British Museum. Regarding how it got Te Rā, its website says “provenance: unknown… acquisition details unknown”. Some say that it was given to the museum by an anthropologist – a profession who at the time exercised unethical research and artefact acquisition methods – while others say he only identified it. Whatever role the anthropologist (James Edge Partington) played, it is theorised that Te Rā may have first come into foreign hands during James Cook’s voyage – a patriotic symbol of British colonisation. 

To add insult to injury, this one-of-a-kind taonga has largely been locked away in an archive for around a century. (Although of late the British Museum has allowed an increased number of Māori researchers into the archives.) Lisa Renard, a weaving researcher and trained museologist, says taonga like Te Rā in overseas collections can have lonely lives. However, this year, Te Rā, on loan from the British Museum, sailed home for the first time in roughly 200 years. It was first displayed at Christchurch Art Gallery/Te Puna o Waiwhetū before making its way to the Auckland Museum/Tāmaki Paenga Hira, where it now sits on display within the Māori court. Te Rā will be on loan in Aotearoa for around a year. 

Te Rā in its new home at the Auckland Museum.
Te Rā in its temporary home at Auckland Museum.

I was privileged to attend the dawn powhiri to welcome Te Rā to Tāmaki Makaurau. The morning was moving beyond measure, and seeing something as significant as Te Rā with my own eyes was terrific. The temporary trip home for this taonga has allowed Māori to reconnect with tūpuna, their ways and their mātauranga. Many people will visit the exhibit, helped by its accessible, central location. The wider Te Rā exhibition, featuring three taonga, starts at the museum’s northern entrance and, from there, flows directly into and across the Māori court. Te Rā and another sail occupy pride of place next to the wharenui Hotunui and the last surviving waka taua Te Toki a Tapiri. 

While the Marutūāhu peoples loaned the wharenui, the 100-seater waka was stolen. The waka was built by Ngāti Matawhaiti and carved by Rongowhakaata before being gifted to Ngāpuhi. Te Toki a Tapiri eventually ended up in the hands of my people, Ngaati Te Ata. During the Waikato War (1863-64), Te Toki a Tapiri was stolen by imperial troops and soon became a key display within Auckland’s settler museum. The 1871 compensation, $124,314.98 in today’s money, is tiny compared to the ticket revenue and donations a 138-year-old museum exhibit has generated. And at the end of the day, money doesn’t cut it for conciliatory compensation. Instead, tino rangatiratanga over taonga is crucial. 

The whakairo on Te Toki a Tapiri.
The intricate whakairo of Te Toki a Tapiri. Such exquisite whakairo was reserved for the most prestigious waka. (Photo: Kinder, John/Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki)

This made me wonder how Māori could reclaim tino rangatiratanga over Te Rā from a foreign imperial power that simply stored it away for so long. Renard was part of a team that repatriated koiwi from Paris back home, so she knows how legally convoluted the process can be with big institutions like the British Museum – in short, it “takes forever”. Nevertheless, she views the fact that Te Rā has returned home for the first time in two centuries as the foundation for Aotearoa reclaiming the taonga for good. “I’m happy we finally get to meet her (Te Rā), but it’s not perfect. I think it’s the first step, and I hope we have many more steps to come.”  

Te Rā is on display at Tāmaki Paenga Hira/Auckland Museum from now until May 2024, and it is free with museum entry. 

This is Public Interest Journalism supported by NZ On Air.

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