The Monday Extract: The incredible story of the desecration of a Whakatane meeting house

In 1879, the Whakatane meeting house Mataatua was taken apart and put on a ship bound for Australia, then England: “And so began the wanderings of New Zealand’s most-travelled wharenui…”

Seeing Mataatua today, one is struck by its beauty. It is easy to imagine a government official being similarly struck in times past, and thinking it would be a good idea to send such a beautiful carved meeting house overseas to represent the country. At that time, officials had a limited appreciation and understanding of what they were requesting. To them, a carved meeting house was just an artefact produced by primitive craftsmen and women, which could be easily uprooted and sent away.

In 1879, Mataatua was disassembled, labelled and packed into the steamship Staffa, a boat small enough to fit inside the whare itself. It sailed for Sydney. And so began the wanderings of New Zealand’s most-travelled wharenui.

The meeting house was erected in the grounds of the Sydney International Exhibition. With the New Zealand flag flying overhead, it attracted a good deal of attention. There were other ethnological items present at the exhibition, but Mataatua was the most spectacular exhibit there. It had a very important task to perform, namely making the Australian people and other colonial visitors aware of the richness of New Zealand’s culture. It provided a focus for New Zealand’s exhibits and gave the exhibition as a whole a distinctive Polynesian aspect.

But when the house was reconstructed in Sydney, it was rebuilt inside-out; the artworks of Mataatua were placed on the outside walls. This presented an altogether false image of a traditional Māori meeting house to the public who visited the Exhibition. The manner in which Mataatua was treated in Sydney in 1879 represented a low point – not only in terms of the way Māori art objects were mishandled by the commissioners and the government of New Zealand, but also in terms of the state of race relations at that time.

Mataatua had undergone a transformation, from being a living meeting house standing at the apex of traditional art forms, to a poorly presented ethnological exhibit, damaged by inept and ignorant decision makers. It had been built to serve the needs of real communities. Now its function was a static exhibit for people of other cultures and other countries to admire and study. The government’s rejection of Ngāti Awa’s request that a tohunga travel with Mataatua to help reassemble the whare was to be a grave error of judgment; it resulted in the house being reconstructed incorrectly and, later, seriously damaged. The tukutuku panels (lattice work), in particular, were badly damaged by exposure to the elements in Sydney. There was no karakia or pōhiri; no thought to tikanga. The house was simply put up for public gaze. This kind of cultural violence would be unthinkable and intolerable today.

The outrage Ngāti Awa felt when they received word that the reconstruction of Mataatua for the Sydney exhibition had been disastrous was remembered almost half a century later by Gilbert Mair.

Writing for the Auckland Star in 1922, Mair pointed out that the grievous error in rebuilding the wharenui inside-out was regarded as both insulting and calamitous for Ngāti Awa: “It was not until 1870 that Apanui Hamaiwaho began his splendid carved house about 80 feet long which was opened by Sir Donald MacLean in the presence of 4,000 people in 1874 and named ‘Wairaka’. This building Apanui and Ngati awa afterwards presented to the Colony and it was sent to the great Indian and Colonial Exhibition in charge of Sir James Hector, who actually erected it inside out, the rough thatch and brushes inside, the magnificent carved panels and figures outside, where they were almost destroyed by six months exposure to the weather. The donors were furious when the illustrated papers reached the Dominion for they considered it a gross insult as well as a curse, and the subsequent death of Apanui, Kawakura, Tuhimata and other prominent builders were attributed to this appalling infraction of the sacred art of carving. Whether Sir James turned it right side in again, or what became of it, I cannot say. But Ngati awa protested against the building being brought back to New Zealand. The affair created a very painful feeling at the time.”

Te Mānuka Tūtahi Marae complex (Image: supplied)

It then travelled to the Melbourne International Exhibition.  After the exhibition closed, the Executive Commissioner reported to the government that “The Maori house has been forwarded to the Agent- General for New Zealand in London.” Somewhere between Sydney and Melbourne, it seems that the government of New Zealand had assumed ownership of Mataatua; the Ngāti Awa owners had quietly disappeared from any discussions about the future of their carved house. A separation had occurred.

On October 4, 1881, the Agent-General for New Zealand in London, FD Bell, wrote to the Colonial Secretary in Wellington that he was in communication with the authorities of the South Kensington Museum (later to become the Royal Victoria and Albert Museum), who had accepted his offer of the house and set apart a good site for its erection. Mataatua was soon after erected near the entrance of the South Kensington Museum. Not long after that, however, it was dismantled and stored in the cellar of the museum for the next 40 years.

In 1922, preparations began for the Wembley Exhibition, to be held in 1924–1925. Officials decided to reassemble Mataatua for the occasion. Once the house was erected at Wembley, an article in the Evening Post reported British officials were “amazed at the treasure they have had in their keeping for over 40 years”.

At Wembley, Mataatua was presented more faithfully – at least on the outside and in the porch. Photographs of the exhibit show the front centre post in its correct position, and so is the carved figure in front of it. The attention to authenticity helped restore some of Mataatua’s dignity and integrity as a whare whakairo and as a whare tīpuna: a fully decorated meeting house and a house of the ancestors. However, after its latest dismantling, and given the length of time it had spent away from home, some damage had occurred to the house, including the loss of some of the carved posts and some dry rot. In the 1926 book Maori Symbolism, Ettie Rout and Hohepa Te Rake Te Kiri noted that on inspecting the wharenui prior to its installation at Wembley, it was found that “the Koruru was missing. It was recovered in Scotland where it had been exhibited as a Maori god!” This book also noted that the ridge pole had been cut into four pieces, and the two maihi had been badly mutilated by builders unaware that they sloped between the amo and the wharenui. Additionally, tukutuku panels were missing, along with the door and decorated window shutter.

One important visitor to Mataatua at Wembley was Makareti or Margaret Thom, commonly known as Maggie Papakura. Maggie had been a Māori guide in Rotorua. She had married an Englishman and was now resident in London. She visited Mataatua at the Wembley Exhibition and wept over it, probably comparing its status with her own circumstances as a lonely person living in a strange land. There stood Mataatua, in a foreign land, without the support of its people. It was a whare-tūtahi: a house standing proudly, but alone.

Mataatua today (Image: supplied)

In March 1924, it was announced in New Zealand that Tahupotiki Wiremu Ratana, the prophetic founder and leader of the Ratana faith, accompanied by 35 members of his church, would leave for England. In accordance with their pre-arranged programme, they would visit the Wembley Exhibition. Ratana’s party were to give a programme of poi dances, hakas and other performances that had found favour in the eyes of Pākehā tourists to New Zealand.

While travelling from Durban to England, the Press reported that Ratana’s party were subjected to much unpleasantness, due to certain Rhodesian passengers raising “the colour question”. Tensions arose between those passengers and the Australians and New Zealanders, who were “sympathising with the Maoris”, and there were threats to throw the Rhodesians overboard.

In April 1924, J T Pemberton wrote of the vandalism and desecration of Mataatua as it appeared at Wembley in highly critical and scathing tones: “One cannot help feeling intense sympathy for the man or the members of the committee who decided that tourist photographs with gilt edgings should be let into the panels of the Maori House Mata-Atua. It is one of those classical blunders which will go down to posterity. It will stand for generations as an example of the grossest vandalism, of the darkest ignorance of all that has gone to make of the Maoris a race apart. Mata-Atua is not quite a genuine antique. It was carved with steel tools and completed in the year 1874. But it is emblematic of the unbroken traditions of the Ngati awa and Urewera tribes. To-day it would be impossible to gather together the craftsmen capable of such inspirational work. If anything like a mere copy. Mata-Atua is a classical work. It is the greatest example of Maori art in existence, and can never be repeated.”

On May 14, 1924, King George V and Queen Mary, along with their son, Prince Henry, accompanied King Ferdinand and Queen Marie of Romania on a private visit to Wembley, where they visited “The Sacred Maori House”. Almost a week later, the English royal family visited the exhibition again. They entered Mataatua outside the New Zealand pavilion. Major Roger Dansey, a New Zealander who was present, explained to them the origin of the house and its carving. The King remarked: “I have a great admiration for the Maoris. They are a courageous race.”

From one perspective, the royal visit represented the highest honour paid to Mataatua and its builders of Ngāti Awa. At the time, the house had been built, they had told the New Zealand government that this was what they had hoped for – that the house be “presented to the Queen”.

Advertising for the New Zealand pavilion in April 1924 promoted a visit to the “Māori House”, with its curios. Sir Percival Phillips in the Daily Mail referred to the house as a “Maori Manor House, complete in every detail with carving dating from the 14th century, and it presents a vivid picture of the life of New Zealand’s original inhabitants.”

Pita Moko, Ratana’s secretary, however, was horrified with the arrangements and stated as much to the Northern Advocate back in New Zealand in unequivocal terms: “Our party is disgusted with the Maori Hut at Wembley, because it is only half Maori workmanship. The carvings are a poor example of Maori art. In comparison with the Burma exhibits the Maori Hut suggests to the public that we are low down in the scale of native races. Because we are treated so badly our party has refused to enter the New Zealand Pavilion.”

After Moko returned to New Zealand, he gave an interview, describing the “the hut” at Wembley as a disgrace: “It was a Maori house presented to the late Queen Victoria, and had been stowed away for nearly 50 years. The carving was excellent, but the panelling was an eyesore, and all European.”

As for the mats, the reporter noted, Moko “would not have them on his own doorstep”. Moko maintained that if the authorities had intended to represent Māori, they should have made a display that was credible to the race. Moko complained that Māori “were the only coloured race under the British flag that did not have proper representation at the exhibition.” The coldness he felt had been shown to their party was strange, he said, seeing that the Māori boys had proved themselves such good fellows during war time, and were so hospitably received. In the latter stages of the exhibition, the “Maori House” was used as a stall for selling Burmese goods.

Victoria and Albert Museum officials decided that, after the exhibition, they would return the house to the government of New Zealand: they considered that they had no space to continue exhibiting Mataatua.

The waharoa entrance (Image: supplied)

Mataatua’s next destination was yet another international exhibition, planned to be held at Dunedin, in 1925.

Mataatua – or what was left of Mataatua – was sent to Dunedin, unpacked and reassembled as a key exhibit. Prior to the Wembley Exhibition, the tukutuku panels had all deteriorated. The Wembley Exhibition had used large photographs, presumably of the original tukutuku panels, in their place. A very depleted Mataatua was on show at Dunedin. Fortunately, most of the side wall poupou and the ancestors represented on them survived. The carvings of the back and front interiors had mostly gone; we do not know whether the appropriate wall panels on Tumoana, a carved house which had been dismantled then deposited in the Otago Museum, were used to fill the gaps.

In handing over Mataatua, the government required the council of the museum to repair all the house’s carvings, clean all its woodwork, renovate its paint work and take over the administration of the house, without cost to the government. The house had sustained grievous damage during its travels. A number of the huge totara logs had split, portions had broken off some of the carvings, the ridge pole had been cut into three parts, one or two posts had suffered dry rot, several carvings were missing, the door and window were missing and a number of back and front wall planks (called epa) were lost.

After the exhibition closed in 1926, Mataatua stayed at Logan Park until space became available in the museum building. By this time, Mataatua had been dismantled five times; it was to be reassembled for the fifth time inside the Otago Museum.

A new wing of the Otago Museum completed in 1930 had Mataatua as its centrepiece. However, when the wharenui was installed, it was no longer as large or as high as it had originally been. This new version was squat, built to fit into the space that was available. It looked presentable, but it was not an authentic version of the original. Indeed, by this point, given the damage sustained by the house, it was arguably not possible to present an authentic version of Mataatua at all.

The museum authorities filled in the gaps as best as they could; there Mataatua stood for the next 70 years.


From the beautifully produced new book Mataatua Wharenui: Te Whare i Hoki Mai by Hirini Mead, Layne Harvey, Pouroto Ngaropo and Te Onehou Phillis (Huia, $50), available at Unity Books.

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