11 Sep 2019

Ngā Taonga Sound Archives: Te Māori

From Afternoons with Jesse Mulligan, 1:42 pm on 11 September 2019

Te Māori, a transformative Māori-led exhibition of 147 pieces of taonga, opened at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art 35 years ago this week, on 10 September.

An original poster from Te Maori exhibition which opened at New York's Metropolitan Museum on 10 September 1984.

An original poster from Te Maori exhibition which opened at New York's Metropolitan Museum on 10 September 1984. Photo: Alexander Turnbull Library

Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision's Sarah Johnston tells Afternoons' Jesse Mulligan the exhibition took seven years to plan, and was the first time taonga Māori had left New Zealand in such numbers.

A large party of kuia and kaumātua went with them, along with a cultural group who put on performances of the arts during the exhibition.

It was game-changing in terms of the practices of museums and exhibitors - indigenous peoples had generally not been consulted in the past about the display of cultural treasures and artifacts, which had often been taken without permission.

In this case, Māori curated what would be displayed, how it would be presented, what stories they wanted to be told. It is even credited with helping revive te reo Māori.

American audiences loved it, National Geographic magazine dedicated about 30 pages to it, documentaries, showed on TV to thousands of people and it toured the US for two years - stopping at the St Louis Art Museum, the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco, and the Field Museum in Chicago.

This international recognition, acceptance and acclaim for the show heightened Pākehā appreciation of Māori culture and customs back in Aotearoa, and the exhibition then returned to New Zealand's shores in 1987, showing in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin, to - again - huge queues and acclaim.

Audio cut 1: RNZ's Henare Te Ua, reporting on the show, describes the museum's preparation for the exhibition:

Māori broadcaster, Henare te Ua

Māori broadcaster Henare te Ua. Photo: Supplied

"A lot of our Māori people who had trepidations about some of their taonga coming here, thinking perhaps 'are they going to be looked after? Are they going to be safeguarded? Do these people appreciate the cultural sensitivities which are in-built in each one of these taonga?' The answer I can categorically do is that: 'have no fears whatsoever'.

"I've been to The Metropolitan, I've watched their staff work with this magnificent professionalism. When we went to the media preview, there was this marvellous thing happened in that as we entered with people like Professor Sidney Mead, media representatives from New York, we have a small Māori ceremony to clear way so that mere mortal eyes could look upon all these 174 taonga, these Māori treasures. The staff who were working, mounting the exhibition - there's noise going on; there were electric drills; there was perspex cases being made; there was ladders being moved around; there was lights being moved; there was a hubbub of noise going on." 

He said as soon as the group stepped forward and began the karakia, the staff quietly melted away in respect for what was happening.

"To me, this is marvellous. They recognised that culturally there's something of importance taking place. So, I reiterate, Te Māori is in absolutely magnificent hands.

"The exhibition itself, the way it's mounted, you've got to see it to believe it, because the lighting … the placement of each one of our taonga - whether it's a gateway arch, whether it's a hei tiki, whether it's an uenuku - which has a prominent pride of place in the exhibition, everything has been done to, as it were, give each taonga the pride of place. But when you've got 174 occupying prides of places it's absolutely mind boggling."

Audio cut 2: Elderly New York women question Ngāi Tūhoe weaver Mei Winitana about kete:

Mei Winitana, who has since completed a doctorate on tā moko and moko kauae.

Mei Winitana, who has since completed a doctorate on tā moko and moko kauae. Photo: NZ Herald / Alan Gibson

"How long does it generally take to make one of these smaller bags?

Dr Winitana: "To learn or to make it, actually make it?"

"Actually make it after you've learned how to do it.

Dr Winitana: "After you've learnt? Well, the plain ones, sorry the very, very plain ones which we call mahi kete just for ordinary carry, everyday work - books and things - about half a day. The coloured ones, the coloured kete, they take a lot more time. There's boiling, there's dying, there's the drying time, it can take up to a week to make one. We have a variety of kete we called kete kumara, which we use for potato bags, all right? Now, they have holes in them … for dirt to fall through when we give them a shake. We use those when we're gathering vegetables in the garden, or seafood from the sea."

Audio cut 3: Professor Hirini 'Sidney' Moko Mead, one of the curators of the exhibition, speaks on the plane trip back to New Zealand about how it was received:

Lady June Mead and Sir Hirini Moko Mead

 Lady June Mead and Sir Hirini Moko Mead (Ngāti Awa, Ngati Tuwharetoa, Tūhourangi, Tuhoe) at RNZ's studios.  Photo: RNZ/Justine Murray

Two children visiting Te Māori on its return to New Zealand.

Two children visiting Te Māori on its return to New Zealand. Photo: Evening Post staff photographer Greg King. (Alexander Turnbull Library)

"So we now know that the reaction of the American public at New York was no accident, because it's been the same at St. Louis. And the same at San Francisco, the impact has been very similar. And the reaction of the American people to Māori culture has been the same in all three places.

"You contrast that to the reaction at home, where, from a Māori point of view, the Pākehā reaction at home is muted, it's definitely muted, and it's definitely not open and forthcoming as we've seen here, overseas.

"And any praise for Māori culture is not given very willingly by a Pākehā audience and I believe it's got something to do with our colonial experience and our history, that we can't quite rid ourselves of, the attitudes that belong to our past.

"And for the Māori people to actually come out of New Zealand and go and do what is virtually our culture - doing our cultural thing - it's a liberating experience for them to realise that their culture is beautiful and that other people react to it in a powerful emotional way … crying at the beauty which they see in our people, and the fact that our people have so much to give to them.

"And so, what we're getting at all of these venues overseas was a confirmation to the Māori people that we've been right, we've been right to hold fast to our culture to hold fast to Māoritanga, that we really do have something to give to the world at large. And if the New Zealand Pākehā rejects it well, I think from now on what we have to say is, 'that's their hard luck'."

Audio cut 4: Sir Pita Sharples, who at the time was a performer in the cultural group, speaks about the cultural impact on New Zealand Pākehā, and the bittersweetness of their now-welcoming reaction to a culture they had been living alongside...

Pita Sharples.

 Sir Pita Sharples Photo: RNZ

"Te Hokinga Mai, the coming back ceremony, the welcome back of these taonga back to New Zealand was so big every museum wanted it, and so on.

"I thought 'why? It's been here all this time, we take it to America and then put it on the front page and make it famous in your eyes so now that it's famous, you want to welcome it'. I was disappointed in some ways. My attitude was like, 'about time'. It annoyed me a little.

"You guys are used to it, you know, this has been around. We were trying to build a marae, an urban marae in West Auckland, Hoani Waititi marae. Everybody opposed it - the tennis club, the supermarket, the so-and-so, and the pub they wanted to build - all opposed it. The neighbours and so on, all oppose having a marae there. Ignorance about what a marae is, in a meeting house and the ceremonies that go on. So, I was familiar with the ignorance of non-Māori.

"Today, marae play a full role in New Zealand's activities - and so finally we've broken through."

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