Twelve people have been arrested after a part of the Treaty of Waitangi exhibition at Te Papa was defaced, police say.
In a statement, a museum spokesperson said a wooden display panel showing an English version of the Treaty of Waitangi was damaged with spray paint and some kind of power tool at midday on Monday as protesters took to level four of their building.
The museum display, 'Signs of a Nation', shows English and te reo Māori versions of the Treaty, with the information panels highlighting the differences.
No museum collection items were damaged.
"Police were advised at around midday that a group of protesters were on level 4 of Te Papa, defacing parts of the Treaty of Waitangi exhibition," police said.
"In addition to that group, a man abseiled within the building and used an angle grinder and spray paint to damage the exhibition."
A 29-year-old man has been charged with intentional damage, obstructing police, and breach of bail.
A 53-year-old woman has been charged with intentional damage.
A 46-year-old man and 52-year old woman have been charged with breach of bail.
Police said eight protesters were arrested for trespass after refusing to leave Te Papa. They were escorted outside, formally trespassed and released without charge.
Aotearoa Liberation League and Te Waka Hourua - the Māori group affiliated with Extinction Rebellion - have claimed responsibility for the demonstration.
In a statement, Te Waka Hourua said the English display was not accurate, and had repeatedly called for it to be taken down, including in 2021.
The group said they believed the English text was displayed in a way that misled visitors.
"While the English document holds a distinct place in our nation's history, it is not a translation of Te Tiriti o Waitangi and holds no legal standing.
"Te Tiriti, in te reo Māori, is the only legitimate, legally binding agreement.
"While Te Tiriti affirms Māori sovereignty, the English document says it was ceded."
"The miseducation around Te Tiriti has resulted in a population who are ignorant of the promises made to Māori, leading to fearfulness and division."
The groups wanted an "an accurate translation for all New Zealanders to be able to read and understand."
Spokesperson Haimana Hirini said the English Treaty of Waitangi text was not a translation because it incorrectly stated that Māori ceded sovereignty.
"This is why there's so much confusion amongst us as a nation as to what Māori did and said. So we think it's really important, especially at this time in the current political climate, that we get back to the facts.
"The reasons why some people are spouting the rubbish about Te Tiriti out there is because they do not know, and it's because official entities like Te Papa continue to hold on to a false narrative... [those people] naturally think 'Well Te Papa's saying it so it must be true', and it's not true."
Hirini said their objective was for the museum to take down the large display of the English Treaty text.
"Now what we hope from our people is that they demand from Te Papa to find some official translations of Te Tiriti."
He denied that any damage was done to Te Papa's display.
"We are artists and we have created a piece of art. That thing is worth way more than it was hanging there before. So rather than having misinformation hanging there, we've put up a piece of art."
The group said they had tried all means of communication with Te Papa about the issue.
Te Papa said it had engaged with Te Waka Hourua before, including releasing information under the Official Information Act - but the group claimed this was heavily redacted.
Treaty vs Te Tiriti: What's the difference?
There were two versions of the Treaty. One was in Māori, the other was written in English.
According to the NZ History website, the English text of the document - the Treaty - Māori leaders gave the Queen 'all the rights and powers of sovereignty' over their land.
In the Māori text - Te Tiriti - Māori leaders gave the Queen 'te kawanatanga katoa' or the complete government over their land.
According to the Waitangi Tribunal, Māori signed the Māori version, not the English version.
It said "many people today believe that most Māori would not have signed the Treaty if the Māori version had used 'rangatiratanga' for 'sovereignty'."
Te Papa said the exhibition did not contain the original Treaty document - which is held at the National Library.
Spokesperson Kate Camp said the display made the discrepancies between the two versions of the Treaty clear.
"This display shows English and te reo Māori versions of the Treaty. Information panels highlight the differences and the tensions that arise from the translations.
"A contemporary English translation by Sir Hugh Kawharu sits in the middle, enabling English speakers to understand the discrepancies between the English translation by Busby and the te reo original."
Protest sparks discussion
Te Papa could not comment on how protesters were able to take abseiling gear and spray paint into the museum, because this was a matter for the security team and the police investigation, a spokesperson said.
The organisation would review the incident and take any lessons, including whether changes to security were needed.
Te Papa said its focus was on the safety of everyone and the protection of taonga in its buildings.
"We respect the right of people to express their views and to protest but we are disappointed that the group has damaged this museum display."
A 12-year-old boy who was at Te Papa when the vandalism happened said it looked like protesters were editing out parts of the text.
Xavier Wasek-Webb said he saw a man using abseiling equipment to hang from a ledge.
"He continued to slowly abseil down blacking out anything, I believe he didn't agree with the Treaty, almost like editing it," he said.
"He was sanding away parts too, as well as using the black paint."
Protesters wearing hi-vis vests were also seated on the floor of the atrium, below the display, singing songs, Wasek-Webb said.
The boy's mother, Natalie Webb, said people were ushered away from the area, but the whole museum was not evacuated.
"The security guard said 'It's dangerous for you to be here', I think it's just the confusion about what's occurring or not occurring, I don't think it was dangerous," she said.
"I am a bit puzzled how it got that far, because someone was physically attached by a cable - and high up, so the police couldn't do anything, they were simply watching."
It was a shame to see the museum vandalised, Webb said.
"Definitely support people being able to protest but not that keen on the national museum having [sanding] and black paint applied to it.
"It sparked quite a lot of discussions in our family ... we were having some discussions about versions of the Treaty and what does it mean and whether this was justified or not."
Level four of the museum will be closed for the rest of the day, and the 'Signs of a Nation' display would be closed until further notice.
Asked about the incident while giving Monday's post-Cabinet meeting briefing, Prime Minister Christopher Luxon said it was fine to protest but he saw no need to deface an exhibit at the national museum.
He was "incredibly proud" of the Treaty of Waitangi "and the origins that it's formed in forming our country", but New Zealand had been wrestling with what it meant, why it was signed, and the intention behind it over the past 180 years, he said.
"For me as a new prime minister I want to make sure that we continue with that pathway. We're always going to be a country with strong bicultural traditions, we're also going to be a country that's a modern multicultural country going forward well in the world. So we have to demonstrate to everybody - Māori and non-Māori - that we're about delivering better outcomes for everyone and that's what we're focused on."
Asked about how he would like to see the conversation about the Treaty progress, he said it was "about us talking through how we can actually be equal, everything under article three, equal under the law, it's very important that actually all New Zealanders are equal. We want to be able to continue to see Māori be able to exercise control over what they own, and we also want to realise that the government has a right to govern".
"Those are the frames which we think through it."