31 Mar 2015

Some taonga best left overseas - artist

6:11 pm on 31 March 2015

A traditional Māori artist suggests some cherished wood carvings should be left overseas because the harsh weather in New Zealand could damage them.

Mataatua Wharenui

Mataatua Wharenui Photo: SUPPLIED / Ngati Awa Runanga

Instead, digital technology could be used bring home the taonga.

Iwi and hapū strive to have their taonga - pieces carved by their ancestors - returned to the country's shores, especially if they've been taken without consent.

An example of this is Mataatua, a grand wharenui or meeting house taken from its home in Whakatane more than 130 years ago, which was shipped to places such as in Australia, London, and also to the South Island of Aotearoa.

It was finally brought back to Whakatane, driven by its people of Ngāti Awa, as the deputy chair of the rūnanga, Pouroto Ngaropo, explained:

"Hirini Moko Mead was responsible for fulfilling a request from the late Eruera Manuera, who said, 'Hey Hirini, there's a house, Mataatua: you and the other leaders of our tribe need to restore it, repatriate the house and bring it home.' That's what we did."

The house was officially opened in 2011.

Case for digital repatriation

A Māori carver, who is also the head of the national Māori carving school at Te Puia, James Rickard, said sometimes it was best to leave taonga overseas.

He said he knew of some repatriated houses, such as Mataatua, which now show the effects of rain and the heat from the sun.

"Most of these taonga [have been] housed in controlled environments, and so the timber itself is use to those conditions," he said.

"Once you shift it to an outside environment, the timber begins to absorb water, if it's got a bit of rot in it ... It will rot, it will crack, it will do a whole host of things. And, in so many ways, the stuff that's overseas, should stay overseas."

Mr Ngaropo said he was prepared for the risk.

"There was always the understanding that the carvings on the outside would in time pirau [rot] ... You know, because of the weather elements, and they're very very old. One of the things we've done is we've got the Historic Places Trust to come along and to look at that with us.

"So we're looking at getting the necessary funding and also the material and the tohunga [experts] to help us in terms of our twins, the front side pillar carvings. So we've always recognised that that would be the reality."

Mr Rickard said using technology was another way tangata whenua could bring home their taonga.

"Digital repatriation is actually an ideal thing because you can get all your taonga photographed and brought back to New Zealand in a camera or in a hard drive. You don't need to bring those old things back."

The kaihautū (Māori leader) at Te Papa Tongarewa, Arapata Hakiwai, liked the idea.

"It's not a clear cut case of 'we should return all the Māori treasures held in overseas museums'," he said.

"I think the state of the digital technology these days - having the high quality digital images there ... is one way of reconnection."

Mr Hakiwai said sometimes iwi choose to leave taonga overseas, such as the carved Te Whānau-a-Ruataupare meeting house Ruatepupuke in Chicago, as an ambassor for tangata whenua.