Returning Te Hau ki Turanga

Back in August 2011 the Government finally agreed to return Te Hau ki Turanga to the Rongowhakaata people nearly 150 years after it was illegally acquired by the Colonial Museum.  The Dominion Post pronounced that Te Papa was to lose the treasured whare, but as one of the commenters points out it was never actually Te Papa’s to lose.  It wasn’t quite as straight forward as that though, with varying interpretations of events clouding a clear-cut view of whether the whare was gifted or confiscated (see Deidre Brown’s article or the Waitangi Tribunal report).

Te Hau ki Turanga is the latest in a growing number of whare or pataka being reclaimed from museums in one way or another.  A couple of weeks after the Government signed its settlement with Rongowhakaata, Ngati Awa celebrated the (re)opening of the returned Mataatua.  Not only had Mataatua been confiscated by the Government, it had also been toured internationally as part of exhibiting model Maori life.  Ruatepupuke II was sold in a state of disrepair in the 1890s, and after appearing in a Hamburg curio emporium eventually found its way to Field Museum in Chicago where it resides today.

To many reading about the return of Te Hau ki Turanga it must seem as though the story ends there.  But while one set of architectural issues have been resolved, a whole new set emerge.  Rongowhakaata spokesperson Jody Wyllie floats the possibility of housing Te Hau ki Turanga in a new Gisborne museum, notes the need for the whare to be fully restored, and the unknown expense of upkeeping it once it is back.  Each of these raises interesting questions which haven’t been tackled before (since the previous thinking has mostly looked at the issues of the whare in captivity).

While people like Mike Linzey (see here) have looked at the implications of museums holding whare, those discussions have generally revolved around a national institution consuming the work of the ‘other’.  Linzey points to the meeting house within the Auckland museum as being a meeting ground of two conflicting identities.  But what if Te Hau ki Turanga is housed within a Rongowhakaata museum?  Do the issues of institutional swallowing disappear? (They probably deepen since we have a Western institution appropriated to display a misplaced ‘artform’.) Would the conflicting identities be resolved? (The existing ones perhaps, but a new set within a single culture would arise).

Fully restoring Te Hau ki Turanga raises just as many questions.  Restoration was used as a reason by the Government for the original removal (confiscation) of the house in the late 19th Century.  Apirana Ngata was then involved in its restoration in the late 1930s.  As Brown notes, “Ngata took care to re-construct a pre-1860s history for the house,’ but also applied ‘European-based interpretations of proportion…in order to make it suit modern tastes.’ Fully restoring the house implies unfolding these later restorations to achieve its traditional state – ironic given Ngata’s efforts were driven by a desire to create a traditional style and create a Maori master narrative.  Is it possible to reconnect Te Hau ki Turanga’s historical continuity, which would then disrupt this Maori master narrative that provides it with so much fame?

A.-Chr. Engels-Schwarzpaul and Keri-Anne Wikitera, “Counter Currents: Whare Nui and Fale Abroad”, pp.38-46 in The Pacific Connection – Trade, Travel & Technology Transfer, University of Melbourne, Melbourne, 2009 (see here).

Dean Sully (ed), Decolonising Conservation. Caring for Maori Meeting Houses Outside New Zealand, Left Coast Press Inc, USA, 2007.

Deidre Brown, “The Whare on Exhibition”, pp.65-79 in Anna Smith and Lydia Wevers, On Display. New Essays in Cultural Studies, VUP, Wellington, 2004.

Deidre Brown, “Te Hau ki Turanga”, pp.7-26 in Journal of the Polynesian Society, 105(1), March 1996 (see here).

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