Te Papa is kaitiaki or guardian for an extensive collection of taonga Māori (Māori cultural treasures) including taonga from Moriori of Rēkohu, Chatham Islands. These taonga, which number around 25,000, represent the mātauranga or knowledge of tohunga or skilled experts over the last thousand years. When Pacific skills, technologies, and knowledge were applied in a new environment, a culture developed that was specific to the islands that make up Aotearoa, New Zealand. The personal and communal taonga that exist today, whether in tribal ownership or in museums, are greatly valued by iwi (tribes), hapū (sub-tribes), and whānau (families).
In caring for taonga, Te Papa recognises whakapapa (genealogical) connections and relationships with iwi, hapū, and whānau. These provide the foundation for Māori participation at Te Papa. The underlying principle of mana taonga acknowledges the spiritual and cultural connections of taonga with their people through the whakapapa of the taonga’s creator, the ancestors after whom the taonga is named, and the whānau, hapū, or iwi to whom the taonga belongs. Mana taonga gives iwi the right to care for their taonga, to speak about them, and to determine their use by the Museum. Te Papa is committed to respecting the tikanga (customs) of iwi in all management of taonga.
The way museums in Aotearoa, New Zealand, care for taonga is changing; no longer do they have the right to make unilateral decisions about how taonga should be stored, exhibited, or reproduced. Te Papa is a leader in bicultural museum practice, creating a structure that recognises the kaitiakitanga (guardianship) and ownership of taonga. There are many dimensions to Te Papa’s relationships with iwi: taonga may be subject, for example, to claims made under the Treaty of Waitangi; or they may have come into the collection in ways that remain a source of contention for iwi and hapū. Many taonga in the collection, particularly those that have been brought back from overseas, individually or as part of large collections, have little known history or iwi affiliation. Research continues in the effort to re-establish the connections of these taonga.
Mana taonga reminds Te Papa of its obligation to be aware of the historical and contemporary contexts that surround taonga, particularly those that passed out of Māori hands during times of conflict and social disruption. Taonga were sometimes part of a gift from the original owners. The recipients or their families later gave some of these taonga to the Museum, but others were often sold off to collectors or dealers. Other taonga reached the Museum by more devious routes. Over time, many taonga were bought, stolen, confiscated, or bartered; some were removed without ceremony from places sacred to iwi, hapū, and whānau. This severance continues to impact on descendants today.
A contemporary example of the complex interface between museums and iwi is the carved meeting house Te Hau ki Turanga, which is displayed in the Mana Whenua exhibition. The relationship between Te Papa and Rongowhakaata, the tribal owners of the meeting house, is central to the long-term care and presentation of this significant taonga. Te Papa respects the wishes of Rongowhakaata and is working through a process to define a joint management framework that addresses these issues. Mana taonga, as practised at Te Papa, allows not only the integrity of taonga to be upheld but also the mana and authority of iwi.
At the heart of Te Papa’s bicultural concept stands Rongomaraeroa Marae. With the meeting house Te Hono ki Hawaiki, it is a place for all peoples to meet. The Marae recognises the ancestral origins of Māori and Moriori through the application of protocols unique to the culture. Mana taonga confers on all people with connections to Te Papa’s collections a right to stand on the Marae. This acknowledgement of shared kinship and the concept of manaaki tangata, or welcome to all visitors, is observed at Te Papa. Although Te Hono ki Hawaiki is innovative in design, it remains customary in concept.
Some museum staff, particularly anthropologists, began to initiate changes in the way they worked with taonga Māori in the 1960s, but it was not until the success of Te Māori, the Māori exhibition that toured the United States and New Zealand in 1984-87, that museum practice in New Zealand shifted direction. Te Māori highlighted the inadequacy of New Zealand museums and questioned their approach.
Museums around the world were also reviewing their relationships with indigenous peoples and, in particular, the care of cultural property. Te Papa’s commitment to be a bicultural museum has been a landmark in these developments in the museum world.
For Māori, the past is located in front (i mua) of the person - the future lies behind (i muri) where it cannot be seen. Māori drawing on this customary knowledge move towards the future with their eyes on the past, which informs their lives in the present. Te Papa recognises these ongoing relationships between the past, present, and future, and works to meet the challenges they create for both Museum and iwi. Strong iwi relationships ensure that research into taonga remains relevant. An active contemporary development plan acknowledges the ways in which customary concepts underpin the work of contemporary artists.
The Museum is committed to celebrating a dynamic Māori visual culture that acknowledges innovation, recognises Māori knowledge systems, and reveres the connection and continuity between ngā tūpuna, ngā uri, me ngā whakatipuranga e whai ana - the ancestors, descendants, and future generations to come.