When we think of Maori culture and particularly taonga, the idea of tradition comes to mind immediately. There is a long history in all the Maori arts of carvers, weavers and carriers of the culture learning as apprentices and developing their skills until they can produce objects worthy of the tradition they have been taught.

This was one of the themes for those members who joined one of the two Behind the Scenes tours which gave us a privileged insight into the history and art of Te Ao Māori, collected and cared for in Te Papa’s Mātauranga Māori Collection. The items are precious and are only exhibited occasionally. Seeing them in the company of expert guides enriched our experience as we learnt about the history and significance of the items and how they are cared for.

Dougal Austin, Acting Kaihāpai Mātauranga Māori / Head of Mātauranga Māori showed us the extensive range of carvings. There were pou and decorative posts and panels for buildings  from many areas and many dates, some rescued from swamps where they had been preserved. He explained that different styles related to particular iwi and particular master carvers. Young carvers who showed promise had their individual aptitude developed through apprenticeships to master carvers. Carvings can be identified, even much later as being the work of individual carvers. As a master carver you developed your own ways and these became part of the tradition.

We were also shown a considerable number of Hei Tiki, those tiki which are usually made of pounamu (greenstone), and are considered a taonga. (The word hei in Māori can mean “to wear around the neck”.) We were privileged to hear about them from Dougal who  has especial expertise in their origins, development, cultural use and significance and whose respect for the taonga he is responsible for is evident in his speaking and thoughtful  handling of them.

As with the carvings and tiki, there is a rich collection of weaving which is only occasionally on display to the public. Some of it, as Isaac Te Awa, Curator Mātauranga Māori, explained is fragile and can only be viewed under certain light. They are kept in drawers to preserve them and come out only for special occasions. Isaac, a weaver who learnt his craft from his grandparents, is knowledgeable about the variety of cloaks in those drawers, and what they tell about the life of those who wove them. The cloaks are the result of dedicated commitment from the preparation of the flax, to the weaving where the skill in technique shows in the tightness of the tension despite being woven on a loose loom. We saw many types of cloaks with feathers, the most valuable being those from the rarer birds. Black cloaks were worn by warriors, kiwi cloaks were for those of high status and  those with dogs’ hair edging were made for chiefs as dogs were rare and belonged only to chiefs. As times changed so did the types of feathers used. After Pākehā arrived even chicken feathers appear in some examples. Traditions are maintained but  expanded by the innovations of individuals. This was evident in Isaac’s own weaving which shows both tradition and individuality.

Thinking back on the visit, I am grateful for the chance to learn about and to see the weaving and carving in the presence of dedicated guides. Those who had that opportunity are now all the more aware of how the traditions been passed down the generations and how talented individuals have built on these, contributing to the richness and variety of the taonga and how it embodies the culture.

Alison Kuiper

Member, Friends of Te Papa.