Beginning four months ago at MTG as Curator Taonga Maori, I’m particularly focused on Maori stories, both current and historical.  These narratives are centered around the notion of taonga and setting to work has meant defining what this is.  Simply put taonga translates as treasures, but what does taonga mean for us at MTG Hawke’s Bay, as a museum, theatre and gallery?

Our “ Taonga Maori” category, within the wider collection, is one of the most significant in the world and certainly one of the oldest and largest in the country. Numbering over six thousand individual pieces, with many hundreds of years old. Working with these taonga is thrilling, often emotional and endlessly educational. Every piece is a representation of, or directly associated with, a Maori ancestor and is considered of ancestral importance to the Maori iwi/tribal group from which it originated.

Many of our taonga belonged to politically significant rangatira, these chiefs from all across the country have played a role in key events that have informed our nation’s history. These riches and others in the collection are simply beautiful, many being famous works of art in their own right. That we have acquired so many, collected for over one hundred and fifty years, makes our collection a true regional, national and international treasure.

About sixty percent of our ‘taonga Maori’ are directly associated with Ngati Kahungunu. Treasures such as the Pai Marire flag, flown in the battle of Omaranui inspired me as a young artist, so now working with this taonga draws deep emotion.

So too does the taonga from other iwi such as the gold furnished hei tiki of Ngati Toa rangatira Te Rauparaha, composer of the haka “Ka Mate”, and the bible of Te Kooti Arikirangi Te Turuki, of Rongowhakaata and founder of the Ringatu faith. The several Lindauer paintings, hundreds of mere pounamu, cravings, toki and cloaks, along with the personal adornments will take a long time to become knowledgeable about. Taonga belonging to rangatira such as Hongi Hika, Te Ruki Kawiti, Patuone, to Ta Apirana Ngata bring the past literally to hand.

But this is only one category of taonga. Precious items like the many huia feathers, and our moa and teeth of kuri (the Maori dog) are grouped as ‘natural history’. While taonga from a more current context are grouped under other categories such as contemporary Maori art, with digital artifacts, photographs and other items falling under the social history collection. Highlights of these for me are the Hon Whetu Tirikatene-Sullivan’s fashion collection and our beautiful Pania lamp.

However the definition of taonga goes beyond artifacts. Te Reo Maori and tikanga Maori are living taonga at MTG. Creating exhibitions and spaces that foster Te Reo and tikanga Maori are just as important as preserving an artifact from our past, as this also protects our future. How this is achieved requires a dynamic design approach that encourages engagement, creating what is to me our greatest taonga – visitor experiences.

Interactions of the huge range of visitors are to me taonga too. It’s a tremendous pleasure to watch visitors researching items such as kiwi feather cloaks, working out how each was engineered, in turn giving an insight into character of the maker. Satisfying too, is witnessing the sheer joy so many have when they connect to a taonga through a personal whanau history.

In celebration of our stories and taonga we have exhibitions currently in development. An exhibition on Pania is in the works and a special selection of our feather cloaks will be on display. ‘Rongonui’ will be an exhibition that showcases the depth of history and sheer importance of our taonga here at MTG Hawke’s Bay.  Now the hard part of the job will be choosing which taonga to showcase.

Waka Huia

Photo Credit:
Name/Title Waka Huia / Treasure Box
Acquisition Source and Donor The Estate of J.M. Wright (Napier)

Michelle Lee – Curator, Maori

Published in the Hawke’s Bay Today, 6th January 2018


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