Māori treasures in European museums
Since the first visit to New Zealand of English explorer James Cook in 1769, Europeans have collected Māori taonga (treasures) and put them in museums. At first they were seen as curiosities from an exotic culture. Later, they were seen as cultural artefacts. From the 1960s taonga were often seen as examples of primitive art.
However, to Māori, taonga are part of a traditional system of gifting and reciprocity, and are embodiments of their ancestors.
Māori engage with museums, 1870s to 1970s
Māori collaborated with museums in various ways – for example some taonga, such as canoes and carved houses, were placed in museums to keep them safe. Āpirana Ngata joined the board of the Dominion Museum in the 1930s, becoming the first Māori to hold such a role.
Te Māori exhibition
Te Māori was a landmark exhibition of Māori taonga that toured the United States, beginning in 1984. The taonga were placed in a Māori context and curated by Māori. The exhibition also later toured New Zealand. It had a great impact on both Māori and Pākehā and showed a new way to display Māori objects in museums.
Increasing Māori involvement in museums
After the Te Māori exhibition, more Māori began to work in museums and Māori-led exhibitions became more common.
The Te Māori Manaaki Taonga Trust was founded to assist museum-related scholarship. Kaitiaki Māori (Māori Museum Workers) was founded for Māori museum professionals.
The challenges of the new century, 1997 onwards
Despite the increased number of Māori working in museums, few Māori gained middle or senior positions in museums.
Te Papa had been set up to embody biculturalism, by having a Māori co-director and a Māori team. Different iwi were invited to be hosts in its Mana Whenua gallery. Other museums have also sought to include Māori in a formal capacity on boards or specialist roles. Puke Ariki in New Plymouth created the first governance board that was half Māori and half Pākehā.
Iwi became partners in some museums, such as Kaitāia’s Te Ahu, while others set up their own museums.