A Māori perspective on the history of Te Mata-a-Māui

MTG Hawke’s Bay Tai Ahuriri reopened on July 23 after many months of closure, during which time some very necessary and welcome changes have occurred.

The water sprinkler system we’ve all heard about has been upgraded. But in a more significant way, the future security of the Hawke’s Bay Museum collections has been secured with the purchase of a new storage building located at 307 Queen Street East, Hastings (the former Briscoes site). 

A Lotteries funding grant of $5.47 million will pay for the conversion into a state-of-the-art museum facility, well away from the tsunami zone of the Napier waterfront! Vitally, the new facility provides room for the collection to grow while allowing greater accessibility by the public for guided tours and research projects. 

‘Kuru Taonga – Voices of Kahungunu’ – a Māori perspective on the history of Te Mata-a-Māui 

At MTG, the exhibition space devoted to taonga Māori has been completely made over and presents a freshly designed and curated exhibition telling the stories of people, events and taonga, a permanent exhibition that will over time be revised and refreshed as new objects or themes are introduced and new stories are told. 

Leading the curation of Kuru Taonga exhibition is Te Hira Henderson (Ngāti Kahungunu, Ngāti Porou, Ngāti Pākehā). His role is to bring a Māori perspective to our histories, to tell us of the significant events that changed Aotearoa forever. 

Henderson has engaged extensively with the Māori community during his working life as a Māori broadcaster and is of the Waipatu marae and hapu Ngāti Hinemoa, Ngāti Hori and Ngāti Hawea. He joined the MTG staff in 2018 and will lead Kuru Taonga exhibition tours with presentations that may shock and surprise in his unique style of history, humour and blunt truth.

He describes the period of early European settlement of New Zealand as a time of destabilization and confusion for Māori, with the introduction of new technologies such as the musket and its terrible consequences in the intertribal Musket Wars of the early 19th century. Later, from the 1850s, of land loss and injustice of the settlement years that saw them permanently separated from their ancestral lands from which Māori have never culturally or economically recovered.

Kuru Taonga is an oral history of Hawke’s Bay from pre-European times – from the beautiful and spiritual Aotearoa-origin stories of Rangi the sky father and Papa the earth mother, of the whakapapa of the ancestor Kahungunu and his descendents, through to our own times. 

Within the darkened exhibition space, pou, surfaced with paua shell, stand sentinel, each one fronted with a video presentation by the human taonga – the history holders of the current generation, telling the stories of the significant Māori events and identities alongside a selection of artifacts and objects originating from Hawke’s Bay’s predominant iwi, Ngāti Kahungunu.

The taonga (photographed) connect to events that in some way shaped Te Mata-a-Māui, Hawke’s Bay and come from the collections of taonga Māori held by the MTG Hawke’s Bay Museum Trust, considered to be one of Aotearoa’s most prestigious collections.

The collections will be housed in the new building in Hastings (yet to be named) with the foundation of the collection being those of Sir Donald McLean, Thomas Ebbett and Greacen Black that were gifted or purchased by the Museum Trust.

Sir Donald McLean’s collection was acquired over ten years from 1936 to 1945 and contained over 850 valuable objects including taonga Māori and historical archives. Many of the taonga were originally given to Sir Donald by iwi in the 19th century.

Thomas Ebbett’s collection was purchased in 1949 and contained over 500 taonga Māori and in 1937 the large collection assembled by Greacen Black of Gisborne over many years was offered to the museum containing both European objects and taonga Māori.

“Past practices by museums have created challenges for modern curators, in that the significance and connections to the objects were not always recorded,” says Laura Vodanovich, MTG Hawke’s Bay director. “In times past collectors were looking for curiosities but didn’t necessarily collect the stories that went with them.” Because of this, museums tended to present ‘dead’ displays of curiosities that while visually interesting, provided little insight of their true history or of the person or culture they connected to. 

Today museums are more likely to engage visitors by talking to them directly through the medium of storytelling. Kuru Taonga has Hawke’s Bay’s living storytellers as they kōrero directly to us through the medium of video. Sandy Adsett and Jacob Scott, and Mei Whaitiri (who was the model for Pania) recalling events within living memory, while Rose Mohi, Patrick Parsons, Ngahiwi Tomoana, Gerry Hapuku and Robert MacDonald (who sadly died the day after he spoke to camera) tell the stories of the ancestors, events and the significance of the taonga. 

The stories in Kuru Taonga are of tragedy and human interest – it is a walk through our history, so when you visit do give yourself time to be immersed in a fascinating experience. The stories and taonga come out of the time period when Māori were losing their land, when they were being dragged into an economic system they didn’t understand, facing land title laws they didn’t comprehend, and a European world view of which Māori had no conception.

Pākehā were welcomed here in Hawke’s Bay. Relationships between Pākehā and Māori were very good pre-Treaty, the local iwi had enthusiastically embraced Christianity and the ‘one God’ concept, enjoying trusting relationships with the missionaries. 

“They believed that the Crown would provide protection and security through its laws from the lawlessness being experienced in this chaotic period,” says Te Hira Henderson. 

“Ngāti Kahungunu called out to Pākehā to come and settle here. Māori were excited by the technologies these foreign people brought with them. They could see the potential of the metal tools, the new technologies and they embraced the trade opportunities with the settlers. It was for these reasons that Māori in this area didn’t go to war with the settler government.”

Settlement did not take hold till the 1850’s when the floodgates of immigration opened as the New Zealand Company began promoting land for sale to the British public, who responded to the idea of freedom of opportunity, of adventure in a fresh new land, free of class division and rigid traditions.

Today, through education there is a much greater awareness of the true significance of the impact of settlement upon Māori. 

Vast amounts of research have been conducted by Māori scholars – the recording of oral histories, Treaty Settlement research to support Treaty claims, and Pākehā historians who have been sifting through the archives and documenting accurate accounts of the events, attitudes and actions of the colonial government. 

It is being heard and understood and our minds are being opened to the principles of the Treaty, as this comment suggests.

Te Hira Henderson: “In the 1970s Syd Jackson was saying the same things as we are saying now and he was regarded as a dangerous radical. But the climate is changing and new generations of Pākehā are listening. We have a new breed of Pākehā, a new breed of Māori who are working to bring about these changes in attitude.” 

Exhibition runs until 1 June 2022.

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