The Meaning of Maori at Te Papa Tongarewa

Posted on Aug 6, 2012 in ArtSmart Roundtable, New Zealand | 4 comments

This article is part of the monthly ArtSmart Roundtable, a group of art-history-loving travel bloggers who post a related article the first Monday of each month.  August’s topic is museums – my favorite subject!  For more related posts, check out the links at the end, or find us on Facebook here!

Maori. What is Maori? Until recently, my ignorance knew no bounds. Until a sunny day in Wellington, spent at New Zealand’s national museum, Te Papa Tongarewa. A melange of art, science and history, Te Papa rightly lives up to its name, meaning “the place of treasures of the land.”  Striking and beautiful, varied and exciting, learning about New Zealand’s history is made interactive and intriguing, leaving the visitor both mystified and fulfilled upon exit.

Te Papa is an institution that works closely with both its board, community and the tribal groups (iwi) of the country to present a visually stunning and deep understanding to visitors of the diversity, drama and beauty of New Zealand and its history.  Permanent exhibits include scientific explorations of creatures from land, sky and sea, fossils, plants, art, photography and historic Pacific and Maori cultural artifacts.  But it’s the profound understanding of the Maori culture and the intense and abiding tradition still rooted in these proud people that I found most memorable and touching.

The Maori are actually believed to have originated in Hawaii (or the environs), traveling without maps or plans but by faith alone to land on what would become their homeland, the islands of New Zealand.  A curious story of faith, courage and blind hope – so incredible!  One of the most prominent displays is that of the famous Waitangi Treaty of 1840 between the Maori chiefs and British leaders, with an ongoing heated debate over its fairness and transparency – different translations show that the British citizens may have deceived the Maori out of power and land through a simple language barrier.  Still, it’s considered the founding document of the country.

Still, the Maori exhibits are more profound and more silently, deeply moving than any of the other (still incredible) exhibits at the museum.  From voiceover-d slideshows to ancient artifacts and larger-than-life displays, like the Maori meeting house (which you can walk inside, barefoot, to admire the eerie statues and intricate carving within) and items of indelible value like a sculpted statue of God and replica of an original Maori boat show craftsmanship and care beyond anything I’d ever seen before.  The pride, history, beauty of these people, who still exist and rightly maintain a powerful social, cultural and political presence in New Zealand, is instantly understood (as best as rookies like me could understand) within a 60-minute walk-through.

Maori costumes, Maori art, Maori ornaments, weaponry, jewelry and carvings – they all give but a glimpse into the fascinating life and times of a culture our Western world seems to forget is so rich and important.  Te Papa’s exhibits profile famous Maori both living and dead, people who’s deep-rooted ancestry lives today in the life and times of active Maori members of the community in Wellington and around the country.  In our time even Queen Elizabeth II has paid homage to the people who knew New Zealand first and still fiercely consider it their home.

I would vouch without a doubt that it is nigh impossible to leave the impeccably-curated Museum of New Zealand, Te Papa Tongarewa, without a lasting feeling of awe, respect and piqued curiosity about these amazing people.  There is nothing to say but that you must see it for yourself. You might leave a little misty-eyed, as I did. Perhaps that is why I left bearing a koru around my neck, purchased at the gift shop – the Kiwi symbol for growth, strength and peace – all things I felt upon leaving Te Papa, inspired and in awe of the mysterious and beautiful Maori.

Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa
55 Cable Street, PO Box 467
Wellington 6011, New Zealand
+64 (0)4 381 7000
Open daily, 365 days a year, 10am-6pm
Entry is free!
Other August ArtSmart Feature Articles:
The Architecture of the High Museum by Erin at A Sense of Place
A Visit to the Mauritshuis Royal Picture Gallery in the Hague by Jeff at EuroTravelogue
The Menil Collection in Houston, Texas by Kelly at Travellious
and don’t forget to check out the group on Facebook for more!
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  1. What a fascinating introduction into the Maori culture! Until now, I have never heard of them and thanks to this post, I have now! Would have loved to walk inside the meeting house to see the intricate carvings and get a sense of who these people were and how they lived. Truly a fascinating journey my friend!

  2. How marvelous the museum has free admission, encouraging even more to enter and learn. The Maori are master carvers; I’d love to see their mythic landscape someday.

  3. I just heard about this museum through my internship (the database we’re switching to was started in NZ and works closely with this museum).

    I love that the museum worked actively with the Maori to create the exhibits rather than just presenting a Western view of them. It’s such a great example of how cultures should be represented in cultural institutions.


  1. A Sense of Place » ArtSmart Roundtable: The Architecture of the High Museum of Art - [...] of Career Girl Travels: The Meaning of Maori at Te Papa Tongarewa Posted by ehalvey on August 6, ...

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