During a recent conference in New Zealand, I had the chance to participate in a special guided tour of the Maori Collection Storeroom at the Te Papa Museum, Wellington.
The Maori guides explained that we were entering a place that was alive, so we started off with a prayer before entering into the storage space – basically telling the ancestors that we were coming in.
In addition to describing the different artefacts, their use and meaning, the guide explained that there was a ‘presence’ to the objects, and that they would let you know if they were not happy in the place they were in.
For example, staff are mindful not to put items from warring clans together or opposite each other.
There is always a light on in the storage space. The staff explained that the objects ‘prefer’ not to be in the dark, and they have had many electricians out to fix the one light that never turns off.
The objects we looked at included woven cloaks made of flax and feathers, woven baskets, tools with carvings, bowls, Maori portraits, greenstone carvings, fish hooks, decorated containers and tikis. Objects were often carved with images that represented their users/owners.
A large part of the collection was purchased from one man, William Oldman, an English dealer in tribal art. He collected many Maori objects during the early 1900s, selling many pieces to museums in Britain but keeping the best artefacts for himself. His collection was purchased for £44,000 in 1948 by the New Zealand Government. The objects were then divided between the four large metropolitan museums on indefinite loan. The Oldman Collection can be explored on the Te Papa website.
Te Papa allows Maori groups to use objects from the store in their ceremonies. These are objects that have usually belonged to ancestors of a particular family or group. Te Papa staff provide advice on handling and care when they lend the artefacts. The Maori guide added that it is more important that the objects be used than not.
At the end of the tour there was another prayer and a ceremonial washing in which we had to wash our hands and throw water on our head or face.