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Overseas and NZ museums return Māori carvings linked to Northland’s Ngāpuhi

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Professor Deidre Brown visits one of the eight missing whakairo – a kūwaha pātaka doorway on display at the Ethnological Museum in Berlin, Germany.

Eight historically significant traditional Māori wood carvings linked to Northland iwi Ngāpuhi have finally being found after being missing for 200 years.

The whakairo rākau, considered lost forever, were discovered in museums across the world ending an eight year search by University of Auckland professor Deidre Brown (Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Kahu), of the School of Architecture and Planning.

However, researchers spent six decades trying to track down the carvings – first acquired by the Church Missionary Society from Ngāpuhi in the Far North in 1823 – after they were shipped from the Bay of Islands to the society’s London headquarters.

The carvings are the earliest whakairo to have their spiritual meanings explained by Māori and recorded in writing.

“These taonga are important because they express a Ngāpuhi spirituality and world view that was recorded in detail when they were collected,” Brown said.

“They are a window into the world before Christianity and colonisation made an impact.”

A mid-nineteenth century catalogue discovered by Brown had played a crucial role in finding the whakairo rākau.

The breakthrough came when three pieces were identified in a catalogue from Musée des mission évangéliques 1867. The catalogue showed a selection of indigenous art from a missionary exhibit in the 1867 Exposition universelle d’art et ‘industrie in Paris.

Brown found three whakairo rākau in museums in Switzerland and Germany. The museums had purchased them from London-based antiques dealer William Oldman in 1911. He had bought them and others from British soldier Horatio Robley the year before.

She realised Roman numbers carved into the back of each carving matched an inventory of whakairo rākau sent by missionary Thomas Kendall from the Bay of Islands to London in 1823.

“This helped me find the remaining carvings in other museums, none of which knew their histories before Oldman.”

The outstanding carvings were tracked down in the Canterbury Museum, Brooklyn Museum, and Tūhura Otago Museum.

Brown said all the museums were excited about research’s potential to reconnect the taonga with their whānau.

The Roman numbers had previously gone unnoticed but now having identified the carvings shed light on their significance and origin as Kendall’s inventory had descriptions of the spiritual meaning of each whakairo rākau shared with him by Māori.

“Kendall was passionate about communicating Māori knowledge to other Europeans through the translation of te reo and also these whakairo, which he had been told by Māori community members contained their ancestral stories and spiritual understandings,” Brown said.

Kendall’s close connections with Māori, which included arms trading, led to his dismissal by the Church Missionary Society before the carvings reached London.

Brown believed this may be why the whakairo and their origin stories recorded by Kendall became separated.

The taratara-a-kae notched carving patterns had Brown questioning whether the carvings always belonged to Ngāpuhi or had been made in the Bay of Plenty or East Coast.

“My guess would be Te Whānau-ā-Apanui,” she said.

Te Runanga-Ā-Iwi-Ō-Ngāpuhi had not responded to the Advocate’s request for an interview by edition time.

There are more than 16,000 taonga Māori in overseas museums – most do not have information about their origins.

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