This year marks the 25th year since the opening of the Te Māori exhibition at the Metropolitan museum in New York, 10th September, 1984. The exhibition was an overnight media and public sensation. It was heralded as an international success and continued its tour over 1985-86, to the Saint Louis Art Museum, the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco, and the Field Museum in Chicago. Scholar Professor Hirini Mead described the opening in New York as such:
“By the time…we had finished our karakia, the frenzied clicking of the cameras of the international press present at the ceremony assured us that this was a historical moment, a break through of some significance, a grand entrance into the world of art. We had suddenly become visible.” (Mead 1984b: 24-5)
Te Māori returned home as ‘Te Māori-Te Hokinga Mai’, 1986-1987 to tour the National museum in Wellington, Otago Museum, City Art Gallery, Christchurch and Auckland City Art Gallery. The exhibition consisted of 174 taonga from different tribal areas that were in N.Z museums throughout the country. 38 taonga came from the National museum, now Te Papa. Several of these taonga are now on display in Toi Te Papa, which feature the significance of Te Māori in terms of the (re)perception of Māori art.
Te Māori is widely acclaimed as an exhibition that changed the way that museums and art galleries interpreted and managed taonga Māori. Of importance was the acknowledgement that there was a living cultural dimension to Māori ‘artefacts’ held in their collections. This was a paradigmatic shift in museology that was also reflected in the wider context of Māori educational and political activism of the 1970’s and 1980’s.
Many Māori who currently work in museums and art galleries have, in some way, been influenced by Te Māori. A personal experience was in 1987, when the exhibition returned to the Auckland City Art Gallery as one of the homecoming venues after its successful tour in the United States. I came ‘face to face’ with an ancestor, Te Kauru o Te Rangi. Te Kauru fell at the battle of Te Pakake in 1824, along with other close relations and important chiefs of the Hawke’s Bay region of Heretaunga. Te Kauru, his father Te Hauwaho, uncle Te Humenga and cousin Pouamate, all died in this battle. They were later represented in perpetuity as poutokomanawa, ancestral carvings or centre ‘posts’ for a tribal meeting house, now residing on display in the Hawkes Bay museum and Art Gallery, Napier. For the families associated with these taonga, agreeing to Te Kauru travelling as part of the Te Māori exhibition was quite a momentous decision. There are a number of poutokomanawa, of related style and age, in museums throughout the world. One day they may come together, if not physically, perhaps digitally-for all their descendants to learn about and appreciate.
Like many Māori, I imagine that Te Māori was a unique and important event when we as descendants became absorbed and embraced by the presence of our ancestors. I certainly know that the exhibition had a lasting and profound effect on me, and some of my other whanaunga (relations), enough to encourage us on a life long journey learning about our heritage and genealogy.