Caring for taonga on the Chatham Islands

National Services Te Paerangi (NSTP) is a team within Te Papa that provides support and advice for museums, galleries and iwi around New Zealand. You can learn more about what we do on our website.

One of NSTP’s services is to facilitate expert assistance for museums and other groups who care for taonga. Since 2010, NSTP has supported the Hokotehi Moriori Trust in Rēkohu (the Chatham Islands) with caring for the Islands’ rākau momori – carved kōpi trees.

Rēkohu kōpi grove. Kōpi is the Moriori word for karaka. Photograph by Nirmala Balram. © Te Papa

Rēkohu kōpi grove. Kōpi is the Moriori word for karaka. Photograph by Nirmala Balram. © Te Papa

A bit about Rēkohu

Rēkohu is the Moriori name for the Chatham Islands. It’s an archipelago approximately 800km east of New Zealand, and has officially been part of New Zealand since 1842. Rēkohu is the ancestral home of the Moriori people.

Rēkohu rākau momori

The rākau momori of Rēkohu are unique and significant taonga. They were carved by the Moriori people prior to the arrival of Ngāti Mutunga and Ngāti Tama iwi in Rēkohu. Rākau momori are found among groves of kōpi trees, which Moriori cultivated on the Islands for their rich food resources.

The carvings take the form of two-dimensional figures on the kōpi trees’ outer bark. It’s likely that they are depictions of ancestors, as well as events. The majority appear to be formed by wide, shallow grooves on the bark, rather than cuts – almost as if they have been pressed into the bark. The carvings and surrounding groves are tapu to the Moriori people.

Rākau momori up close. Photograph by Nirmala Balram. © Te Papa

Rākau momori up close. Photograph by Nirmala Balram. © Te Papa

Given the age of the rākau momori and their exposure to the elements, conservation treatment has become essential to maintain what is left of the carved bark.

Conservation support for rākau momori

The NSTP team doesn’t include a conservator, but fortunately we’re able to draw on the expertise of our talented conservator colleagues. Since 2010, Te Papa conservators Nirmala Balram and Robert Clendon have visited Rēkohu four times and once respectively. They’ve provided treatment and training in care of the rākau momori, alongside members of the Hokotehi Moriori Trust. In recent years Otago University, the Department of Conservation, and the Trust have also carried out a scanning project, recording valuable images of all remaining rākau momori.

Deterioration of the rākau momori is caused by various factors. Natural deterioration is, of course, to be expected, given the age of the trees. Other factors include wind exposure resulting from deforestation for farmland during the 19th century, bark shedding, borer, and also honey fungus, which sets in under the outer layer of bark.

Honey fungus is very damaging to the bark. Photograph by Nirmala Balram. © Te Papa

Honey fungus is very damaging to the bark. Photograph by Nirmala Balram. © Te Papa

Tourism has also been damaging – kōpi trees have shallow roots, and too much foot traffic is detrimental to them.

Kōpi trees have very shallow roots. Photograph by Nirmala Balram. © Te Papa

Kōpi trees have very shallow roots. Photograph by Nirmala Balram. © Te Papa

The range of deteriorating factors at play means that conservation treatment is not straightforward. The distance of Rēkohu from mainland New Zealand also creates a challenge. Access to conservation supplies is very limited, so they must be brought over from the mainland.

Today, about 60 carved trees remain in Rēkohu’s kōpi groves. In recent years, trees at the greatest risk of deterioration have been harvested to preserve their carvings.

Nirmala Balram most recently visited Rēkohu during February 2016. During this visit, Nirmala and the Trust preservation team, led by Susan Thorpe, placed 15 of the harvested trees into an insulated shipping container. The container provides an enclosed environment which allows the trees to dry slowly at an appropriate humidity level for preserving the bark.

Harvested trees going into an insulated container. Photograph by Nirmala Balram. © Te Papa

Harvested trees going into an insulated container. Photograph by Nirmala Balram. © Te Papa

The harvested trunks have also been covered in wedding tulle – a trick of the conservation trade for holding the bark in place until further treatment can be carried out.

Harvested tree dressed up in wedding tulle. Photograph by Nirmala Balram. © Te Papa

Harvested tree dressed up in wedding tulle. Photograph by Nirmala Balram. © Te Papa

During her visit in February, Nirmala also took part in a carving wānanga, where she taught conservation techniques to support the continuing care of the rākau momori. She also cooked a curry meal for 50 people!

Ongoing care in the form of careful observation, borer treatment and spraying is carried out by members of the Hokotehi Moriori Trust. Future plans for the care of the rākau momori include fitting the shipping container with a datalogger, a plumbed in dehumidifier, and a fan to circulate air – all these will contribute to a stable environment, prolonging the life of the carvings. However, the costs of achieving this are significant, and will require substantial fundraising by the Trust.

In the long term, the Hokotehi Moriori Trust is working towards displaying the treated, harvested carvings at Kōpinga Marae. A long term conservation plan is also in the works.

The NSTP team is very grateful to Nirmala and Robert for their work in helping us support the Hokotehi Moriori Trust to care for these precious taonga.

Learn more about Rēkohu rākau momori

Learn more about how NSTP facilitates expert advice for museums, galleries, and iwi groups

One Response

  1. Siobhan Leachman

    I came across a photo of a rākau momori while looking through the Biodiversity Heritage Library flickr feed. See https://www.flickr.com/photos/biodivlibrary/26596163543 Their image is from a book by L. Cockayne.

    Reply

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