Putting the pieces back together after the earthquake

Putting the pieces back together after the earthquake

On 14 Nov 2016 an earthquake registering 7.8 on the Richter scale shook Wellington awake.

All-in-all Te Papa’s buildings and its collection were virtually unscathed. Out of over two million collection objects, only nine were damaged.

One of the damaged objects was a plaster cast replica of an 18th century tauihu (canoe prow).

Charlotte Jimenez, an intern from the Institut National du Patrimoine in Paris, has spent the last three months putting more than 250 pieces of the plaster tauihu back together. Here she explains the intricate process.

A lady in a white lab coat paints a canoe prow
Charlotte Jimenez restoring the plaster cast replica of an 18th century tauihu (canoe prow), 2017. Photograph by Rachael Hockridge. Te Papa

Why we’re repairing a ‘replica’

This plaster cast replica of a tauihu (canoe prow) was sent to New Zealand in 1909. Based on style, we believe that the original was produced in north Auckland’s Hokianga district in the 18th century.

Although the plaster cast is a replica, the story behind the piece makes it a taonga itself, and an important part of Te Papa’s history.

Between 1903 and 1913, Augustus Hamilton, director of the New Zealand Dominion Museum asked for several plaster casts of taonga Māori preserved at the British Museum, and the tauihu was one of them. The cast therefore represents one of the first real attempts from New Zealand to repatriate taonga from Europe back to Aotearoa.

Working on this project was particularly interesting for me because of the link I felt between 19th century European collecting and exchange, and how Māori communities have worked to ‘repatriate’ the taonga from this time.

The task ahead

This project was a big technical challenge for me. It required much consideration before starting the treatment. I’d already pieced together a few works but not at this scale.

The broken canoe prow and all the pieces before restoration started
Charlotte’s work space and the pieces of the broken plaster cast canoe prow, 2017. Photograph by Charlotte Jimenez. Te Papa

I knew it was going to be a long, fiddly process, and I was confident that we could stabilise the plaster cast by putting the pieces back together. But I was worried about it shifting and whether I would be able to correct the distortion and bring the tauihu back to its original shape.

But mainly I was just excited to get started.

The conservation steps

  1. First I took the plaster cast off the wooden support. The wooden support was hiding some damaged parts which we wanted to have full access to. Taking the support off also made it easier to find the shape of the relief, using the back as a reference plan to put back together the pieces.

    A man holds the canoe prow after the wooden support has been removed
    Robert Clendon (objects conservator) holds the plaster cast just after the removal of the wooden support, 2017. Photograph by Charlotte Jimenez. Te Papa
  2. I then had to remove the bent metal supports from the inside of the plaster cast. The metal armatures were so deformed they would have made the assembly of the pieces almost impossible. As the plaster is so light these supports were not actually needed to maintain the structure of the cast.
    Covering the plaster cast before removing the metal supports
    The protection of the plaster cast before cutting the armatures, 2017. Photograph by Charlotte Jimenez. Te Papa

    cutting off the metal supports from the plaster cast
    Robert Clendon and Charlotte cutting the armatures with a high-speed rotary tool, 2017. Te Papa
  3. Next was the assembly of the pieces. Before gluing we do a ‘blank assembly’ which means assembling without permanent glue. In this case we used tape.
    Piecing together with tape

    Gluing the plaster cast together
    First the ‘blank’ assembly, and then gluing in progress viewed from the back, 2017. Photographs by Charlotte Jimenez. Te Papa
  4. Filling and retouching is the last phase in the long journey!

    Filling in the holes of the plaster cast
    Filling with an acrylic model paste (Pebeo®), 2017. Photograph by Charlotte Jimenez. Te Papa
    Paint pallets
    A mix of gouache and watercolours were used to retouch the filled areas, 2017. Photograph by Rachael Hockridge. Te Papa

    The tiny pieces of plaster which couldn't be put back into the cast
    The pieces remaining after the conservation, for which the location could not be found, 2017. Photograph by Rachael Hockridge. Te Papa

A unique opportunity

It’s always a great experience to enable an art work to be ‘usable’ again by undertaking remedial conservation treatments.

I am really pleased to have spent six months working at Te Papa. It’s been a unique opportunity for me to discover Māori taonga in their original context and to understand how people manage the collections: the handling/transport, the loans, the treatments, the relationships with the iwi.

My love for Pacific objects began during my first internship at the Musée du Quai Branly – Jacques Chirac in Paris. However, in France and more generally in Europe, ethnographic objects are viewed in a limited and particular way because they are seen out of context – whereas in New Zealand Aotearoa, objects and their history are enriched by the proximity to their living culture.

In New Zealand, Māori objects have the status of a treasure, ‘a taonga’, which is charged with spirituality and life. As a result, storage, handling, and conservation are influenced by this status. It’s this that I wanted to be exposed to, and why my experience in Oceania has been a great opportunity to begin my professional specialisation in the study and conservation of composite works within European ethnographic collections.

Charlotte smiling while restoring the canoe prow
Charlotte, 2017. Photograph by Rachael Hockridge. Te Papa


– Charlotte Jimenez, Conservation Intern


  1. “Congratulations, Charlotte !”
    Nous sommes admiratifs devant le travail “d’une telle artiste” qui, de surcroît, fait partie de nos relations….
    Et ce n’est rien à côté de la fierté des grands-parents !…
    Bravo et Bonne continuation, Charlotte !

  2. Congratulations on your wonderful and important restoration done with such exquisite care and attention, and thank you for the interesting way that you wrote about it.

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