Meeting a man I will never know: Jonathan Mane-Wheoki

Meeting a man I will never know: Jonathan Mane-Wheoki

Ruby Abraham, a Museum and Heritage Studies student at Victoria University, has spent the last five weeks on placement at Te Papa working intimately with the archive donated by Jonathan Mane-Wheoki (1943-2014). She explains how she’s got to know Jonathan (and the KE Emu database) through processing and cataloguing his archive.

Ruby stands with some boxes in Te Papa's archives
Ruby Abraham in Te Papa’s archives, 2017. Te Papa

When I began my placement at Te Papa one of the first things I asked archivist Jennifer Twist was what it’s like to work with the archives. She explained to me that it’s not just about organising papers and files, but also, and perhaps most importantly, it’s about working closely with somebody’s thoughts and ideas. Archives are representations of an individual, and they can tell a story about that person’s life and endeavours.

Getting to know Jonathan

An academic, lecturer and mentor, Jonathan Mane-Wheoki, was the former Head of Arts and Visual Culture at Te Papa, and throughout his life significantly contributed to New Zealand’s art culture and history. He was a highly regarded and well respected man who was cherished by numerous people over his impressive 50 year career.

Jonathan Mane-Wheoki in the art gallery at Te Papa
Jonathan Mane-Wheoki (1943-2014), 2009. Photograph by Michael Hall. Te Papa

Jonathan’s archive paints a picture of his remarkable career that includes raw research materials, unpublished works, correspondence, and letters from his students in a pre-email age. I am certain that this resource will prove to be invaluable for future researchers in years to come.

Māori art history, a beginning

As I worked my way through Jonathan’s archive, I quickly came to realise what Jennifer meant about archives telling a story. Knowing that Jonathan was a fierce advocate for indigenous art, I came across a letter that indicated Jonathan’s first steps toward establishing a Māori art history paper at the University of Canterbury.

Letter written with a typewriter on yellow paper
Letter to Dr Margaret Orbell, University of Canterbury Māori Department, June 1988 by Jonathan Mane-Wheoki. (TMP024431/001/0006)

The letter reads: Remember some time ago we discussed the possibility of introducing an Art History in Maori Art? Well, I’ve decided, finally, to brave it and a proposal will be submitted for approval at the next Arts Faculty meeting.

Brave it he did, and a year later (1989) he was teaching an Honours course on Māori art, so this letter marks a crucial step towards his valuable contribution to Art History in Aotearoa.

The teaching continues

I had been told of how effective and compelling a lecturer Jonathan was, and when I made my way to his collection of audio and video recordings, I could certainly understand why. These included fascinating lectures and comments on art history in New Zealand, interviews about his childhood and expertise on Colin McCahon, and his commentaries on exhibitions held in Toi Te Papa.

These have all been extraordinary to listen to and it speaks to his lecturing style, that years after these recordings, I can still learn from him in 2017.

Not quite three years after his death, a book is very shortly going to be published in tribute to him, in which its co-editor, Mark Stocker, Curator Historical International Art, says the following:

Colonial Gothic to Māori Renaissance is much more than a memorial volume. It publishes for the first time two important essays by Jonathan in the archives; a biographical essay looks in some depth at Jonathan’s achievements; and then fourteen further essays are original contributions to research, which in their content aim to be as varied and interesting as the man himself.”

A final word

I began this project not knowing a great deal about Jonathan (or the archives), so this experience has been incredibly valuable and enriching, and I feel so fortunate that I have pieced together some of his story.

He hōnore mōku ki te noho tata ki ōu whakaaro me āu mahi.

Jonathan Mane-Wheoki stood with one fist against his chest against a bright red wall
Jonathan Mane-Wheoki, 2008. Photograph by Michael Hall. Te Papa



  1. Nga mihi nui ki a koe mo enei korero, whakaaro hoki mo te rangatira ra a Jonathan. Ataahua! 🙂

  2. JOnathan was a friend an e hoa. He was loyal, helpful, proud, sincere, a man of stature. He and I met in the eighties at Canterbury, I was completing a MAster’s honours that touched on art history. He was a friend to me and I interviewed him on my radio programme at Plains Fm Focus on Art Otautahi and he was encouraging. Another mutual friend for decades was artist, weaver, representative of Te Maori in New York, representative in Germany of Maori Art, Cath Brown Taua Kai Tahu and HoD Training College Art. Later we both attended her unveiling at her marae, we celebrated her as toi tohunga, as raranga and wahine toa.

    1. Thank you for sharing your memories of Jonathan and Cath Brown with us, Juliana

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