One of the significant taonga exhibited in Ko Rongowhakaata: The Story of Light and Shadow is a nose-less poutokomanawa (centre post) called Rongotueruora, affectionately known as ‘Iron Man’ due to his iron shoulder pads and rāpaki (skirt).
This taonga was in a very fragile state when conservator Nirmala Balram came to inspect him. Nirmala takes us through the treatment of Iron Man, and his journey from Gisborne to display at Te Papa.
A fragile state
I first laid eyes on Rongotueruora or Iron Man in the Tairāwhiti Museum’s Rongowhakaata exhibition in Gisborne last April. I went to assess the condition of the taonga for display at Te Papa. His past life had left him with a partially missing nose, extensive decay, and the loss of a leg.
Insect frass (fine powdery refuse or fragile perforated wood produced by the activity of boring insects) was clearly covering the exposed parts of the taonga, and the whole body was covered in small insect holes which had caused parts of the sculpture to feel soft when touched.
From examination, I immediately realised the inside was honeycombed, and the taonga risked internally collapsing from vibration during the seven-hour drive down to Te Papa.
Despite all this, Rongotueruora had an amazing aura and mana. He reflected the past and yet was clearly of the present, too. Commercial paint and corrugated iron rāpaki showed signs of preservation and Rongowhakaata innovation. Despite his fragile state, we all had a strong desire to include him in the exhibition.
Tapunga Nepe, Kaitiaki Māori (Māori curator) from Tairāwhiti Museum, believes this carving is one of the two original poutokomanawa from inside Te Poho ō Materoa wharenui that once stood in Gisborne. Built in the early 1880s, its construction was led by Ngāi Te Kete, but carvers from as far as Waipiro Bay assisted with the work.
The two poutokomanawa figures are called Tāwhirimātea (of whom the Ngāi Tāwhiri hapū of Rongowhakaata take their name) and Rongoteuruora (now on display at Te Papa). Rongoteuruora is the grandson of Tāwhirimātea and the son of Materoa and Rongomaihikao.
Bringing him to Te Papa
In accepting the challenge of bringing this taonga safely from Gisborne to Wellington I also accepted the responsibility for Iron Man’s fragility.
With the risk of vibration causing continuous loss of internal loose fragments, we had to act quickly.
After consultation with Tairāwhiti Museum and iwi we decided not to replace missing parts, including the partially lost nose, but to secure the remains and prevent further deterioration and losses.
Tairāwhiti Museum had already fumigated the taonga prior to installing him in their exhibition to ensure all insect activity had ceased. Our job was to secure the structural integrity of the taonga.
The stabilising operation
We set to work at Tairāwhiti in mount-maker Jonty Hall’s workshop.
Geared up with protective masks and gloves we cleaned away the insect frass and other material covering the damaged areas. There was a lot of ‘drinking’ by Iron Man as we injected stabilisers into the decaying and insect-devoured parts. Interestingly, surface coating on the majority of the outermost layer was still stable and held the structure together.
The loose parts were finally hardened enough for the journey to Wellington and integrity of the taonga had been maintained.
The next part of the preservation process was to carefully crate and pack Iron Man for his journey south. Te Papa crate-maker Paul Solly, collection manager Mark Sykes, and Tairāwhiti Museum’s Jonty Hall worked together to cushion and support the fragile parts for the journey down.
Once in Wellington the stabilisation process was continued until all loose parts were satisfactorily secured.
This significant taonga has been brought to life and stands proud in the Rongowhakaata iwi exhibition. It speaks to me of tradition, history, and the adaptation to new ways without losing its significance.
Rongoteuruora’s recovery truly has been a team effort and I’m immensely privileged to have had to opportunity to conserve this taonga so it can be appreciated in the exhibition, and also to extend his life and cultural importance for future generations.