Conserving Rongowhakaata’s fragile ‘Iron Man’

Conserving Rongowhakaata’s fragile ‘Iron Man’

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.

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Conservator Nirmala Balram with Rongotueruora (also known as Iron Man) in Te Papa’s conservation lab, 2017. Photo by Rachael Hockridge. 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.

Rongotueruora in the conservation lab at Te Papa, 2017. Photo by Rachael Hockridge. Te Papa
Rongotueruora in the conservation lab at Te Papa, 2017. Photo by Rachael Hockridge. Te Papa

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.

Frass and holes seen on the taonga, 2017. Photo by Nirmala Balram. Te Papa
Frass and holes seen on the taonga, 2017. Photo by Nirmala Balram. Te Papa

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.

Rongotueruora in the conservation lab at Te Papa, 2017. Photo by Rachael Hockridge. Te Papa
Rongotueruora in the conservation lab at Te Papa, 2017. Photo by Rachael Hockridge. Te Papa

Rongotueruora’s story

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.

Learn more about Te Poho ō Materoa >

Rongotueruora, 2017. Photo by Rachael Hockridge. Te Papa
Rongotueruora, 2017. Photo by Rachael Hockridge. Te Papa

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.

Injecting stabilisers, 2017. Photo by Rachael Hockridge. Te Papa
Injecting stabilisers, 2017. Photo by Rachael Hockridge. Te Papa

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.

The pieces that can’t be reattached to taonga are kept for research purposes, 2017. Photo by Rachael Hockridge. Te Papa
The pieces that can’t be reattached to taonga are kept for research purposes, 2017. Photo by Rachael Hockridge. Te Papa

Display

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.

Rongotueruora on display in Ko Rongowhakaata: The Story of Light and Shadow, 2017. Photo by Maarten Holl. Te Papa
Rongotueruora on display in Ko Rongowhakaata: The Story of Light and Shadow, 2017. Photo by Maarten Holl. Te Papa

 

10 Comments

  1. Tenei te mihi maioha ki a koe Nirmala mo to tiaki nga taonga. As a whanaunga from Tamaki Makaurau I am absolutely emotional to see my taonga preserved and spoken about in this light. Especially when I don’t know any of the stories I am very appreciative of the care you have shown our taonga. Thank you all.

  2. Ka nui te mihi aroha ki a koe Nirmala! Wonderful blog 🙂

    1. Nirmala

      Kiaora Chrissie
      Thanks for your lovely comment. It is my honour to work on these amazing taonga.

  3. Great blog post Nirmala! It was wonderful for the team to have the opportunity to work alongside you on this project and see Rongotueruora safely to Te Papa and the Rongowhakaata exhibition. Ngā Mihi nui Eloise Wallace (Kaiwhakahaere/Director, Te Whare Taonga o te Tairāwhiti)

    1. Nirmala

      Kiaora Eloise
      Thank you for your lovely comment.
      It’s been an honour and pleasure working on these significant taonga.
      Nirmala

  4. He is magnificent. It’s good to know that he will continue to stand tall.

  5. nirmala balram

    You can look up National Services Te Paerangi at Te Papa for assistance

  6. Nirmala Balram

    Kiaora Adele
    Its always an honour to work on these taonga.
    Nirmala

  7. its great that we have the folk to preserve items like this in NZ.. now makes me think at Papawai, how old are the statues around Papawai, do they need TLC?

    1. Nir

      You can look up National Services Te Paerangi at Te Papa for assistance

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