The mana of taonga and what it means for museums in Aotearoa

The mana of taonga and what it means for museums in Aotearoa

Iwi Development Manager Migoto Eria discusses the mana of taonga, the importance of its meaning, and generating empathy for one another’s understanding and learning.

This waiata is a summary of my understanding of the mana of taonga – its composition and intention is derived from my own iwi of Ngāti Kahungunu.

Moe mai rā e ngā pounamu kahurangi
Maringi noa ngā roimata
Ko te aroha te taonga nei
I waihongia ngā mātua tūpuna
i raro hoki i te whakaaro kotahi e
Kua tutuki, kua kākahutia ngā taonga nei
I te whakapono i te tumanako me te aroha
i runga i te rangimārie[1]

Let sleep the precious and rare treasures
The tears are flowing
Love is the gift
left by the ancestors
In mutual understanding
It has been achieved, the gifts have been clothed
With faith, with aspiration and love
Delivered in peace

The mana of taonga could also be interpreted as tikanga Māori of taonga, or Māori artefacts. Referencing tūpuna, or ancestors is key from a Māori perspective, as it is our tūpuna who guide us and handed the following generations these taonga of faith, aspiration, and love. The intention is the gifting of knowledge, in its three forms for the following generations.

Mana is not exclusively for Māori

Although this song is an example from a Māori perspective, nowhere does it say that this is exclusively for and about iwi Māori.

Here is an opportunity where we can all benefit, and in this context, I will be enquiring what the mana of taonga is, for Māori and non-Māori in museums in Aotearoa.

As staff in museums, we each have our own understanding of what the mana of taonga is, what it means to us, and how this manifests in our daily practice.

A man looks at a Māori in a museum storeroom
Collection Manager Mark Sykes with a korowai, 2018. Photo by Rachael Hockridge. Te Papa

For some it is a central part of our work, for others less so.

The mana of taonga affects some individuals personally, particularly those who are privileged to work in museums alongside taonga of significance.

The purpose of this discussion is to be a catalyst for self-enquiry, and ultimately to generate empathy for one another’s understanding and learning.

What do mana and taonga mean?

Mana: (noun) prestige, authority, control, power, influence, status, spiritual power, charisma

Taonga: (noun) treasure, anything prized – applied to anything considered to be of value including socially or culturally valuable objects, resources, phenomenon, ideas, and techniques.[2]

In the context of this discussion, the definition of mana can be expanded in relation to people, to include: [3]

  • the importance of taonga
  • the tapu of taonga
  • the resonance of taonga
  • the spirituality of taonga
  • the profound nature of taonga
  • the influence of taonga.
Migoto with a painting of her great-grandmother
Migoto with a painting of her great-grandmother, 2018. Photo by Rachael Hockridge. Te Papa

Mana taonga in museums

In the museum world the term taonga is generally used to mean Māori artefacts.

However, the word taonga, besides the generic meaning treasure, also means gifts, items of significance to the owner, or belongings.

It’s through the wider meaning of taonga that seamlessly includes non-Māori artefacts and collection items, where the potential of the term taonga expands. Hence the term whare taonga, which is generally used today to mean museum.

Paintings in the art store
Curator Chelsea Nichols in the art store, 2016. Te Papa

Through mana taonga there are many threads that are relevant to museum policy and practice in Aotearoa. As referenced in the waiata above, just because they are Māori terms, does not mean they apply only to Māori people, to Māori artefacts, or in a Māori context.

The mana of taonga in museum-speak, should be about and for all who are responsible for caring for taonga, including museums, art galleries, archives, and libraries in Aotearoa.

How is that possible? Some museum staff might even say they’ve never heard or used the terms mana taonga before.

Working in regional museums in a previous life, I don’t recall the reference of mana taonga being an exclusive part of an induction or of museum practice.

I do however, recall reading about the Mana Taonga policy at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa in Conal McCarthy’s publication Māori in Museums[4], as a rather ambitious position on collection policies in museums and taonga, so had conveniently stored this information in an area of museum policy in my mind.

This was my first encounter of associating mana taonga with museum practice in a practical sense. This policy enabled the coming together of museum practice and engagement with iwi, tikanga, and taonga, and is what I have come to understand is its primary purpose.

What’s in the Mana Taonga principle?

Five months after the passing of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa Act 1992 [5], the Mana Taonga principle was endorsed by Ngā Kaiwawao, the Māori advisory to the Te Papa Advisory Board. It clearly states that Mana Taonga is one of Te Papa’s three philosophies, alongside museology, and learning.

The main points of the Mana Taonga policy

  • Te Papa is central in laying the foundation for Māori participation and involvement;
  • Mana Taonga was developed through consultation with iwi;
  • Mana Taonga recognises the spiritual and cultural connections of taonga with the people;
  • The rights of iwi to Te Marae o Te Papa Tongarewa is in equality to all other iwi;
  • These rights accord to iwi the mana to care for their taonga, speak for them, and determine their use by Māori.

The one page document also states that the rights of Mana Taonga cannot be erased, and coexists with the taonga held in Te Papa’s care.

Clearly, the intention of this policy is to raise awareness of Māori representation within museum practice at Te Papa. There are certain words embedded in this policy which connect to Te Papa’s bicultural partnership. These words include participation, involvement, consultation, recognition, rights, equality.

The Principles of the Treaty of Waitangi

When there’s reference to the coming together of two groups with mutual understanding or a formal agreement in Aotearoa, it is hard to avoid the Treaty of Waitangi[6].

The three principles of the Treaty, known as the three Ps are Partnership, Participation, and Protection. If we were to reference the Mana Taonga policy with the principles of the Treaty, the three Ps might look like this:

  • The partnership of standard museum practice and iwi engagement;
  • Enabling Māori participation and involvement/enabling non-Māori participation and involvement;
  • The protection of all New Zealand artefacts, the rights of Māori to care for and protect their taonga.

There are similarities between the three Ps and Mana Taonga, however, there are also stark differences. One obvious difference is that the three Ps are English terms. The Māori rendition of the three Ps are:

Rangatiratanga – autonomy, rangatira = chief

Kāwanatanga – governance, kānana = governor

Kaitiakitanga – stewardship, kaitiaki = caregiver [7]

These are not direct translations but the three Ps and the Māori renditions (the three tanga’s) do appear in the Treaty [8].

In conclusion

As staff in museums in Aotearoa, having an understanding of the mana of taonga is intended to be an opportunity, of benefit to us all, including iwi and their relationship with their taonga.

As mentioned in the waiata earlier, love is symbolic of this gift, of understanding and opportunity left by the ancestors, he taonga tuku iho.

The connections between Te Papa’s Mana Taonga policy and the principles of the Treaty acknowledges the hugely important conversation between the two aforesaid parties: iwi Māori and the Crown. So important in fact, that a speech given by former Prime Minister, David Lange was said to be the first reference to biculturalism and the design of a new national museum now known as Te Papa:

“We are going to have a structure which says about New Zealand to the world, this is New Zealand,
it is a manifestation physically of our culture…This is a structure which is to reflect New Zealand. I hope that the target for its building will be for its excellence, its worth, for its flair, its style, and for its indigenous stance…
It ought to speak for New Zealand. It ought to speak for our culture.”

Rt Hon David Lange

Prime Minister of New Zealand

21 February 1985 [9]


[1] Written by Pirihira Prentice, koroua of Te Whanganui-a-Orotū, Ngāti Kahungunu, Hawke’s Bay

[2] Both definitions, Mana and Taonga, sourced from John C Moorfield, Te Aka Online Māori Dictionary

[3] Not an exhaustive list

[4] McCarthy, Conal. Museums and Māori, Heritage professionals indigenous collections current practice, 2011



[7] All three definitions can be found in John C Moorfield, Te Aka Online Māori Dictionary


[9] McGaw and Pieris, Assembling the centre: Architecture for indigenous cultures, 2015


  1. What a great article Migoto! Thank you for writing a clear and engaging article with a spirit of inclusion and collegiality. This is a moment of clarity for all of us who seek to parctice and act in a way that supports the aspirations embeded within the concept of “Mana Taonga” and awhi our Māori colleagues as they attempt to care for taonga māori and taonga tauiwi.

  2. NaN mihi nui, great article!

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