What would Māui do? Playing with tough topics in Te Taiao | Nature

What would Māui do? Playing with tough topics in Te Taiao | Nature

How do you make topics like climate change and water pollution accessible and fun? Is it ok for Te Papa to take a playful approach to such serious territory?

Experience Developers Jen Craddock and Ralph Upton explain how the team took on this challenge, using mischief-maker Māui as their guide.

Māui snaps a selfie
Māui snaps a selfie, 2019. Te Papa

Pollution. Plastic. Climate change. Feeling guilty yet? Every day, we’re reminded of our impact on the natural world. When we started developing Te Papa’s new Te Taiao | Nature exhibitions we knew we had to tackle tough topics – but we wanted to leave our visitors feeling inspired to take action. Auē… Big ask!

In testing, our target audiences told us that all those environmental crisis stories in the news left them overwhelmed. They were, quote, ‘Over it’. They wanted inspiration and do-able action. ‘You don’t need to preach!’ Point taken.

We shaped the Te Taiao exhibitions around three big ideas: Our nature is unique, it’s under threat, and we need to take action. Alongside curators and subject experts, we then spent months reviewing research and pinpointing the key stories to cover.

But what shape would each story take? Hands-on, immersive, digital, or object-based? How would these experiences prompt action? What voice, what tone, would visitors hear in the text?

Our Lead Mātauranga Curator, Brad Haami, knew just who should guide us.

Māui, that’s who

You’ve heard of Māui, right? A Pacific hero who performs amazing feats – fishing up islands for one. He can shapeshift into a bird, a lizard. He helps us understand the nuances of Te Taiao from a Māori perspective.

But the main reason we chose Māui as our creative guide is because he’s like us. He’s imperfect. He’s messed things up, but he’s got ideas for how to make them right. He’s a trickster and an innovator. And, as colleagues like Brad kept reminding us, Māui’s good company. He keeps the tone light. Research showed that a playful touch on tough topics could make for a more engaging and memorable experience.

Māui explores Aotearoa at the entrance to Te Taiao
Māui explores Aotearoa at the entrance to Te Taiao, 2019. Te Papa

Connection comes first

Ko au te taiao, te taiao ko au. I am nature, and nature is me.

That’s how Māui might describe his relationship to the world. He sees Aotearoa New Zealand’s weird and wonderful creatures as his whānau (family). He feels empathy for them, taking on their strange forms to experience the world through new eyes (and beaks, and scales).

This perspective guided how we wrote and framed the stories you encounter early in your journey through Te Taiao. We wanted visitors to see our specimens not just as beautiful objects, but as quirky characters to get to know – like long-lost aunts you might bump into at a family BBQ. How would Māui introduce them? ‘E hoa!’ we imagined him saying, tugging you over to the kiwi display, ‘Check out this bird – it’s rerekē – the weirdest thing ever!’ (Sorry, Auntie.)

Meeting the locals
Meeting the locals, Te Taiao, 2019. Te Papa

We channeled Māui’s mischief wherever we could. There are lots of quirky moments to discover if you look closely. If you visit, keep an eye on the shadows of the giant moa skeletons to see Māui’s imagination at work.

Did those shadows just move?
Did those shadows just move? Māui and moa shadows, 2019. Te Papa

And of course, Māui would get to know the locals by smelling, touching, and listening to them, not reading about them in books. If we wanted visitors to feel an emotional connection to our wildlife, we knew we had to engage all their senses.

Exploring model kiwi feet, 2019. Te Papa
Exploring model kiwi feet, 2019. Te Papa

Taking a stand – in a playful way

The last part of Te Taiao invites you to confront our biggest nature challenges – from climate change to water quality.

Our audiences told us they felt overloaded, scared, and stuck when it came to climate change: ‘Just not very sexy’, ‘Everybody tenses up’, ‘Can’t do much about it’.

What would Māui do? He’s an innovator. He might dare us to create a fun, immersive space that gets you taking action to create a carbon-zero Aotearoa. Here, your climate change pledge (if you feel like making one) becomes an origami kererū that flies to a kōwhai tree – just as Māui the shapeshifter once transformed himself into a bird.

Children playing in the Climate Converter, 2019. Te Papa
Children playing in the Climate Converter, 2019. Te Papa

How else could we inspire visitors to take action for nature? By showing them Kiwis like them who are doing it already. Ae, we could have filmed conservation heroes doing good deeds in majestic scenery. Instead, we channelled Māui’s risk-taking attitude and crowd-sourced raw, heartfelt footage of everyday action heroes, mostly shot on mobile phones. School pupils pulling a pram and a car bumper out of their local stream. Fishermen saving seabirds. City kids tracking endangered bats. They’re scattered throughout the exhibition – and they’re also available to see online.

So – no to-do lists. No moralising.

When you leave, you might catch a glimpse of Māui at the exit. A regular guy in chinos and T-shirt, with the power to make a difference. Just like you.

Ko au te taiao, te taiao ko au. I am nature, and nature is me.

Māui at the exit - A regular guy in chinos and T-shirt
Waving goodbye at the exhibition exit, 2019. Te Papa


  1. I liked the idea of using Māui as a guide to address the challenges of climate change, but I was a bit surprised to see him characterized as a mischief-maker. In my readings of the stories of Māui many years ago I did not get the impression of hims as a mischief-maker, but as a principled strategest – a sort of strati̱gikí̱ concerned with strategy and tactics and he was master at both. In the sense that he personified values in Maori culture, he expresses the recognition that one has to set goals and find ways to achieve them. I would personally rather have seen Māui portrayed in that light, but that’s just my personal opinion and as a largely ignorant expatriate Pakeha, what do I know? Either way, Māui would have approved I think.

    1. Thanks John for your reply. One of the things we appreciate about Māui’s character is the fact that he is multi-faceted (like us). Maybe another word we could use for one of those facets is ‘disruptor’ (do people still say that?), or someone who is prepared to think in new and unconventional ways to solve problems. He’s got that trickster side in the stories, but is also, as you say, a leader. We don’t really have a chance to get into a lot of depth in the exhibition, but I agree there’s lot more to explore in terms of Māui’s character as a lense on the modern world, or inspiration for how to tackle problems together.

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