Former Otago Museum meeting house back home

The long and often controversial journey of the Mataatua Maori meeting house, once prominently displayed at the Otago Museum, has taken another significant turn, with its recent reopening at Whakatane.

The meeting house spent about 70 years at Otago Museum, but was returned to Whakatane, its original home, in 1996 as part of a Treaty of Waitangi settlement.

The Crown also paid the museum $2.75 million by way of compensation for the "loss of heart", associated with Mataatua's return.

Opened in 1875, the huge, intricately-carved meeting house was created as a symbol of the unity, strength and resilience of Ngati Awa, a Bay of Plenty Maori tribe which was hit hard by colonisation and later land confiscation.

But the Mataatua wharenui ("large house") was sent abroad by the New Zealand Government in 1879, first to Sydney, then to Melbourne and later London, where it represented the country at some of the most respected anthropological exhibitions of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

When it returned to New Zealand, it was brought back to Dunedin.

After more than 15 years of restoration and redevelopment work, including the painstaking creation of new carvings to replace some lost or damaged, Mataatua was recently reopened as part of a multi-million dollar marae cultural project.

But a decade and a-half after Mataatua left Dunedin, it still remains unclear what will replace it at Otago Museum.

Some years ago, it was proposed to replace it with Te Matapihi ("The Window"), a Ngai Tahu cultural resource centre offering a window into Ngai Tahu cultural heritage, past, present and future.

This was to have opened in late 2006 and was to have been permanently housed in the museum's 1877 Gallery.

But the resource centre has yet to be developed, and the idea has been put on hold at the request of the museum's Maori advisory committee.

At the Mataatua opening ceremony, Prof Sir Sidney Mead said the Mataatua meeting house had been transformed from being "a captive museum exhibit" to once more being "a functional part of a marae complex out in the open air".

Otakou runanga chairman Edward Ellison attended the dawn ceremony as part of a 15-strong Ngai Tahu delegation from Otago, which included Moira White, the museum's humanities research and interpretation co-ordinator.

Mr Ellison and other Ngai Tahu representatives had initially brought north the pare, a carved lintel from above the meeting-house door, when Mataatua was returned in the 1990s.

Attending the recent rededication service at Whakatane had confirmed for him that returning the house had been "absolutely the right thing to do", Mr Ellison said in an interview.

The "love and care" devoted to fully restoring it had been "amazing", and the restoration was a "fantastic" success.

In Otago, a new Maori meeting house had been built recently at Puketeraki, in the Karitane area, and, earlier, at the Arai Te Uru Marae in Dunedin.

Resource consent had also been gained and fundraising started to build a meeting house for the Otakou runanga.

Support was being provided for these three "living" houses and it was unlikely another meeting house would be built at the museum, he said.

Ngai Tahu remained closely involved with Otago Museum, including through "Mo Tatou: The Ngai Tahu Whanui Exhibition", a recent touring show involving more than 200 Maori cultural treasures, and "Te Ao Maori: Maori Treasures from the Otago Museum" at present on display in Dunedin's Chinese sister city, Shanghai, he said.

john.gibb@odt.co.nz

 

 

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