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Missing Māori Wood Carvings Found After 200 Years

Long lost treasured whakairo rākau located in museums across the globe.

Professor Brown visits one of the eight missing whakairo - a kūwaha pātaka doorway on display at the Ethnological Museum in Berlin, Germany (Source: Supplied)

After being declared forever lost, eight treasured Māori whakairo rākau (traditional wood carvings) have been rediscovered in museums across the world.

Professor Deidre Brown (Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Kahu), from the University of Auckland’s School of Architecture and Planning, initiated an eight-year search for the lost whakairo rākau.
"These taonga are important because they express a Ngāpuhi spirituality and world view that was recorded in detail when they were collected. They are a window into a world before Christianity and colonisation had made an impact.”

First acquired by the Church Missionary Society (CMS) in 1823, they are the earliest whakairo to have their spiritual meanings explained by Māori and recorded in writing. Shipped from the Bay of Islands to the Society’s headquarters in London, researchers have unsuccessfully tried to find the whakairo rākau for the past 60 years.

Documenting the process in Waka Kuaka | The Journal of the Polynesian Society, Brown uncovered a mid-nineteenth-century catalogue that played a crucial role in the rediscovery.
The breakthrough came with the identification of three pieces in a catalogue from the Musee des missions evangeliques 1867, which was made available online in 2013.The catalogue showed a selection of Indigenous art from a missionary exhibit in the 1867 Exposition universelle d’art et d’industrie in Paris.

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Brown found the three whakairo rākau in museums in Switzerland and Germany, which had purchased them from London-based antiquities dealer William Oldman in 1911, who had bought them and others from British soldier Horatio Robley the year before. Further searching uncovered the rest of these carvings in the Canterbury Museum, Brooklyn Museum and Tūhura Otago Museum.

“I noticed that each carving had a Roman number carved into its back that matched Kendall’s list and descriptions, and this helped me find the remaining carvings in other museums, none of which knew their histories before Oldman,” says Brown.

Brown realised the numbers matched an inventory of whakairo rākau sent by the missionary Thomas Kendall’s from the Bay of Islands to London in 1823.
The inventory, with descriptions of the spiritual meanings of each whakairo rākau, was published by the late Emeritus Professor Dame Judith Binney in the late 1960s, who could not find any trace of the carvings.
“The published meanings have been highly influential on our understandings of customary Māori art, and now we have the actual carvings they were describing” says Brown.
The Roman numbers, previously unnoticed because little attention had been paid to their backs, identified the carvings, shedding light on their significance and origin through the information Māori had shared with Kendall.
“Kendall was passionate about communicating Māori knowledge to other Europeans through the translation of te reo and also these whakairo, which he had been told by Māori community members contained their ancestral stories and spiritual understandings.

“His deep engagement with Māori, which included arms trading, led to his dismissal by the CMS before the whakairo rākau had arrived in London.
“This may be why the whakairo’s origin stories recorded by Kendall became separated from them, therefore the CMS had lost interest in him and his work.”
Brown describes the carvings to be of “exceptional quality”.
“The design and condition are much larger than the types of whakairo rākau collected by earlier Europeans.”
They include a tauihu (war canoe prow) in the Museum Rietberg, Zürich, a kūwaha pātaka (doorway of a raised storehouse) and poupou (wall carving) in Berlin’s Ethnologisches Museum, a pare (door lintel) in Canterbury Museum and another in Brooklyn Museum, and a taurapa (sternpost) in Tūhura Otago Museum. Another taurapa that Oldman kept for his private collection, and probably inscribed with the numeral ‘X’, is still to be located but is likely in Aotearoa New Zealand.
The discovery is now sparking a cultural intrigue for Brown. She is questioning whether the carvings always belonged to the Ngāpuhi iwi (tribe) of the far north, where Kendall acquired them and their stories, or had been made in the Bay of Plenty or East Coast regions, because of their taratara-a-kae notched carving patterns that are associated with these areas.

“My guess would be Te Whānau a Apanui,” she says.
These taonga, among the earliest sent offshore by Pākehā (Europeans) in Aotearoa New Zealand, hold deep spiritual meanings for Māori as described in Kendall's letters and a diagram he drew of the kūwaha pātaka, which he identified as depicting the legendary ancestor Nukutawhiti.
Apart from initiating discussion about who made the whakairo rākau and where this happened, Brown says that all the museums involved are excited about the potential of the research to reconnect these taonga with their whānau.

“And it would be great to find taurapa or ‘X’ to close the loop,” she says.
There are more than 16,000 taonga Māori in overseas museums, most with no information about their origins.
“This project has shown it is still possible to reconnect taonga gone for centuries with their communities using the documents and collection records increasingly being put online by museums.”

Brown's article, titled "Nukutawhiti Rediscovered: Finding Thomas Kendall’s 1823 Marianna Consignment of Whakairo Rākau (Māori Wood Carvings)," traces the carvings’ survival through many countries, collections and conflicts, including the Musket Wars and both world wars. The research reassociates Kendall’s narratives with the whakairo rākau, linking them to their Ngāpuhi tribal origins.

The research also explores the history of London-based antiquities dealer William Oldman, who played a pivotal role in the dispersion of Indigenous objects all over the world.
Oldman's extensive sales network and private collection of taonga Māori provide valuable insights into the movements of these cultural artifacts. The detailed examination of Oldman’s records, including sales registers and labels associated with the taonga, sheds light on their history and connection to the CMS collection.

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