Mataatua Wharenui

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by J. Patrick Greene
Publish date
29 September 2011
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On Saturday I attended a remarkable event in Whakatane, a town on the Bay of Plenty in New Zealand's North Island. I was a guest of the Ngāti Awa people, and the event was the opening of Mātaatua Wharenui (meeting house), a wonderful structure that was originally built in 1875 by the iwi (tribe) despite the devastating effects of colonisation and land confiscations.

Mataatua Wharenui Mātaatua Wharenui back home in Whakatane, New Zealand.
Image: Patrick Greene
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Unfortunately, the building was soon lost to the people who built it as it was dismantled to be taken to be displayed in Sydney and then, in 1880, as part of the New Zealand display at the Melbourne International Exhibition. That was my connection with the event, as Museum Victoria is the guardian of the Royal Exhibition Building constructed for the 1880 exhibition. Charlotte Smith (Senior Curator in MV's History and Technology Department) carried out some research at the request of the Ngāti Awa which revealed that only the carved wooden panels were displayed rather than the complete structure.

  walls within Mātaatua Wharenui. The interior walls of Mātaatua Wharenui have intricate woven panels and carvings. They were restored by Ngāti Awa craftspeople.
Image: Patrick Greene
Source: Museum Victoria
 

After Melbourne, Mātaatua was taken to England where it was displayed, and remained for several decades. It then went to the Otago Museum, and in 1996, under the Treaty of Waitangi, it was returned to the Ngāti Awa. A team of craftspeople — carvers and weavers — have worked for 15 years to restore the building that had become seriously decayed on its travels.

I was present for the pohiri (general welcome), a series of speeches and songs in which the Ngāti Awa welcomed their guests, who, group by group, responded. As well as other iwi, there were delegations from Hawaii and the Cook Islands. It was a great privilege to part of the ceremony and to witness the oratory that is a treasured part of Maori (and Polynesian) culture, a world away from the sound bites that constitute so much current discourse. The restoration of the building is a triumph: it has been beautifully carried out and the building will stand as a testament to survival of a people and their culture.

Mātaatua: The House That Came Home is a short film that tells the story of the meeting house, courtesy of Te Rūnanga o Ngāti Awa.

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Sarah Gubby 30 September, 2011 10:59
What an incredible home-coming! Thank you for sharing this experience and the powerful stories intrinsic to the Mātaatua Wharenui. Viva oral histories! They are so important!
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Updates on what's happening at Melbourne Museum, the Immigration Museum, Scienceworks, the Royal Exhibition Building, and beyond.

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