A cross-tree from the crossroads – ME001431

A large part of our role as Matauranga Maori curators is to constantly research and find out more about the taonga Maori that Te Papa holds. We research for exhibitions, books, and ensure as much is known about the collection as possible. However, with 35, 000 taonga, curatorial research can be a lifelong pursuit. One of the taonga I’m researching at the moment is this cross-tree. If you were to come and visit Te Ahuru Mowai – the largest Maori collection store in Te Papa – as part our Back-of-House tours; I would guide you towards the back of the storeroom and direct your attention to this – sitting high on a storage grid:

© image Puawai Cairns

© Te Papa

This unusual looking item is called a cross-tree, dates from probably 1864-1870. It is over 5 metres long. At its widest it is the width of an old telephone pole and and its narrowest, it’s the width of an upper arm. It is covered with a fading red paint, some parts are particularly still bright red though. And there are two carved manaia at either end. one looks pretty fierce with a protruding tongue and the other is tongueless but no less impressive. Associated with the Pai Marire faith that emerged around 1862 from Taranaki, cross-trees were components of a larger flagpole called a niu. The cross-tree name describes essentially how it was attached to the flagpole, where it was fixed horizontally approximately two-thirds or halfway up a central pole.

Flags were flown from the central niu, from the cross-trees or from the ropes that bound the structure together, as you can see in the example image below.

James Cowan (1956) The New Zealand Wars: A History of the Maori Campaigns and the Pioneering Period: Volume II: The Hauhau Wars, (1864–72). Wellington, NZ. p 297.

Te Papa’s cross-tree was acquired from THOMAS EDWARD DONNE who had been collecting taonga Maori for many years before selling his collection to the Dominion Museum in 1905. It has never been in an exhibition before and has always caught my attention.

I called this blog ‘A Cross-tree at the Cross Roads’ and pretty deliberately so. The period of the New Zealand Wars, the rise of Pai Marire (and the slightly later rise of Ringatu and Te Kooti) was a period of intense change and conflict for Maori and Pakeha. Other well-known historians have gone into this crucial nation-breaking/nation-building time for Aotearoa so I won’t go into a big essay about it here – save that for another time. But needless to say, the volcanic times of the mid 1860s created a hotbed for immense change – it was a cross-roads of sorts for this country.

Also geographically, the history of this cross-tree is important. Donne collected it from Galatea which, during the period of Pai Marire, was a hub of colonial, tribal and military activity – so again, it was another crossroads. The famous soldier Gilbert Mair Jr had a base there called Fort Galatea that he used to push into the Urewera country in campaigns against the Tuhoe and Pai Marire converts. It is important to know that at the time, Pai Marire were considered dangerous rebels and there was a concerted mission to supress the rise of converts. Whenever a band of government soldiers would overtake a pa that had aligned itself with the Pai Marire, one of the first things they were reported to have done would be to cut down the niu. Interesting that this action confirms that importance that both warring parties placed on its potency as a symbol….

But back to the business…when I take visitors through the stores, I usually stop in front of this piece and ask them what they think it is. The various answers I get are “a ship’s mast”, “a crane for lifting things” and so on. And this isn’t so far fetched. The very first niu to have been erected by the main Pai Marire prophet Te Ua Haumene, had reportedly come from the mast of a ship called the Lord Worsley. So it isn’t so bad sometimes when looking at taonga for the first time to trust some of your guesses.

I’ve said earlier that researching taonga can take a considerable amount of time and effort. Last week a crew of Collection Managers and one of our photographers worked hard to get images of the cross-tree, a slightly awkward task given the size and shape of the cross-tree. It was too large to comfortably take down to the photography studio so it was arranged that it would be photographed in the collection store.

© Puawai Cairns

I also had one of the Conservators to assist in checking it over, and to examine the paint and wood. The paint or pigment on the cross-tree appeared pretty unstable. While we handled it with rubber gloves, the pigment still left a residue on our hands, even with very careful handling. It has a very powdery quality – kind of like the old powdered tempera paint that primary school kids from the 70s and 80s would have used. Because of this I had suspected it was kokowai rather than European paint that had been used to colour the cross-tree (kokowai is a fascinating story all on its own but click here if you want to know more about it). And while Maori in the 1860s had access to european paint, the contemporary writings from the 19th century also describe niu as being painted with the traditional kokowai rather than european lead-based paints.

Shane James, Collection Manager, and Robert Clendon, Conservator assessing the cross-tree. © Puawai Cairns

I’ve written the official description and that’s now available on Te Papa’s Collections Online here, along with more images of the cross-tree.

I have been researching it for the last four months and hope to have a more detailed paper and presentations readied for the public within a few months time. While there is very little knowledge about this actual cross-tree, the more research I uncover about it the more intriguing and hugely significant the stories attached to it become. That is the marvellous thing about working closely with taonga; you never know what it will tell you until the timing is right.


Tai Timu, Tai Pari – Uenuku is in the building

There are a load of grumpy, bleary eyed people stumbling around Te Papa today after many of us came in just before 5am to welcome the beautiful taonga Uenuku into the whare.

Uenuku is normally held at the Te Awamutu museum in the Waikato and has been kindly lent to Te Papa as part of the upcoming Tainui exhibition, due to open in September. But while development work on the exhibition has been going on for nearly two years, Uenuku’s arrival this morning marks the beginning for the taonga preparation phase for the exhibition.

Uenuku is an atua or a god, and this taonga can at times be a taunga atua (a resting place for him) or the god himself. It is very special, sacred and a remarkable record of how the old people incorporated and viewed the spiritual world in their everyday lives.
Around 200 people assembled for a dawn pohiri, he was escorted on to Rongomaraeroa (Te Papa’s marae) by an ope taua (band of warriors), who looked deadddddly. Taiaha, wahaika, pukana and maro flashing, it was breath taking stuff, and I’ve been lucky enough to see some pretty awesome pohiri take place on that marae.
Uenuku is now resting in the collection store Te Ahuru Mowai until his installation in the exhibition in the coming months. The exhibition will be installed for approximately 3 years and Tainui will become the next iwi-in-residence at Te Papa. When I was 7 years old I first saw Uenuku in the famous Te Maori exhibition in Auckland. It’s an honour that I’ll get to see him again on a daily basis.

Mai i te timata!

Tena tatou,

I’ll be using this blog as a way to tell everyone about the taonga stories my team and I will come across in the course of our work as curators/researchers at Te Papa Tongarewa. We work constantly with physical taonga, stories and research sources as part of our day to day work and this blog will be one of the ways we send out news about our work at the Museum of New Zealand.

Stay tuned! P x

Before you pull that trigger…

I have to explain and disclaim:

This blog is all my opinion and does not represent the views of Te Papa (so don’t get all anti-Te Papa if I make you mad from what I write. You can tell me if you get tetchy tho, we’ll still be mates).

G Rated – I won’t be using any swear words on here (possibly surprising for those who know me in real life) and if comments get a bit ripe, I’ll be getting delete-ninja on it. So the dealio is, I no swear, you no swear.

This is by no means a polished journal/conference paper type of medium, I’ll probably be whacking things out as fast as I type. So my language will be a bit casual (but not slack). Just thought I should tell you that in case you think I’m trying to affect a literary Alan Duffesque ironical tone of voice. Kao, I’m typing how I would talk to you in real life.

The taonga I might pick to talk about here will be things that I find curious, unusual and/or mysterious. For those type of blogs, I invite any comment or community researchers to throw ideas at me if you can help identify.

ps. Steven Spielberg, please do not sue me for riffing my title off your movie. It’s not me cutting your lunch, it’s supposed to be an ohm-arge.