Polynesian Resource Center

Dedicated to the preservation and promotion of Polynesian Art and Culture

Polynesian Collections - Te Papa National Museum of New Zealand

Polynesian Resource Center

Grade; Ethnographic Museum
Collections Available online; Superb website on par with the British Museum's site, a must go to for Polynesian students and a tremendous source for all carvers, tapa cloth designers and weavers.

Te Papa Museum has built a very poor reputation with New Zealanders since it opened in 1998 at a cost of 300,000,000 NZD, so before writing this review I decided to visit Wellington specifically to see if things had changed since my last visit. Te Papa's problem is that it was planned and opened before the new wave of modern Art Museums that rode a sea change in the treatment of Tribal Art. Which is a shame because with its fabulous collections it could have been one of the greatest Tribal Art Museums in the World, instead of being an ugly building containing one of the greatest Tribal Art Collections in the World, which is believe me not the same thing.

With 35,000 items of Maori Art, as well as its share of the Oldman Collection of Pacific Art, a quick look through its collections online reveal many great Masterpieces of Polynesian Art yet during my visit only one was on display and even that item the fabulous Oldman Collection Moai Kavakava could not be viewed at eye level nor any closer that three feet away. Te Papa fails totally to display its Polynesian Collections in any coherent way and the general impression one gets is of confusion of purpose, a lack of intelligence and understanding in its display of objects, as well as total failure to subject the collection to any degree of aesthetic robustness, thus beautiful art works are displayed beside tourist trash as if these should enjoy equal status. In many ways Te Papa is a wonderful example of Political Correctness gone mad, all things, and all people and all concepts are equal, and deserving of equal attention and respect. Hilariously this results in the very opposite of the purpose of Political Correctness in this country, in that its clearest message is that the Art of the Maori, our Indigenous People is worth no more consideration than those who designed 1950's washing machines. At least this would be laughable if it wasn't tragic, for we possess in the Art of our First People an Art Form to rival that of any nation or civilization. The Art of the Maori and their brother Polynesians should be, if quality and aesthetic excellence were the sole defining qualities we seek for our National Museum the only Art exhibited at Te Papa, other Museums and Art Galleries could be built to house all other items and art forms. The History of New Zealand could be displayed in Settlers Museums or Military Museums perfectly adequately. But the current mish mash of cultures displayed at Te Papa does Maori Art and Polynesian Art a huge disservice.

But Te Papa's Polynesian Collection if fabulous, selecting highlight items to illustrate the beauty of the collection is not that easy but we will try. Te Papa has a superb collection of Polynesian Fish Hooks three of these rate in my opinion as works of utter genius, a little microcosm of everything that is so unique and aesthetically perfect in Polynesian Art. All three of these are Maori, which is not to suggest that other Polynesian peoples were incapable of equalling Maori artistry, but merely that New Zealand collections can be expected to possess many Maori examples.

Polynesian Resource Center

This whale bone example is my pick because it is a perfect work of pure design. My central argument for judging Great Art is whether there is anyway an object could be improved. If the shank of this hook was thinner or thicker, longer, shorter, if the curve of the shank was just a fraction tighter or slightly more relaxed would the appearance be improved. And the answer I believe is no. It is quite literally perfect. As a Master Carver this is the model for judging my own work. On that basis if in my life I could say that just once about one of my carvings I would die a happy man. I cannot help but wonder if the Maori Artist who sat in the mouth of a rock shelter abrasion grinding this hook on a sandstone boulder and polishing it with shark skin, asked himself the same question. I hope he came to the same conclusion as I have, but knowing artists I suspect he genius that he was, thought he could probably make a better one.

The Maori, occupying the largest land mass in Polynesia with the coldest climate had unique challenges and opportunities. The Maori were a warrior race, war was their past time and their sport, not that other Polynesian peoples were exactly shy when it came to revenging insults. But there is a fierceness about the Maori character that permeates their Art. All Polynesian people take great joy in physical prowess, they are tough, in fact, even their humour is tough. They are also warm, responsive and generous friends. But no Maori ever forgets an insult and they make uncompromising enemies. Their Art reflects this. That and the graphic nature of their facial tattoo or mock gave their art a flavour something beyond that of other Polynesian People.

Polynesian Resource Center

This carving however, executed sometime between 1750-1820 suggests something else altogether, the other-worldliness that utterly and uniquely belongs to Maori carving. Carved by a Tohunga or priestly expert, its subject is in the spiritual realms of Maori thought. More and more as you study Maori carving you sense this mood permeating their art and it is not quite like anything else in Polynesian Art.

I want to use the Te Papa Collections to illustrate the difference between Cultures and Great Cultures. Years ago when I was a young man I would point out the similarity between English Rococo Silver and Maori carving. This statement was usually greeted with blank incredulity, but having looked at Maori carving since I was a child, when I was introduced to the art of the Huguenot silversmith Paul de Lamerie the similarities were to me blindingly obvious. The combination of flat or gently curved surfaces, the highly modelled, deeply carved figures and the fine line chasing of the surfaces were exactly the same in both art forms. Except where De Lamerie used lost wax casting for his figures the Maori carved the piece in its entirety with no room for error. Lost wax casting was of course invented by the Greeks and they like other Ancient Civilisations were experts in gold and silver smithing and 90% of De Lamerie's skill set were inherited from them, The Georgian Period classifies as the great period of European Culture, but not nearly as great as the Greeks. If you what to see just how great a culture Greece was, go to the Greek bronzes room in the Louvre and there you will find relics of long disappeared master pieces. Not, I mean the monumental bronzes of perfect human forms, but handles that are the only remaining item of what was once a 500 BC bronze urn. And when you look at this handle think about just how important art and design where to the Greeks that the handle of a bronze urn from a middle class Athenian household could, indeed must be, imbued with detail, grace, proportion and imagination then anyone with taste cannot but be overcome with admiration for its culture and for Greek Civilization as a whole.

Polynesian Resource Center

But now look at the beautiful Maori carving above, it is a Pae Hamuti or one of two side bars that made up the supports of a latrine seat. Yes, you read that right, a toilet seat! What sort of a Culture puts that much energy into a toilet seat? A remarkable one is the answer. The truth is our current generally accepted perception of the Stone Age and of Stone Age people is essentially deeply flawed. It is in fact childish. Rather that being evidence of our Modernity and sophistication, it is clear and present evidence of our woeful arrogance and wilful ignorance. It is not modern , rather it is the trademark of Mankinds egocentric view of the world, further proof of our endless pathetic dependence on those neverfailing signs of our intellectual weakness and addiction to snobbery, racism and prejudice to prop up our sad little insecure version of our self esteem.

Agriculture is only ten thousand years old, in the human history that saw us and our ancestral species banging rocks together for three and a half million years. The benefits of Agriculture must have looked a very dubious to many traditional hunter gather societies, indeed there is plenty of evidence that only habitat loss and a steep decline in target species caused by over hunting spurred humans to adopt the grind of Agriculture. Even then the resultant gamble of drought, famine and the pestilence from diseases contracted from domesticated animals must have made the choice look like one adopted by the desperate. The eventual triumph of the settled life was a victory paid for with ten thousand years of dreadful periods of malnutrition, huge child infant mortality levels and the ultimate human plague; war, which you may have noticed shows little sight of going away.

The real benefits of increased health, life expectancy, the Industrial Revolution, technical innovation and vastly increased possibilities for ordinary human lives arrived very late in the piece and at vast human cost. And along the way we lost something. Nothing shows how deeply we feel the loss than our adopted pose of superior to our Neolithic Ancestors and our embracing of a infantile cartoonish view of their world. For we humans are ever consistent; what we hate we fear, contempt means envy, when we most feel inferior our reaction is the pose of superiority. When the truth is we are poorer by far for that decision made ten thousand years ago. We look so well pleased at the deal we think we so cleverly struck. Well, the truth is we got the 21st Century version of glass beads. Sold our souls just like the Maori sold theirs, and those that hesitated to sell had theirs stolen from them, to live in a World where 1% of the people own 75% of the wealth and we slaves work 60 hour weeks to buy the latest flashy crap of a Consumer Society. We will never carve a beautiful toilet seat.

Polynesian Resource Center

Finally least I be accused of being too harsh on the subject of the running of our National Museums I will single out Te Papa for some deserved high praise for its encouragement and understanding of the role played by Woman's Art in Polynesia. Textiles played an enormous part in the life of all Cultures of the World, but such items generally had a short life, these items wore out, for textiles are delicate, the dyes were usually vegetable dyes and were subject to fadage. Te Papa has a vast collection of Polynesian tap cloths, mats, feather cloaks, head dresses of various kinds all of which require to be protected from dust, moisture, mould, insect attack and the damaging effects of UV light. Moreover textiles are often difficult to display to their best advantage, but Te Papa has made great efforts in this area and is probably well ahead of the rest of the world in this regard. New Zealand is brilliantly placed in the World to be the leading country in the preservation, promotion and a source of a rebirth of Polynesian Art, as almost all Polynesian races live in New Zealand in high numbers. New Zealand Maori women (and men) practice weaving and feather cloak making to a very high standard but with agreement I believe it would be possible to very quickly lift this to a level that rivals even the Maori textile art of the past. Through their exhibitions Te Papa have done much to raise awareness of this stunning art form.Tapa cloth making however in the rest of Polynesia is in serious decline. Tonga still produces large amounts but the quality is very poor and the designs have become homogenised. Samoan siapo looks ready to become extinct, in the Cooks only tourist junk of very poor quality and small size is made. Only New Zealand I believe has the resources to save Polynesian textile making and we are right on the edge of where saving the art is still possible before the wonderful richness to Polynesian textile making is lost forever.


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