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Why the National Trust is trading in its Maori meeting house for a newer model

10 January 2020

In November 2019, the National Trust announced that the historic carvings of Hinemihi, the Maori meeting house in Surrey, would return to New Zealand (Aotearoa) in return for new carvings created by Maori artists. Central to this decision is the Maori belief, as explained by Te Arawa academic Paul Tapsell, that these carvings – and the house they form – are taonga, cultural treasures seen by descendants as living embodiments of ancestral power. The heke (rafters), poupou (wall posts), maihi (gables) and other structural elements together instantiate the body of an ancestor: their backbone, ribs, head, arms. These are not inert things, but living beings.

The National Trust’s decision is a clear signal of how much the mood has shifted in debates around repatriation in the UK and Europe, where for decades museums and other institutions have resisted calls from source communities for the repatriation of objects acquired during the era of colonisation. In post-settler nations such as the US, Canada, and Australia, where museums are adjacent to communities of interest, professionals routinely send ancestral human remains and artefacts back to where they came from. In New Zealand repatriation has been an accepted dimension of museum practice for decades. Tired of talking about it, curators and communities have come together to find ways of getting on and doing it.

In the 1990s the Ngati Awa meeting house Mataatua was returned from the Otago Museum after a 130-year journey around the world (including the Victoria and Albert Museum in London). A long process of reconstruction then began – the carved house eventually opened its doors in 2011. Now the famous Rongowhakaata house Te Hau ki Turanga, the oldest of its kind and the centrepiece of the national museum Te Papa, will go back to its people after a report from the Waitangi Tribunal was accepted by the government, who will help the tribe care for it. Once home, the house will become a focus for the revival of arts and crafts in its community and the development of ecotourism, restoring an economic base and cultural pride to local people.

In each of these cases it is recognised that repatriation is not the end but a beginning. It is an act of reconciliation that begets cultural exchange, ongoing relationships, and new art and culture. This is why this decision by the National Trust, which currently owns Hinemihi, is a momentous and exciting one.

A Maori group in front of Hinemihi at Te Wairoa, photographed by the Burton Brothers between 1880–86 (before the volcanic eruption of 10 June 1886).

A Maori group in front of Hinemihi at Te Wairoa, photographed by the Burton Brothers in the 1880s (before the volcanic eruption of 10 June 1886). National Library of New Zealand (via Wikimedia Commons)

The history of the house is a remarkable one. Hinemihi was built and decorated in 1880–81 at Te Wairoa, a small settlement near the tourist centre of Rotorua, by the famous carvers Tene Waitere and Wero Taroi. It was the centre of the tribal community, a place for meeting, bidding farewell to the dead, remembering the past, and imagining the future. When the Tarawera eruption covered the area in deadly volcanic ash in 1886, a small group took refuge inside Hinemihi – the house literally as well as symbolically became the bosom of the ancestress sheltering her descendants.

In 1892 the house was bought by the Earl of Onslow, the outgoing Governor General, and set up in the grounds of his house Clandon Park in Surrey. Since then there have been a constant succession of Maori visitors to this piece of Maoridom in England: from Maori soldiers during the First World War to artists and performers in recent decades. Hinemihi has been the home away from home for Ngati Ranana, the London-based Maori cultural group. In 2015, when a fire damaged part of Clandon Park and destroyed several taonga in its collection, discussions about the future of the old and fragile wooden carvings ramped up.

Now the National Trust have reached an agreement in principle with Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga (the equivalent agency in Aotearoa) for Hinemihi to be returned. This will not be easy. Legal consents and funding have to be sought from British agencies. Debates within the tribe over the mandated authority for the house are ever present, indeed almost a recognition of and a tribute to its value. There are precedents for the exchange of new objects for old ones, which are understood as new artworks in their own right rather than replicas. Questions remain, however, over what form the carvings will take and who will do them, as well as the future role of a new meeting house at Clandon Park in continuing Hinemihi’s legacy of cultural exchange and dialogue.

Conal McCarthy is director of the museum and heritage studies programme at Victoria University of Wellington.