The Te Papa Tongarewa Museum in Wellington and its Polynesian treasures

© Blaine Harrington III / Alamy Stock Photo© Picture Partners / Alamy Stock Photo© Aroon Thaewchatturat / Alamy Stock Photo© Aroon Thaewchatturat / Alamy Stock Photo© Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa© Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa© Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa
The Te Papa Tongarewa Museum in Wellington and its Polynesian treasures
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Scattered across the globe, Polynesian works of art showcase our culture and allow it to reach far beyond our islands. We offer you the chance to discover the Te Papa Tongarewa Museum in Wellington, New Zealand’s capital. This institution has one of the most important collections of Polynesian objects worldwide.

In 1865 New Zealand’s Parliament moved to Wellington. Shortly after that, the tiny Colonial Museum (Te Papa’s predecessor,) located just behind the Parliament, opened it’s doors. This museum mostly exhibited scientific collections, which included paintings, prints, ethnographic ‘curiosities’ and antiquities. In 1907, with a much wider national focus, The Colonial Museum was renamed the Dominion Museum. The Science and Art Act of 1913 paved the way for a national art gallery to be installed in the same building. In 1930, under the National Gallery and Dominion Museum Act, this idea became reality. In 1936, a new building brought together the Dominion Museum and the new National Art Gallery. In 1972, the Dominion Museum was renamed the National Museum. By the 1980’s, this building was so filled up, it was ready to explode. Unfortunately, this very beloved museum, no longer represented the growing diverse communities

In 1988, the government was searching for ideas to create a new national museum. The Museum of New Zealand’s Te Papa Tongarewa Act 1992, placed the emphasis on collections, giving a much larger audience easier access and better represented New Zealand’s culturally diverse society. In 1994, the construction of this new museum started. On February 14, 1998, Te Papa opened it’s doors to the public. The museum was completed on time and within it’s budget, housing the national art collection. The major acquisitions of Pacific artefacts arrived from England. In 1912, most surprisingly, Lord St Oswald presented his family collection to the Dominion Museum of New Zealand. Many of these artefacts were collected on the three Pacific voyages of Captain Cook.   Included in this gift were the ‘ahu ula (cloak) and mahiole (helmet) presented to Cook by the Hawaiian chief Kalani‘opu ‘u on 26 January 1779. In 2016, The Te Papa Museum gave this cloak and helmet to The Bishop Museum of Hawai’I, on a long term loan. The artefacts in this collection were acquired by William Bullock (an English collector).

The artefacts in this collection were acquired by William Bullock (an English collector).  Some of them were acquired directly from Joseph Banks (a wealthy young English botanist, who accompanied Cook on his first voyage to the Pacific.) Others he purchased from private collectors and from the 1806 sale of the Leverian Museum Collection (London.) Bullock opened his own museum in London, exhibiting these artefacts until his entire collection was sold in 1819. In 1948, the New Zealand government bought 3100 pieces of Maori and Pacific art from the collection of the famous London tribal art dealer W.O. Oldman, for £44,000. Their desire was nothing less than making New Zealand the capital for studying Maori and Polynesian artefacts. Upon arriving in New Zealand, the collection was divided on indefinite loan among the four large New Zealand metropolitan museums, with small amounts also going to smaller public museums with adequate fireproof buildings.

The Dominion Museum received the bulk of the Maori, Marquesan, New Caledonian, and Admiralty Island components of the collection together with small numbers of items from other island groups. Because these items had passed through various sale rooms in Britain, they often lack detailed information on their origins or historical context, but their quality is outstanding. In 1955, the Imperial Institute of London (established in 1887) gave the Museum a significant collection of items associated with the voyages of Captain James Cook. These artefacts were once in the possession of Queen Victoria and had been given to the Institute by Edward VII. Cook himself may have given these to George III after his second voyage. Two smaller items are traceable to Mrs Cook.

Laurance Alexander Rudzinoff

Special Thanks to : Sean Mallon, Senior Curator Pacific Cultures, Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

Aumakua hulu manu

Without a doubt, one of Te Papa’s most precious objects from the Pacific is this Hawaiian “aumakua hulu manu”. This “aumakua hulu manu” depicts the fearsome head of the Hawaiian war god Kuka‘ilimoku (Ku – snatcher of the islands).  “Aumakua hulu manu of Ku” were taken into battle to inspire warriors.  When they weren’t being used for war, they lived in a special god house contained within the heiau (temple). The “aumakua hulu manu” was made by tying clumps of feathers to a netting of olona fibre laid over a wicker-style framework woven from the ‘ie‘ie vine. This `aumakua hulu manu was sold in the auction of Bullock’s Museum in 1819. It was described in the auction catalogue as ‘A fine Feather Idol, of the Sandwich Isles’ – the Sandwich Islands being the name given to the Hawaiian Islands by Captain Cook. The “aumakua hulu manu” was bought by Mr Charles Winn for 2 pounds 2 shillings. He also purchased a number of other items, including the Hawaiian feather cloak and helmet. His grandson, Lord St Oswald gave the collection to the Dominion Museum in 1912. The “aumakua hulu manu of Ku” was included in this gift.

HAT, circa 1800, Hawaii

Plant fibers, feathers , Height approximately 150mm, gift of Lord St. Oswald, 1912 .

Small bundles of feathers are tied onto a netting of olana fibers which are attached to the frame of the hat. Records indicate that it was part of a collection purchased by Charles Winn, grandfather of Lord St Oswald, at the sale of Bullock’s Museum in London in 1919. It was in Bullock’s Museum in 1805, indicating that that it was probably collected in the Pacific in the late 1700s. Mr Winn paid two pounds, four shillings for the item (Lot 28).

Taumi (gorget), Society Islands, 1700’s

Feathers, fibers, shark teeth and dog hair 660mm (Length) x 670 (Width/Depth) / Gift of Lord St. Oswald, 1912

Taumi’s were worn in battle by tribal chiefs and their main lieutenants in Tahiti, in the Society Islands. This taumi was collected on one of the three 18th Century Pacific Voyages made by the English Captain James Cook. It was listed in the first catalogue of William Bullock’s Museum, England 1801. Charles Winn bought it for one pound and two shillings at the sale of Bullock’s Museum in 1819. This piece was part of the collection given to the Dominion Museum of New Zealand (renamed the Te Papa Museum) by Winn’s grandson, Lord St. Oswald, in 1912.

Female deity, Cook Islands, circa 1800

A religious object, carved in wood, 345mm. X 35mm.

In 1948, the New Zealand Government purchased this carving as part of a collection from W O Oldman. Truly a miniature Polynesian carved wood masterpiece. As it is attached to a slender tapering shaft, flattened and perforated at it’s base, it could very well be a handle of a sacred flywhisk. Records indicate that this carving was brought to England in 1825 by George Bennett, a London Missionary Society worker based in the Society Islands. During the 1820s, many ‘idols’ from the Cook Islands fell into missionary hands. A number of them were illustrated and described by the missionary William Ellis in 1829 and were subsequently acquired by collectors. The London collector and dealer W O Oldman recorded that it came from the Hervey Islands (an old name for part of the southern Cook Islands), although some scholars have attributed it to the Society Islands on stylistic grounds. It is recorded that it was formerly in the Duke of Leeds Collection.

Laurance Alexander Rudzinoff

Air Tahiti Nui Brand Ambassador , he travels the world in search of antique Polynesian Artifacts and their history.

The Te Papa Tongarewa Museum in Wellington and its Polynesian treasures
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Scattered across the globe, Polynesian works of art showcase our culture and allow it to reach far beyond our islands. We offer you the chance to discover the Te Papa Tongarewa Museum in Wellington, New Zealand’s capital. This institution has one of the most important collections of Polynesian objects worldwide.
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