We appreciated working with Ngati Awa in Whakatane to assist the iwi to tell the true tale of the adventures of their famous Wharenui Mataatua, a beautiful carved meeting house which was taken by the New Zealand Government in the 1890′s and sent across the world to be displayed at various British Empire exhibitions in Australia and the UK. Here are a few screens from the film and a condensed version of the story.
Scripted by Virginia Winder and narrated by Pouroto Ngaropo the story begins in the 1870s. To a time when the people of Ngati Awa are struggling to hold on to land, to life, and to hope. They are reeling from land confiscations by the Crown and, epidemics of introduced illnesses such as typhoid, whooping cough and measles have taken the lives of many Ngati Awa, especially the children.
The area is under military surveillance and 33 of the iwi’s men have been imprisoned in Auckland. In these turbulent times, an idea is born to build a carved meeting house to celebrate the ancestors of Ngati Awa and to unite all the tribes of Mataatua, the great waka that landed at Whakatane more than 700 years ago.
And so, with Wepiha Apanui as the master carver and architect, a beautiful wharenui is built. White pine is used for the spine, and totara, dug from the Whakatane riverbed, is carved into the main figures. Among these are two sets of twins – Tarakiuta and Tarakitai, and the warriors, Wahahamama and Taitimuroa – who stand on each side of the amo. Mataatua is magnificent. Even by today’s standards it is huge – 24 metres long, 12 metres wide and nearly seven metres high. After three years of building and carving, the wharenui is officially opened in March 1875. The celebrations continue for three days and Native Affairs Minister Donald McLean attends as a special guest.
Mataatua is to be a house for the Queen of England. This dedication means that if she comes to Aotearoa, she has a home at Whakatane. The New Zealand Government sees other meanings in this generous tribute by a people, whose main desire is to have their imprisoned men released.
So, when a carved meeting house is needed for the British Empire Exhibition in Sydney, the wharenui fit for a queen is the perfect choice. Against the wishes of Ngati Awa’s vocal kuia, Mataatua is disassembled, labelled and packed into a steam ship called The Staffa, a boat small enough to fit inside the meeting house itself.
Once in Sydney the wharenui is erected – but its walls are turned inside out. Instead of the carvings and tukutuku panels being protected by the body of the house, they are put on the exterior, in full view for the visitors. There is no powhiri, no thought to Maori protocol, the house is simply put up – wrongly – placing the intricate woven panels and ancestral carvings of Ngati Awa at the mercy of a Sydney summer.
In April 1880, after seven months of being on show, the wharenui is packed up and taken to the Melbourne International Exhibition. This runs from October 1880 to April 1881.
There are no photos of Mataatua at this event, so it’s not known if the house is subjected to the same inside-out treatment as in Sydney. At the end of the Melbourne show, Mataatua is again packed up and taken away – all the way to London.
Here, the meeting house is erected in the grounds of the South Kensington Museum. Photos of the carved house show, this time, it’s put up correctly. Sometime soon after, the meeting house is dismantled and stored in the cellar of the Victoria and Albert Museum – for more than 40 years.
Mataatua comes to light again in 1924, when it is erected for the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley.
And finally, the wharenui fit for a queen becomes just that.
During the exhibition, Queen Mary and King George visit the carved meeting house and are photographed on the front verandah.
Another visitor is Maori guide Maggie Papakura, who is married to an English gentleman. She cries over the house, feeling its sorrow for standing there alone, like her, in a country far from home.
However, Mataatua is soon to head back to Aotearoa – but not to its home in Whakatane.
The New Zealand Government negotiates the return of the meeting house, which is shipped to Dunedin for the South Seas Exhibition in 1925.
Once again Mataatua becomes a show piece, and then, behind the scenes, deals are struck and the house becomes a permanent exhibit at the Otago Museum. Not once are the people of Ngati Awa asked about the future of their wharenui.
By this time, Mataatua is battered and need of repair – long ocean voyages, overland horse-and-dray journeys, and being repeatedly put up and pulled down have taken their toll.
The Otago Museum repairs the carved house, but in trying to fit the tall house into the museum, the the carvings of Ngati Awa’s ancestors are shortened – they are simply lopped off at the bottom.
This squat version of the majestic Mataatua sits in the Otago Museum for another 71 years, despite ongoing requests by Ngati Awa for its return.
Finally, in 1996, after years of negotiations, a Waitangi Tribunal special deed of settlement sees the release of the great carved meeting house.
After 117 years, the carvings – our ancestors, our tipuna – are able to come home.
Mataatua’s long journey is almost over.
A dozen years have passed, with them the healing of wounds and the rejuvenation of our damaged wharenui.
Fresh carvings have been hewn under the guidance of Ngati Awa master carver Te Hau o te Rangi Tutua, who has now passed on.
Mataatua has been given new life by its people.
Now the wandering carved meeting house has risen up again in the heart of Whakatane; its turangawaewae and the place where it all began…