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No. 26 (March 1959)
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When Rongo Whakaata Halbert stood up before a large gathering at G [ unclear: ] sborne one sunny Saturday afternoon last November, and declared open the new Maori Wing of the Gisborne Museum, he was performing what may well turn out to be one of the most significant rites of the transition of the Maori from the old order to the new.

Even from the viewpoint of tangible realities this opening was significant. It represented many angles of Maori interest. For one thing the money was raised by a Maori Museum Committee which is, so far as I know, the only one of its kind in New Zealand. Furthermore it has an advisory status protected by special minute of the Art Society Council which is the governing body of the G [ unclear: ] sborne Art Gallery and Museum. But, before I go into all that, it might be as well to tell you about the Maori Wing and its relation to the Gisborne Museum as a whole.

The Art Gallery and the Museum were set up a little over four years ago by the Gisborne Art Society. The Society bought the old Lysnar home, itself an historic building, and vested the ownership in the City Council. It then set about the formation of an Art Gallery and a Museum. The Art Gallery was founded under the directorship of Mr Alan Barnes Grahame and has since become a model of its kind and the focal point of art in Gisborne.

Early in 1954 the Art Society entrusted me with the establishment of a Museum. I immediately gathered together a small committee of people willing to work on the complicated project of setting up and organising a museum. Mr Rongo Halbert was elected to the committee to represent the Maori people and has been a stalwart supporter and member ever since. He was later appointed to the Council of the Art Society in the same capacity.

It was apparent from the beginning that a Museum serving Gisborne and the East Coast would not be truly representative unless it was largely Maori in character and from the first it was planned with this fact in mind. About this time, May 1954, we heard of a maori house in the Canterbury Museum which had East Coast associations. Mr Vic Fisher, ethnologist at the Auckland Museum furnished me with something of its history. It was originally planned for the East Coast chief Henare Potae of Tokomaru Bay. The carvings for it were begun in the late 1850's and completed during the period 1866–69. Some of them were destroyed during the Te Kooti troubles and the remainder were acquired by Mr C. S. Locke of Napier for the Canterbury Museum. I wrote to Dr Roger Duff, director of the Canterbury Museum who agreed to let us have it for the sum paid for it in 1872, an extremely generous offer. He warned us at the time that it would cost us at least another thousand pounds to transport it to Gisborne and re-erect it there.

By this time we had got other members of the Maori community interested in the project. A few of us got together to discuss the acquisition of this house as a purely Maori project. As a result of this discussion a Maori Museum Committee was formed. It held its inaugural meeting on the 25th of March 1955, the original members being Rongo Halbert (Chairman), Pahau Milner, Reta Keiha, Hira Paenga, Tawhai Tamepo, Eru Ruru, Hiwi Maynard, Kahu Te Hau, Judge Howard Carr, R. J. Wills and myself as director holding an ex off [ unclear: ] cio position and acting as secretary to the Committee. We were able to record in the inaugural minutes that £700 had already been raised toward the purchase and erection of the house.

Through the assistance of Mr Peter Kaua of the Department of Maori Affairs who was coopted to the Maori Committee I was able to attend meetings of some of the tribal committees up the Coast and each of them appointed an Associate member, giving representation among Maori communities up as far as Te Kaha. Original associate members included Ropata Kingi and Te Tane Tukaki, W. Potou, D. George, Enoka M. Potae and H. Te Kani Te Ua.


Our next step was to send a member of our Maori Committee to Christchurch to examine the house. Mr R. J. Wills, who was given this task, reported that the house was not in a sufficient state of repair and was otherwise unsuitable. The

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This display shows how the ancient Maori caught and stored his food. (Gisborne Photo News)

committee was left with no option but to accept this report and abandon the idea of purchasing this house. We decided to aim at building a concrete wing to house the Maori collection and set out to raise the estimated cost of something like £2500. It took a long time, but aided by a grant of £1000 from the Maori Purposes Fund Board the objective was finally achieved and the building erected and opened.

It is interesting to relate that almost every member of the original committee was present at the opening. In addition to Mr Halbert the speakers at the opening function included Dr P. B. Singer, President of the Art Society, His Worship the Mayor of Gisborne, Mr H. H. Barker, Mr Reg Keeling, M.P., and Mr Hira Paenga. The catering for the afternoon tea provided was done by the Maori Women's Welfare League so that the whole function was pleasingly Maori in character.


Largely through the generosity of the late W. D. Lysnar, the Museum started off with an enviable collection of Maori exhibits. These have been added to during the past three years by loans or donations of artifacts, pictures, photographs and documents all having some place in the long history of the Maori.

These things are important, but a museum such as the Maori Wing financed, administered and supported by the Maori people of a district is much more than a mere collection of casually acquired relics. It is, and will become even more, a central point of Maori culture and Maori history for the whole East Coast. It is in fact the modern whare wananga the repository of all those outward, tangible and visible things which are the material basis of what has come to be summed up in the word Maoritanga. The old time pattern of community living, centred around the marae, tends to become dissipated with every passing and changing year. The prized relics of tribe and hapu become more and more restricted to the keeping and to the possession of family groups and individuals. The opportunity of sharing these things, of restoring them to their proper place in communal culture, becomes distressingly restricted. There are even occasions when they become a cause of embarrassment and ill-will instead of being a source of pride and inspiration. Too often they are buried away in safe-deposit boxes in a bank or lawyers office, even worse they are lost, sold or otherwise pass out of the possession of their former owners. Other and more highly prized more tapu objects, entrusted to the keeping of one or two elders are secretly hidden away and all too often the hiders take their knowledge with them

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The Maori wing has a beautiful collection of East Coast stone tools. (Gisborne Photo News)

to Reinga rather than leave them to less hallowed keeping. When such things are lost, or even with-held, something very precious and important is lost or with-held with them. These relics, and especially the history which so often surrounds them, are the very mauri, the pou manawa of Maori tradition, of tribal cultural heritage and of all that is summed up in the word Maoritanga.


What is so important about such a repository as the Maori Wing of the Gisborne Museum is that in placing their treasured heirlooms there for safe keeping the ownership need not be lost to the tribe, the family or the individual. They are placed there ‘on deposit’ and may be removed at will. Two of the many instances of this which have already highlighted the short history of the Maori Wing give fine example. In May of 1956 the elders of the Whangara marae entrusted to their Maori museum a highly prized relic which had stood for years on a concrete plinth in the centre of their marae. This was a piece of puriri, all that was left of a once huge tree trunk which was the timanga or food-storage place of the great East Coast chieftainess Hine Matioro. The story of this relic was told in an earlier issue of this journal. More recently the people of Whanau Apanui, at Te Kaha entrusted to the Museum a whaleboat which had figured in the later history of their people. On this occasion there was some difficulty in transporting the whaleboat to Gisborne and the Royal New Zealand Navy came to the rescue by making H.M.N.Z.S. Endeavour available to bring the relic down from Te Kaha to Gisborne.

Before the erection of the new wing Maori owners of valuable relics had some hesitation in entrusting valuable heirlooms to a wooden building. This was kept clearly in mind in the planning of the new wing, which is not only built of concrete but which is fitted with a fireproof door. In addition the Art Society in its alterations to the main body provided a fireproof vault in which especially precious relics may be kept. In the few weeks since the opening of the new wing many Maori families have expressed their intention of entrusting to it mats, greenstone and other heirlooms of priceless value and ancient lineage.

There is another, and possibly even more important function which will continue to be discharged by the Maori Wing, indeed increasingly so throughout the generations to come. This is the function of preserving the knowledge, the mataura-tanga which will justify the claim that such an institution will indeed be the whare wananga of

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the Maori of the future. For here are collected, and preserved, classified and explained, all those artefacts which were once the everyday things of Maori usage and way of life. Here are collected and classified the adzes (both of greenstone and common stone), the fish-hooks, weapons, tattooing chisels, ornaments, weapons, agricultural implements, cloaks, canoes, anchors, carvings and innumerable other relics of a way of life that is no more. Already there is a research collection which future generations of Maori scholars will find invaluable in explaining to their generation the way of life of their remote ancestors.

The founding of this Maori wing was a project noble in conception and impressive in its fruition. I hope that before very long a tablet will be placed in the building embodying the names of every member and associate member of the first Maori Committee of the Gisborne Museum so that Maori generations to come will know to whom they owe the preservation of so much of their racial heritage.

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An interesting display in the new Maori wing of the Gisborne Museum is this model of a popular method of felling trees. By looking at the model carefully, the student can see easily just how the ancient Maori, with dreadfully slow stone tools, managed to cut down even the largest trees, such as were needed for canoe building or meeting house ridge poles. The cutting tool is a large and heavy chisel-shaped stone, lashed to a long, stout shaft. This shaft is moved backward and forward over two horizontal timbers lashed to supporting posts. The three workers used this tool like a battering ram, first punching one horizontal groove, then another slightly higher up, after which the block of wood between the two grooves was chipped out. The remarkable thing about this way of cutting trees was the use of a bow behind the tree to help to add force to the thrust of the tool. The Maori did not use the bow as a weapon, but he did evidently understand the principle of the bow. (Gisborne Photo News)