This important day for New Zealanders was also an important chance for our Cultural Collections staff to engage with the community.

Waitangi Day is the annual celebration marking the treaty of Waitangi, signed on 6 February 1840 by representatives of the Crown and a confederation of northern chiefs in Waitangi, Bay of Islands, Aotearoa/ New Zealand. The sometimes-contentious treaty is often cited as the foundation of New Zealand society.

How did the Australia Museum come to be involved in celebrations here in Sydney?

On the 9th of February, 2013, the Cultural Collections team participated at the Waitangi Day celebrations in Merrylands, Sydney. The organising community group, Nga Uri O Rahiri Inc. approached the Australian Museum, requesting a selection of taonga (treasures) dating from the late 1800s to put on display and for information to be shared on the day. These objects provide a glimpse into the Australian Museum’s Maori collections and insights into traditional Maori designs, materials and technologies.

It was all hands on deck for the Cultural Collections team, Dion Peita, Keren Ruki, Logan Metcalfe and Thelma Thomas. The set-up of the two Australian Museum displays, one for the taonga (Maori treasures) and the other for the Pacific Youth Reconnection project, went up without a hitch.

What was on display?

The objects selected for display included:

  • A patu paraoa (whalebone club), the mainstay of a toa (warrior), as it could easily be drawn in close hand-to-hand combat
  • A rare whalebone or ivory tiki; two greenstone tiki – one, said to be the a prized possession of Tuwharetoa chief Hitiri Te Paerata of Ngati Te Kohera
  • A patu muka (stone pounder) exchanged between the Australian Museum and the Whanganui Museum in the late 19th Century. The patu muka was used by the kairaranga (weaver) to soften flax fibres in a pounding motion to produce muka (prepared flax) that was woven into fine cloaks or bags.

Also displayed was an elegant greenstone toki (adze), collected in the 19th Century and typical of the South Westland region of Aoetearoa/New Zealand; as well as a unique shaped stone Okewa, the shape derived from the magnificent wandering albatross which frequents the windswept Chatham Islands located to the South-east of the North Island of New Zealand.

The last object displayed was a beautifully crafted greenstone koropepe, an adornment often worn around the neck of the owner. According to Maori tribal tradition the koropepe represents a small mythical creature, a taniwha or kaitiaki (guardian) which is said to bring the wearer good fortune.

This koropepe was donated by Sir William Dixson in 1951. Dixon was a successful Sydney businessman and philanthropist who had a long association with the Australian Museum, as a trustee from 1898 to 1925 and as president from 1918 to 1925. He was a major contributor of artefacts from Australia and the Pacific.

“It was good to see the objects out of the confines of the collections stores and interacting with the public at the Waitangi Day event. One of the greenstone tiki seemed to enjoy the early morning sunshine warming his belly” said Keren Ruki, Collections Officer.

What happened on the day?

The event began with a whakatuwhera, a traditional opening including conch shells being played to bring people together; a karanga or call by female elders, and welcoming speeches to the taonga. An acknowledgement of the traditional owners of the land, the Darug people was also made.

“Witnessing the ceremony was very moving. The women at the entrance of the stall & the men approaching. It was like a call & response, all in Maori…. I felt it,” said Thelma Thomas, Youth Worker.

Despite scorching heat of 30 degrees plus, the event attracted 8-10,000 people and featured Pacific food, craft, fashion and cultural and contemporary performances from New Zealand and the Cook Islands. The event was very successful in engaging with Pacific Communities and letting them know about the collections.

How was the feedback from the community?

“People were surprised at the sheer number of artefacts we have in our collection (Over 1500 objects from New Zealand 60,000 from the pacific)…and they couldn’t believe they were right here in Sydney “Logan Metcalfe, Collections Officer. 

What were the highlights of the day?

Highlights of the day include the traditional opening ceremony, the kapa haka performances and meeting many community members interested in the collections at the Museum. We also had visitors with links to governor Hobson – one of the men who facilitated the signing of the treaty in 1840. These visitors had Maori heritage and returned to the stall to show their children the museum’s images of the treaty being signed.

As the heat of the day eased we gathered the artefacts, show cases and images carefully placing them in the “gigantor” an oversized van used for transportation of collection items and headed back to the museum, reflecting on the new relationships made and the reconnections with culture we witnessed. The positive outcomes from being involved in the day included building relationships with the community, forming new partnerships and profiling the Australian Museum, its collections and its initiatives.