Trish Kerr remembers running down the passage of her grandmother’s home, brushing her hands along the base of the three treasured piupiu hanging there.
“We kids did that every time we went by; that’s why these piupiu are broken along the bottom,” she says, pointing to the tattered ends of her family’s heirlooms.
“I vaguely remember them being stored in stockings after that. Then they were folded up and put in my pōua’s old sea chest.”
Trish (Ngāi Tahu) is one of several Awarua rūnanga members who gathered at Te Rau Aroha Marae in Bluff in February to attend a two-day workshop on taonga and korowai conservation. The workshop was run by Wellington-based freelance conservator, Rangi Te Kanawa (Ngāti Maniapoto), who is on leave from her role as textile conservator at the Museum of New Zealand, Te Papa Tongarewa. For Trish, the workshop was a chance to save the old piupiu, which include one dated around 1910 and given to her tāua by the Rehu family of Moeraki. She was there with her son Darcy, 17, to learn everything she could to extend the life of the piupiu and return them to the family home.
“They were part of the home for my 50 or so years, and that’s where they’ll be returning to – and remaining,” she says.
Stories of treasured taonga being stored in unlikely and often very damaging places are not new to Rangi Te Kanawa. She’s spent 12 years visiting iwi all around New Zealand in the hope of saving as many taonga as she can.
“Whānau usually keep their taonga close because they know they’re precious, but I’ve heard of them being folded and tucked away in the back of cupboards or under beds. I remember one case of a Rarotongan cape – now in Te Papa’s Pacific Gallery under push button lighting – coming to me for restoration. It had been folded and folded and stored in a Griffin’s biscuit box, but the rats had gotten into it.”
Gavin Reedy (Ngāti Porou) is Te Papa’s National Services Te Paerangi Iwi Development Officer. Gavin coordinates workshops like these all around New Zealand and often travels with Rangi. He too has seen taonga emerge from unexpected places.
“This workshop is all about helping iwi take care of taonga that are held in homes, on marae, stuffed in boxes, or in attics. One lady up north brought in a beautiful kahu kiwi (kiwi feathered cloak) stuffed in a rubbish bag. Rangi has seen a 300-year-old cloak in the Far North, but you only see those sorts of things if the iwi and whānau trust you. That’s why we see these workshops as a cornerstone, a beginning. It’s about building relationships with iwi, to see where they’re at in relation to their heritage and culture. Depending on their needs, we then run workshops on textile conservation, digital photography so iwi can record and preserve their marae photos in case of fire, building a taonga database, or paper conservation to protect things like whakapapa papers, kaumātua diaries and Māori Battalion souvenirs.
“The important thing about all the workshops is that we teach our people to teach others,” Gavin says. “We can’t go to every marae, so we tell them how to get the funding and where to buy materials, and then we visit them with the best tutors we can find to teach them the skills they need to pass on.”
Rangi Te Kanawa says iwi have shown intense interest in the workshops. They share their experiences, talk about taonga and whakapapa; and leave with a renewed sense of pride.
“It’s lovely to go onto marae and have people bring in their taonga, which we often transform from stressed, tired or damaged treasures into pieces that look like new. I’ve seen tears fall when cloaks have been cleaned and repaired and put into their new boxes. Most whānau truly care about their taonga but they don’t always know how to physically care for them. My job is to get the word out there: roll, don’t fold, and don’t use handles to hang garments. Store your cloaks, piupiu, kete and whāriki in acid-free boxes.
“There are those who want to have their treasures on display, not shut away in boxes; but the majority, once they see the cushioning, safe environment of the boxes, accept that this is the best way to give their treasures a much longer life – sometimes 50 to 100 years longer. People can always put photographs of the items on the outside of the box, or have a replica made that they can use and display, knowing the original will last for future generations to enjoy.”
Rangi comes from a long line of traditional Māori weavers. Her mother was Diggeress Rangituatahi Te Kanawa (1920-2009) and her grandmother was Dame Rangimārie Hetet (1892-1995), both of whom dedicated their lives to the promotion and preservation of traditional Māori weaving arts. Diggeress Te Kanawa was also one of the co-founders of the Aotearoa Moananui-ā-Kiwa Weavers Association in 1983, which was the driving force behind Rangi’s own conservator’s training.
“It all happened after the Te Māori exhibition in the early 1980s. There was a growing awareness of the need for Māori to be involved in the preservation and conservation of taonga, and Aotearoa Moananui-ā-Kiwa were approached to find someone to train. They found me,” says Rangi.
“I was at home in Ōparure, near Te Kuiti and in my early 30s, and when my mother got the call, she nominated me. I grew up surrounded by weavers and I also weave, so I took up the challenge.”
After studying conservation at the Canberra College of Advanced Education in Australia, Rangi’s passion for conservation was ignited. She speaks of “a tremendous feeling of accomplishment” that comes with every successful project or workshop.
“Conservation makes for fabulous before-and-after treatments, but more than that, you know you have helped arrest the degradation of a treasure; that you’ve upheld the integrity of the taonga and its wairua, its history, its stories. There’s a very real sense of pleasure of giving and iwi receiving; of them grasping the idea that if they roll a garment, it won’t be damaged by fold lines.
“That’s like an awakening, and when they rest their cloak into a box they’ve made themselves, there’s a feeling that the taonga has been given the special attention it commanded; that it’s become a part of them and an item of even greater value for that. It gives them peace of mind knowing that the archival box they’ve created has provided the best storage that can be had, and that their taonga can now safely be handed down through the generations. The workshops also bring communities together and the kaupapa is great. I love it.”
Awarua’s Gail Thompson says the February workshop came about when a beautiful whītau (flax fibre) and wool-embellished korowai made in the 1850s was returned to Bluff’s Riki Topi (Ngāi Tahu) and his family after the death of their family members in the Foveaux Strait fishing disaster, which claimed the lives of six people on board the vessel Kotuku five years ago.
“The cloak was made for my great-great-great-grandfather and paramount chief of Ruapuke, Topi Patuki (Waitaha) in the mid-1850s. Reverend Johan Wohlers had established a mission at Ruapuke and he brought out a boot-maker called Mr Ott. Mr Ott’s grandson was later elected Mayor of Invercargill and Toki Patuki presented his cloak to him when the first tram started running there. As far as we know it stayed with the Ott family in Australia from that time on, until they heard the news item about the fishing boat disaster,” says Riki.
“They contacted Hana Morgan so they could return the cloak to its rightful place and have it restored. That’s how it came to be the catalyst for this workshop,” says Gail.
Riki says that although he and his family originally wanted to restore the cloak, he’s going to take Rangi’s advice and just conserve it as it is.
“Rangi says it’s not correct to put new weaving into something that is so old and special, so we’ll take care of it the right way and then we’ll give it to Southland Museum along with our family pounamu that has also been handed down through the family from Topi Patuki. Eventually though, we’d like to see about getting a replica of the cloak made – one that the family can use, knowing the original will be preserved for future generations.”
Tiny Metzger (Ngāi Tahu) was also delighted to be part of the korowai workshop. He brought along his family’s fifth-generation heirloom, a beautiful kahu kiwi, originally made in Taupō.
“I’ve had it for 30 years and we’ve had it hanging on a wall in the darkest part of the house,” he says.
“It has had some moth attacks unfortunately, so it feels good to know we’re now giving it a proper home in its own archival storage box.”
Weaving expert, Ranui Ngarimu (Ngāi Tahu, Ngāti Mutunga), applauds the work being carried out by Rangi Te Kanawa and the National Services team.
“Thank goodness for Rangi’s own foresight, and for that of the weavers’ group Aotearoa Moananui-ā-Kiwa before her,” she says.
“She’s raising awareness of the preciousness of taonga that many people may have in a closet, a suitcase or a box, and their value, not only to the immediate family but to hapū, iwi and to New Zealand. We now have a way to protect them so we can keep on wearing them if they are strong, or we can admire them in a protected state, either in our homes or in whare taonga.
“Like Rangi’s mother and grandmother, I am a weaver and like them, I have always said ‘we can make new ones.’ I’ve been in their presence when they’ve articulated that and it still holds true if you are a weaver; but of course, not everyone is a weaver and things do come to the end of their lives. Now though, we can give a garment another hundred years of life, so that it can bring pleasure to future generations,” she says.
The preservation and conservation though is about more than just pleasure. As Ranui points out, for some, those early garments are the only clue to the thinking and work practices “of the hands of those times.”
“Aotearoa Moananui-ā-Kiwa was a very forward-thinking group for its time. It understood the need for taonga conservation and the need to test and record and to look for what might help weavers of the future. That includes research into the plants we use, like harakeke, which has been shown to have different fibre content depending on where in New Zealand it is grown.”
Ranui who is based in Christchurch also restores korowai.
“Restoration is different to conservation, but of course the two are interconnected. If a whānau wants to continue wearing a garment that is basically sound, I can repair and restore it. Aunty Tiny Wright’s
(Ngāi Tahu) kahu kiwi is a good example. Te Papa provided the feathers for a small amount of repair and restoration to the 120 year-old garment, and now, if her whānau take good care of it, they’ll still be wearing it 120 years from now.
“The future of our taonga lies with people like Rangi. It’s wonderful to have her doing what she’s doing – inspiring others to investigate what they have and how to look after precious heirlooms. My question now is: ‘What are we doing about training more people like her?’
“I’d like to see Ngāi Tahu think about training someone in this area for tribal purposes. Aotearoa Moananui-ā-Kiwi could see the benefits of putting their weight behind Rangi’s conservation training and
I believe Ngāi Tahu as an iwi have to actively seek some young people who may be interested in this sort of training while we’ve got the best people for them to train under. The conservation of our taonga is very important. I can’t stress that enough.”