On March 20, 2020 Te Papa Tongarewa, which houses the ‘Ko Rongowhakaata’ exhibition, closed its doors to the public due to the nationwide Covid-19 lockdown. In a press statement, Te Papa Chair Dame Fran Wilde said “We’ve made this decision after careful consideration. We are not able to enforce social distancing within the museum, and we want to protect our community and support the efforts of all of New Zealand to reduce the risk of Covid-19″. Te Papa Kaihautū Dr. Arapata Hakiwai also added that “The wellbeing of our community must be the number one focus, and closing our doors temporarily is the best way we can tautoko the efforts across Aotearoa, and across the world.” This was a cautious decision that would bring about unprecedented change.
Upon closing the museum, Rongowhakaata Pou Tikanga Taharākau Stewart and April Nepia-Su’a were tasked with conducting a karakia that would allow our taonga to rest safely during the lockdown period. This was done with a small group of staff members before closing the museum to the wider public. And so, the ‘Ko Rongowhakaata exhibition, including our whare whakairo Te Hau ki Tūranga, Rongomaraeroa and other iwi taonga were put to sleep.
In the wake of the Covid-19 lockdown, museums around the world, including Te Papa, were faced with the reality of adapting to their new circumstances. In an interview with ‘the Spinoff’, Te Papa Tumu Whakarae Courtney Johnston indicated that “The language of the last 10 years has been about return on investment and that’s usually in terms of numbers through the door, hotel nights – your economic benefit. If return on investment can look more like partnership and shared outcomes, then the investment that’s going on at the moment becomes about making everything and everyone better”. As iwi in residence, this gave Rongowhakaata a unique opportunity to help shape Te Papa’s post-Covid future.
In April, the Rongowhakaata Iwi Trust and Te Papa sought to create a unique and innovative working relationship that would change the way the museum world interacted with its source communities. Fruitful Zoom discussions turned into the development of a new digital wānanga program that would center around the Rongowhakaata Treaty of Waitangi story. From May 5th to 13th Rongowhakaata facilitated live discussions around present-day Treaty issues in Aotearoa and established a series of short films that depicted tipuna who were instrumental in the environmental, artistic and economic prosperity of Rongowhakaata in Tūranganui-a-Kiwa. The Treaty settlement process and the contemporary issues Rongowhakaata face today were also explored. With bold language and beautiful visuals, the program was deemed a huge success attracting hundreds of people from different backgrounds to the series, which produced a robust discussion around the Treaty and its relevance today. In addition, statistics from Te Papa’s social media and digital platforms saw an increase in engagement from demographics that typically did not interact with museum content, thereby proving the value of Rongowhakaata’s innovative storytelling approach.
In addition, the Rongowhakaata Iwi Trust are also in preliminary discussions around digitalising the ‘Ko Rongowhakaata’ exhibition in order to conserve the memory of the exhibition itself and also to create digital copies of taonga that will eventually be repatriated to their respective owners across the world. This has also inspired a movement around the protection and conservation of taonga and the intellectual property they hold. Moreover, the Rongowhakaata Iwi Trust is investing in new digital technologies that would help establish an innovative platform that allows whānau to directy connect with taonga. In a recent statement, Rongowhakaata Iwi Trust General Manager Amohaere Houkamau said that “Rongowhakaata are looking at conducting online virtual exhibitions of our taonga that are housed all around the globe. Thereby assisting Rongowhakaata to reconnect with our taonga irrespective of distance and therein rebuild our knowledge of the Matauranga inherent in all our taonga.” This will allow the Rongowhakaata Iwi Trust to pave the way in taonga digital development.
As Te Papa prepared to move into lockdown level 2, Rongowhakaata was able to guide them in their endeavours to establish a Covid-19 tikanga strategy around managing public access to taonga. On May 28th, during lockdown level 2, Te Papa decided to reopen the museum to the general public albeit with strict Covid-19 sanitation practices. Te Papa had been closed for a total of 68 days, which is the longest in the museums history. However not all the exhibitions were reopened, the Gallipoli, Te Taiao, Mana Whenua and the ‘Ko Rongowhakaata’ exhibition remained closed. The Rongowhakaata Iwi Trust’s decision to delay the reopening of the ‘Ko Rongowhakaata’ exhibition and Te Hau Ki Tūranga was also steered by the Ministry of Health guidelines and the fact that the Mana Whenua Iwi had decided that they would not reopen their Marae to the public until the country had moved to Alert Level 1. Ultimately, Rongowhakaata were guided by the tikanga of the Mana Whenua. The Rongowhakaata Iwi Trust alongside Te Papa then decided that ‘Ko Rongowhakaata’ would stay closed until lockdown restrictions were lifted. Once the Government gave the all clear, the reopening date was set for June 20th.
The reopening of the ‘Ko Rongowhakaata’ exhibition was conducted in the early hours of Saturday morning and was attended by Mana Whenua, Te Papa representatives and many whānau members and kaumātua from Rongowhakaata who had travelled especially from Tūranga. The ceremony began with a series of karanga and karakia performed by Mana Whenua from Raukawa, Te Ati awa and Ngāti Toarangatira on level two, they led everyone up the stairs to level 4 where Rongomaraeroa marae was the first to be reawakened. The ope then proceeded to the ‘Ko Rongowhakaata’ exhibition led by Taharākau Stewart and Sir. Derek Lardelli accompanied by kaikaranga April Nepia-Su’a, Chrissy Moetara and Kathryn Te Kurapa. When the group approached tipuna whare Te Hau ki Tūranga, emotions ran high as the yearning for reconnection came to the forefront. Rongowhakaata kaumātua were the first to enter the whare in a gesture of whakamahana before the official whaikōrero commenced.
The whakaoho ceremony started with a Ringatū karakia service performed by kaumātua Jeffrey Pohatu from ‘Ngāri uri o Te Kooti’ followed by whaikōrero and waiata kinaki from all representatives. The Rongowhakaata delegation showcased their cultural prowess by performing waiata tahito ‘Pōpō’ that resonated all across the exhibition and served to mirimiri the wairua of the taonga. Furthermore, it was important to acknowledge Rongowhakaata taonga, whakapapa and kōrero in this space so that they reawaken from their temporary slumber and also to whakawātea for museum visitors. Towards the end of the ceremony, Rongowhakaata took the opportunity to acknowledge one of their own, Sir Derek Lardelli on his latest knighthood achievement. A beautiful waiata and whaikōrero was performed ending with a rousing haka. The official proceedings would conclude with a hongi and hākari, which included speeches and entertainment from the Te Papa staff.
Rongowhakaata Iwi Chair Moera Brown described the ceremony as ‘beautiful’ and that we should take a moment to remember those who have passed on “The exhibition opened some time ago but just remembering those who have passed on, such as uncle Lewis Moeau and Erica Jones and her role in setting up the exhibition, and those who were present when we did the big opening here, it was a time to reflect on how well we’ve done and how far we’ve come, and just a time to appreciate that actually we are extremely lucky to be involved in this exhibition and to have quite a big footprint, its just really good to reconnect with our taonga and our tipuna, it was a pretty special day.” All parties who attended the ceremony shared these sentiments.
The Chair of Te Papa, Dame Fran Wilde also expressed her thoughts “I regard the heart of the museum as Rongomaraeroa and of coarse Te Hau ki Tūranga and the Rongowhakaata exhibition.” She continued to show Te Papa’s commitment to Rongowhakaata by adding “we have had Rongowhakaata here as the iwi in residence, now we need to go to your place, and so it would be the Board and the senior management coming up there and meeting you and hopefully we would be able to have an agreement about our future relationship.” The Rongowhakaata Iwi Trust welcomes this initiative.
The relationship between Rongowhakaata and Te Papa has only strengthened during the Covid-19 lockdown and as we look towards our post-Covid future we must foster this relationship for the sake of our taonga. Furthermore, the unique circumstances we faced during the Covid-19 lockdown has propelled Rongowhakaata into leading the digital space for iwi and indigenous peoples the world over. The reopening ceremony was a testament to the strength of Rongowhakaata whānau to represent Rongowhakaata values of rangatiratanga and kaitiakitanga. And so, like our tipuna before us, we must keep striving to uphold our mana tangata and mana taonga for future generations.