How a significant Māori cultural treasure found its way home

This is the story of how a significant and beautiful Māori cultural icon, the Mātaatua Wharenui / Māori meeting house, came home after more than a century of foreign travels.

The restoration of the Mātaatua Wharenui / Māori meeting house to its original home at Whakatane, on the Bay of Plenty coast, signalled a new era for the much-travelled 'house' that was once dedicated to a British monarch.

When the magnificent wharenui was completed in 1875, it was said to be "fit for a queen" and the local Ngāti Awa tribe offered their treasured house to Queen Victoria as her Whakatane home-away-from-home.

Curiously, while the tribe’s historic gesture never came to fruition because the Queen didn’t make it to New Zealand, the wharenui eventually ended up in London where King George and Queen Mary visited it in 1924.

It also made appearances in Australia, and spent many years in a South Island museum.

But now, after a 15-year conservation programme, the 19th-century wharenui sits back on its original site, sharing its singular and compelling story with visitors and acting as a cultural focus for the local Ngāti Awa tribe.

Symbol of unity

The Mātaatua Wharenui story is closely aligned with the history of the Ngāti Awa people.

This eastern Bay of Plenty Māori tribe had suffered severely during New Zealand’s early European colonisation, and the 1870s building project was conceived as a cultural project that would help unite and strengthen the people.

The wharenui, completed in 1875, was an impressive structure of grand proportions, decorated with fine carvings and intricate interior weaving fit for royalty.

But, soon after completion, the wharenui was uplifted by the government and shipped overseas on a mission to represent New Zealand at a series of international exhibitions that saw it endure a century of foreign travel, and numerous reconstructions - first in Sydney, then Melbourne and London.

When it was finally returned to New Zealand, it was loaned to the Otago Museum, in the southern city of Dunedin - and far from its North Island home.

The wharenui spent 70 years in Dunedin before being returned to Whakatane 20 years ago as part of a government settlement recognising the Ngāti Awa as the rightful owners.

Rare features

Apart from its size - 24m / 79ft long by 12.5m / 41ft wide by 7.5m / 24ft high - Mātaatua Wharenui has a number of rare features.

It is the only wharenui in existence with two sets of twins depicted on the two upright carved amo / supports on the front gable of the house.

When it was dismantled and taken to Sydney in 1879 for the British Empire Exhibition, the wharenui was carried on a ship smaller than the house itself.

In Sydney, it was incorrectly reassembled leaving the interior walls of carved and woven panels exposed to weather damage - largely because there was no budget to send a cultural expert along with the house.

In London, the wharenui hosted British monarchs King George and Queen Mary when they visited the British Empire Exhibition in 1924, and were photographed on the front porch.

Carving and weaving

On its return to New Zealand in 1925, the house was repaired by a European carver in Auckland who added extra details including a bizarre sequence depicting the New Zealand race horse Phar Lap winning the 1930 Melbourne Cup.

During its travels, many carved wharenui panels were badly damaged or lost, and highly skilled artisans spent 15 years working to return the house to its former glory.

Delicate woven panels, which were also virtually destroyed over time, have been repaired by master weaver Mere Walker - a respected kuia / elder from a neighbouring tribe - who trained a team of 15 women in the traditional art of Māori raranga / weaving.

Over many years of researching, planning and recreating the finely detailed panels, the weavers have emerged as experienced exponents of the once-disappearing art form.

Home to Whakatane

The wharenui’s final resting place is on the site where it was originally built - in a dramatic coastal setting with native bush clad backdrop, on the edge of Whakatane.

The huge meeting house is the central point in a complex that now incorporates modern dining and conference facilities, and provides a unique Māori cultural tourism experience that's unlike any other in New Zealand.

As well as hearing the fascinating story of the wharenui and learning the traditions and history of the tribe - all brought to life with the latest interactive digital technology - visitors experience legendary Ngāti Awa hospitality and have the chance to meet local elders, descendants of the tribe’s great chiefs.