Maori craftsmanship and museum conservation bring to life one of our most unusual and intriguing objects.
Bay of Plenty, North Island, New Zealand
Wood, with paua shell inlay and additional work in acrylic
Facing the Sea, Level 3, National Museum of Scotland
Did you know?
The canoe was never sailed, but was probably made for sale to European visitors.
When the Waka Taua, or Maori war canoe, was first added to the museum’s collection in 1854, it was considerably damaged and missing a stern post. Although probably the largest, most complete Maori water craft in any collection outside New Zealand, it had rarely been displayed as it was so difficult to interpret.
Comprising of a river boat hull and war canoe wash-strakes, additional pieces such as a prow had been made to give it the shape and designs of a war canoe, even though it was less than half the full size.
The canoe dates from as early as 1827, and it is very likely to have been associated with Sir Thomas Makdougall Brisbane, Governor of Australia (1821-25) and after whom the Australian city is named.
Now the canoe has been restored and brought back to life. George Nuku, a highly-regarded Maori artist, was commissioned to work with our Conservation team on the restoration of the decorative carving and shell inlay on the canoe, and to complete the 19th century work by the addition of a new stern post, fashioned from acrylic. This blending of old and new materials highlights the difference between the original vessel and the modern artwork.
“The beauty of transparent acrylic is that it doesn't overpower what is already there. It almost embodies the spirit of what you are making and doesn't detract from the original artefact.- George Nuku
The Maori have always cared for their objects, houses and canoes by repairing and replacing pieces when needed. George has continued this tradition by guiding our repair of the canoe and adding the stern.
All objects have power or mana in Maori culture; this is a spiritual force which connects the Maori with their ancestors who first arrived in New Zealand by canoe. Before any work could be undertaken on the canoe George addressed the canoe at a ceremony at which everyone working on the project was present. At the ceremony the canoe was given a name ‘Te Tuhono’ meaning ‘to join’.
Above: The perspex stern of the Waka.
Now Te Tuhono forms a centrepiece of the Facing the Sea gallery in the National Museum of Scotland. This gallery focuses on the cultural diversity of the peoples of the Pacific and their close relationship with the ocean. The work on the waka has revealed much about its history, both in the museum and how it came to be in the collections.