Skip main navigation

Hurry, only 6 days left to get one year of Unlimited learning for £249.99 £174.99. New subscribers only. T&Cs apply

Find out more

Culture and heritage in Aotearoa

In this article we look at what culture and heritage means, and the role of museums, within the particular context of Aotearoa New Zealand.
A Māori woman with traditional facial tattoos and holding a ceremonial weapon sings in front of an exhibition featuring the figures of Māori woman.
© Te Papa. All rights Reserved

In this step we look at what culture and heritage means within the particular context of Aotearoa New Zealand.

What does culture and heritage mean in Aotearoa?

We have unique perspectives about culture and heritage in Aotearoa as a result of our history and ever evolving bicultural society.

The very idea of a museum – a place that houses collections of cultural and natural artefacts for study and display is a western concept, first brought to New Zealand by European settlers in the late 1800s. New Zealand has a high number of museums for its population. Most civic centres across the country have a historic house, museum or gallery, and there are also many small regional and volunteer run organisations.

The national museum is the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, in Wellington which evolved out of the previous Dominion Museum and National Art Gallery. Many museums have been established to reflect colonial or early settler histories. Notions of what museums are for and how they should operate is evolving to reflect changes in society.

The idea of a separation between cultural or natural heritage and people is a Western concept. From a te ao Māori perspective (a Māori worldview), people and the environment, and people and their taonga (treasured artefacts) are understood to be connected through whakapapa (genealogy) and mauri (life force). As a result of these differing perspectives there are unique requirements for the way we understand and protect culture and heritage in New Zealand.

Protection of culture and heritage in Aotearoa New Zealand

Much of the world’s cultural and natural heritage is legally protected by various international or national laws or agreements. In Aotearoa New Zealand this area of law is evolving in response to the acknowledgement of the need to honour Te Tiriti o Waitangi (The Treaty of Waitangi). In a previous step we looked at the fundamental differences between the English and te reo Māori translation of the document.

These differences have led to considerable misunderstandings with many lasting implications. In addition to this, the underlying principles of Te Tiriti, (generally recognised to be partnership, protection and participation), have also not consistently been upheld. Crown breaches of the Treaty have led to generations of conflict and disadvantage. As a result there have been many disruptions that have impacted the ability for Māori to protect and control their culture and heritage.

A glass case containing an old document. The document is torn and water damaged.High quality reproductions of the Treaty of Waitangi on display at Te Papa. insertcleverphrasehere

Cultural Redress

In an attempt to redress the grievances caused by Treaty breaches, the Waitangi Tribunal was set up in 1975 with responsibility to make recommendations on claims brought by Māori relating to the Crown. In 1991 the pan-tribal Wai 262 claim was lodged, covering issues relating to the recognition of Māori cultural and intellectual property rights. This claim, summarised in the Ko Aotearoa Tēnei report, has sparked an ongoing whole-of-government approach to work through the necessary legislative changes. It has many implications for the way we understand and protect culture and heritage.

How are understandings of culture and heritage evolving?

An example of a recent shift in understanding of what culture and heritage can mean occurred in March 2017, when the New Zealand parliament passed a historic bill to recognise the special relationship between the Whanganui River and Whanganui iwi (tribe). The bill acknowledges the river as a person in the eyes of the law, and as such it will provide for the river’s long-term protection and restoration. This move reflects Whanganui iwi’s ancestral relationship with the river and their deep spiritual connection with it. It also highlights a key difference between western and Māori world views, and the relationships people have with culture and heritage.

a blue river snakes through a valley surrounded by hills covered in green and yellow bush.The Whanganui River. James Shook.

What is Mana Taonga?

We can gain a better understanding about the ways in which Māori connect with culture and heritage, through the concept of Mana Taonga, established as a principle at The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, colloquially known as Te Papa, in 1992, and now practised by some other museums around the country. The Mana Taonga principle recognises the authority of the creator and owner(s) over their taonga, Māori artefacts. It also describes the importance of whakapapa (genealogical links) that exist between people and culture and heritage items.

The Mana Taonga principle gives each iwi in Aotearoa, a ‘very real sense of ownership’ over any items that they whakapapa to which are held within the museum’s collections. This principle also acknowledges the importance of spiritual forces such as wairua (spirit) and mana (prestige) that exists within taonga. In a practical sense the Mana Taonga principle provides iwi the right to define how their affiliated artefacts are stored, exhibited, represented or reproduced in accordance with their tikanga (customs).

A childs hand rests on an item on a table of pūoro (Māori musical instruments) made with carved wood, stone, and feathers.A selection of pūoro (Māori musical instruments) on display at a public event at Te Papa, Power to the Pūoro, 2021. Photo by Jo Moore. © Te Papa. All rights Reserved


There are a variety of reasons why iwi, hapū (sub-tribes), and whānau (families), may have become disconnected from their taonga, these could include war, land confiscation, theft and trade. The Mana Taonga principle reminds us that staff working within culture and heritage organisations have an obligation to be sensitive to this. When taonga have become disconnected, staff at Te Papa and at other museums who adhere to the principles of Mana Taonga take on a protective, guardianship role. Where possible they undertake research to try to establish the origins of taonga. Subsequently in some cases they have been able to repatriate taonga with iwi.

Karanga Aotearoa is the government mandated authority that negotiates the repatriation of Māori and Moriori ancestral remains on behalf of Māori and Moriori. In May 2003, the cabinet agreed that Te Papa should act on behalf of the government for the return of kōiwi/kōiwi tangata (human remains). Karanga Aotearoa works closely with iwi both during and after the negotiation process. If provenance is reliable, iwi are consulted and involved in negotiations and inform details and timing etc for the repatriation of their ancestors. Representatives from the descendant communities are invited to be part of the pōwhiri or welcome home ceremony at Te Papa on their return to New Zealand.

Three Māori women are seated in a carved marae (meeting house). They wear black, with green woven wreaths on their heads. Some of them have traditional facial tattoos. Before them a feathered cloak is draped over boxes containing repatriated remains,Repatriation Powhiri for four Toi Moko repatriated from the Berlin Ethnographic Museum and the Gotttingen University. © Te Papa. All rights Reserved

Further Reading

Extend your learning! To learn more about topics mentioned in this article, explore the links below:
Decolonising and indigenising museums
Biculturalism in our national museum can’t be a one way street
Museums are dangerous places – challenging history
Decolonise or indigenise: moving towards sovereign spaces and the Māorification of New Zealand museology
Archives New Zealand Te Tiriti o Waitangi
Wai 262
Whanganui River
ICOM article about Mana Taonga
Te Papa Tongarewa blog about Mana Taonga
Academic article about Mana Taonga
Te Papa Tongarewa domestic repatriation
Aotearoa repatriation programme

© Te Papa. All rights Reserved
This article is from the free online

New Zealand History, Culture and Conflict: A Museum Perspective

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now