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Marae in the Sky

In this article we will learn abour Rongomaraeroa - Te Papa Tongarewa's "Marae in the Sky".
Two pairs of people admire a large carved marae (meeting house). It has many panels of intricate Māori carvings in pale colours. It is crowned with several stylized characters flanking the sun.
© Te Papa. All rights Reserved

What is a marae?

A marae is a traditional Māori community space. It typically includes the grounds, marae atea, and the communal meeting house, wharenui. It is a space for connection, debate, community activities and sharing, for celebrations, funerals (tangihanga), and welcoming of visitors (pōwhiri). Marae are tapu (sacred) places. Te Papa houses its own marae within the museum, named Rongomaraeroa. It is a space for all, and features detailed carvings by master carver Cliff Whiting, who nicknamed the fourth story space the ‘marae in the sky’.

close up of carved panels in rongomaraeroa. They are in tones of light purple, tan, brown, and green.Detail of Te Hono ki Hawaiki, 2017. Photo by Mark Coote. © Te Papa. All rights Reserved


Te Marae offers a singular experience within Te Papa and is also unique within Aotearoa New Zealand. It is Te Papa’s response to the challenge of creating an authentic yet inclusive marae (communal meeting) place for the 21st century.

The space comprises a marae ātea (place of encounter, or grounds) and wharenui (meeting house) that cater for all the purposes such places customarily serve. It is also a living exhibition that interprets for visitors the meaning of the marae experience, and acts as a showcase for contemporary Māori art and design.

A wide view of the marae, set for a formal event. bright pink light glows above the space, with the wharenui at its centre and formal dining tables set up in the āteaRongomaraeroa set up for a formal evening event. © Te Papa. All rights Reserved

Bicultural identity

Like other marae, this one is about identity – here, it is our nation’s bicultural identity that is addressed. Te Marae embodies the spirit of bicultural partnership that lies at the heart of the Museum, and is based on the idea that Te Papa is a forum for the nation. All people have a right to stand on this marae through a shared whakapapa (genealogy) and the mana (authority, power, prestige) of the taonga (treasures) held in Te Papa’s collections.

A Māori father and daughter touch the carvings in appreciation. She looks into the camera.Visitors in Rongomaraeroa, 2019. Photo by Johnny Hendrikus. © Te Papa. All rights Reserved

Welcoming to all

All cultures can feel at home on this marae. Iwi (tribes) can identify and relate to their ancestors through the striking contemporary carvings. So too can other cultures. Carved ancestral images reflect the occupations and origins of newcomers over the last 200 years – farmers, educators, clergy, parents, artists – linked with Pākehā (European New Zealanders), Asian, and Polynesian design references.

The presentation of several precious tapa cloth to a seated man and woman in Rongomaraeroa. They are dressed in ceremonial Pacific Island dress that signifies they are important people.The presentation of Le Lau Ta’amu Tafea, 2020. Photo by Maarten Holl. © Te Papa. All rights Reserved

The meaning behind Te Marae

All people live in Te Ao Marama, the world of light, created when our ancestral parents, Ranginui and Papatūānuku, were forced apart. The floor of Te Marae can be seen as Papa, the Earth Mother, with Rangi, the Sky Father, above. Our wharenui can be seen as Tāne, the son who forced his parents apart, thereby opening a space for us to live in. As the children of Rangi and Papa established themselves in this world, they each developed special responsibilities – Tāwhirimātea, for the wind, Tangaroa, for the oceans, Tāne, for the forest, and so forth. Thus it is appropriate that our marae is situated here, at the confluence of these elements.

A very detailed set of carvings of many figures, a rainbow of soft colours are used, and the arched pockets speak to holiness. A stylized shark swims at the ceiling panel.Detail of Te Hono ki Hawaiki, 2015. Photograph by Norm Heke. © Te Papa. All rights Reserved


When the elements come together, as when people come together, there can sometimes be turbulence. For this reason, it was necessary for the children of Ranginui the sky father and Papatūānuku the earth mother to develop protocols for meeting and ways for recognising one another. These protocols have been passed down for generations and are used on marae throughout the country, with minor variations. The protocols on Te Papa’s marae were developed after extensive consultation. This ensured their integrity, as well as the flexibility needed to accommodate all iwi.

Blue light with some red and orange floods through giant stained glass windows across the floor of Rongomaraeroa up to the wharenui (meeting house).Rongomaraeroa, 2013. © Te Papa. All rights Reserved

Naming our wharenui

The name of our wharenui on Te Marae is Te Hono ki Hawaiki. This name speaks of the connection to Hawaiki, the place of our spiritual origins. Accepting this spiritual idea of Hawaiki enables all people to regard Te Marae as a place for them to stand – a place to which they can belong. Rongomaraeroa is the name of the whole marae, including entrances and pūwhara (lookout).

Very large stained glass doors. They are mostly blue with some red and orange. Beyond we can see an archway on a terrace, and beyond we can make a harbour flanked by green hills.The stained glass doors that open to the lookout over Wellington harbour from Rongomaraeroa, 2012. Photo by Norman Heke. © Te Papa. All rights Reserved

© Te Papa. All rights Reserved
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