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Taonga Māori and Object-based learning

How can we think about taonga Māori in relation to object based learning is questioned in this article by course educator Helen Lloyd
Range of traditional Māori musical instruments
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In this step we think about Object-based learning in connection with taonga Māori | Māori artefacts.

What are taonga Māori?

According to Te Aka – the Māori dictionary, a taonga is a ‘treasure, anything prized – applied to anything considered to be of value including socially or culturally valuable objects, resources, phenomenon, ideas and techniques’. This is a very broad definition. So for example te reo Māori language is considered a taonga, waiata | Māori songs are taonga, rongoā | Māori traditional medicine is a taonga etc.

In terms of the scope of this course, when thinking about Object-based learning, and the intersection with taonga Māori we are actually only focusing on one relatively small aspect of the broad concept of taonga, i.e. taonga in relation to physical objects or Māori artefacts, and in particular those items within museums. So the use of the term taonga Māori in this course needs to be understood in this context. It refers to physical objects and should be read as meaning Māori artefacts, and in particular, those that are within museum collections. However as you will see below, a Māori artefact, is never just simply a physical object!

Object-based learning is a western term and in many ways also a western concept in that it is based in part on the idea that objects are ‘separate things’, or things that can be separated from people and from one another. However, as already mentioned in the previous article, this notion of separation and individual objects being viewed in isolation from one another or from people is in contrast to a Māori worldview which understands all things as being connected, both to each other and to people.

Therefore rather than trying to create any artificial affiliation between the disparate concepts of Object-based learning and the cultural concept of taonga Māori it is more useful to think of them differently.

Legacy of Te Māori exhibition

Since the landmark Te Māori exhibition opened in New York in 1984, there has been a shift in museum practice wherein the concept of Mana Taonga, (introduced in the previous article) has been more widely embraced and enacted. The exhibition was a milestone in a Māori cultural renaissance and the first time Māori were actively involved in the process of exhibiting their taonga overseas:

‘The management committee recommended that Māori accompany the exhibition as guardians, ensured Māori were trained as guides, and helped arrange a dawn ceremony to open the exhibition at The Met. This included traditional elements such as karanga (call) and karakia (prayer) familiar to the 90-strong New Zealand party of kaumātua (elders), cultural performers, carvers, weavers and officials’.
In light of the above definition of taonga Māori, and within this cultural context of prioritising Mana Taonga, this section of the course considers how we can teach and learn within museums through and with taonga Māori | Māori artefacts. It recognises that the various cultural meanings related to these artefacts and the various connections they represent are all essential aspects of any learning associated with them.


Māori artefacts are more than physical objects. They cannot be reduced to being understood just as ‘things’ in the world. They are complex. They are connected. They are both tangible and intangible cultural markers. They are windows into the Māori world. They embody mātauranga | traditional Māori knowledge, wisdom and skill.
Mātauranga Māori is about a Māori way of being and engaging in the world – in its simplest form, it uses kawa | cultural practices and tikanga | cultural principles to critique, examine, analyse and understand the world. Mātauranga Māori is a dynamic and evolving system of knowledge used by tangata whenua | indigenous people of Aotearoa to explain, interpret and understand the world they live in.
Mātauranga | Māori knowledge is framed by whakapapa | genealogy and whanaungatanga | kinship relationships between all things. It is evidenced by Kōrero-ā-whānau | family histories, ā-hapū | sub-tribe histories, ā-iwi | tribal histories, Karakia | prayers, waiata | songs, and knowledge arising from generations of interactions with Te Ao Tū Tonu | the universe and Te Ao Tūroa | the natural world.
Taonga Māori can embody and transfer mātauranga | Māori knowledge. Taonga Māori are also usually made to be used, or worn, or touched etc. They have important symbolic and practical cultural roles to play in life. They are rarely made with the explicit intention that they will take up a ‘sedentary life’ within a museum collection.

Keeping taonga warm

Director of Audience and Insight at Te Papa Puawai Cairns (Ngāti Pūkenga, Ngāti Ranginui, Ngāi Te Rangi) explains during this webinar the challenges she experienced when she worked as Mātauranga Māori curator at Te Papa. She describes the effect of pulling a taonga out of the circulation of life, acquiring it and placing it within a museum collection. ’You interrupt or pause the cultural life of an object’. She goes on to explain that usually when objects are collected they lay dormant and unused. She makes reference to an article by Mina McKenzie called A challenge to museums – keeping our taonga warm where Mina states:
‘In Māori language, the word taonga describes both tangible and intangible elements of culture which are considered to be treasures handed down from the ancestors, in Māori language, tonga tuku iho. Māori believe that when the treasures are identified, recognised, guarded and thus connected to their people, the tangible object or special knowledge remains alive and therefore ‘warm’. The so-called ‘warmth’ signifies that there is an unbroken thread between the people and their past, present and future. When the people are alienated from their taonga, the thread is broken and the taonga are ‘cold’.
Puawai gives an example of this in the webinar. She describes an artefact which is a combination of a karetao | puppet, and a taonga pūoro | musical instrument made by James Webster which she collected for Te Papa’s collection.
As part of the collection agreement she entered a clause which enables James and any of his whānau | family or future descendants to be able to continue to use it whenever they want or need to. She also commissioned a recording of a live performance where the karetao | puppet was being used by James, so that the authentic context of the artefact can be kept alongside the object itself for future generations to understand its intended use. This is one aspect of the principle of Mana Taonga being realised.
Careful consideration therefore needs to be given to the ‘active life’ or cultural role or purpose of any taonga Māori when teaching and learning with them.

Taonga embody mātauranga

The way taonga Māori embody mātauranga | Māori knowledge is also crucial to understand when learning about them.
Over the past two years Creative New Zealand has supported 35 initiatives led by Māori artists and practitioners to protect, cultivate and retain mātauranga Māori related to heritage. These projects include support for ngā toi | art of marae | Māori meeting houses, hapū | sub-tribes, iwi | tribes, whakapapa-based rōpū | genealogically-based groups and mātāwaka | kinship groups under the ‘Toi Ake – Mātauranga Māori Te Awe Kōtuku’ Fund.
As explained by Hāniko Te Kurapa from Creative New Zealand in this blog
Our partners such as Haumanu Collective have delivered a large programme of work to sustain knowledge of taonga pūoro composition, performance, the making of Māori musical instruments and their use in traditional healing’.
The importance of the relationship between taonga and mātauranga | Māori knowledge is at the heart of Nga Taonga Tuku Iho which is a recent series directed and produced by Kahu Kutia, and hosted by storyteller and taonga pūoro practitioner Khali Meari.
This series sheds light on continuing histories of Māori cultural artefacts. With the first episode, filmed at Te Papa, the series looks at some of the ways in which people might have become disconnected, and can reconnect with taonga in collections, and how contemporary Māori artists and crafts people can connect and learn from the mātauranga | Māori knowledge embedded in taonga. Kahu writes:
‘For a long time, museums and archival institutions have been a place where our taonga have been locked away; disconnected from the places and people whose stories they tell. Often they are hidden away in private and public connections, slowly trying to find the right home again. And here we are, often desperate to have a relationship with these taonga, with our kōrero tuku iho. How can we gain access to our taonga, how can we breathe new life in these connections, and what do we dream of for the future of taonga care?’
Taonga are important embodiments of knowledge, and are a vital source of learning and inspiration for future generations. They provide a tangible connection with tipuna | ancestors. Learning about taonga contributes to our understanding of mātauranga Māori | Māori indigenous knowledge, and can give us insights into te ao Māori | the Māori world.


When teaching with taonga | Māori artefacts there are several Māori cultural concepts, customs and related protocols that we need to be mindful of.
Certain taonga may be tapu | sacred, prohibited or forbidden. As such contact with them may be restricted in order to keep people safe and depending on the artefact and its particular context they may not be appropriate for use in educational settings with tamariki | children.
Some taonga Māori require particular kawa | principals or tikanga | protocols to be followed. Certain people with the necessary knowledge, whakapapa | genealogy or mana | prestige will be able to attend to these protocols.
All taonga need to be cared for within the correct tikanga | cultural protocols that govern their existence as specified by the iwi | tribe they belong to. These protocols might include karakia | prayers.


One example of a Māori tikanga | protocol which is sometimes provided space for within museums is the use of a whakanoa |tapu-removing water bowl. Whakanoa bowls are sometimes positioned near taonga Māori for people to use when they have been in close proximity to them. Such bowls, sometimes referred to as wairua bowls, allow people to cleanse themselves of the tapu | sacred restriction before re-entering the everyday world. A few drops of water splashed over the head enables people to become noa | free from tapu.
At Te Papa whakanoa bowls are positioned both within public gallery spaces for visitors and students to use, and also ‘back of house’ next to collection stores for staff and researchers who can access those areas to use. They way these water bowls are used is explained by Kate Camp head of communications at Te Papa, in an article for the NZ Herald:
‘As we leave the storage area we wash our hands and sprinkle water over ourselves from a special basin set aside purely for that. The ritual, whakanoa, is a process you follow after entering a tapu, or sacred, space to make you are “unsacred” again, says head of communications Kate Camp. Water is provided outside exhibitions with stories and items associated with death, such as the Gallipoli exhibition’.


Whakapapa | is a set of genealogical connections that confer rights to iwi | tribes to determine how their taonga are cared for within the principle of Mana Taonga.

Taonga Māori have a whakapapa | a set of genealogical connections with the people who created them, named them, and used/owned them. This concept relates to but is distinctly different from the idea of ‘object biography’ mentioned earlier in this course. When teaching with taonga it is important to understand as much as possible about any whakapapa | genealogical connections or relationships with taonga.

Depending on what has happened to a taonga, its full whakapapa | genealogical connections may or may not be known. For example in cases where items have been stolen, lost, confiscated, forcibly removed, etc. Taking a whakapapa approach to understanding history is the focus of this article about Dame Anne Salmond who describes whakapapa as ‘the relationship lattice that lies beneath’

Whakapapa is very important in understanding a taonga’s significance and meaning.


The concept of mana is deeply connected with taonga Māori. The concept of mana can be translated as prestige, authority, power or control. As Migoto Eria from Te Papa explains in this blog the concept of mana is very important in relation to Māori artefacts. For her the concept of mana has wide reaching implications, and it encompasses many aspects related to taonga including:

  • The importance of taonga
  • The tapu | sacred nature of taonga
  • The resonance of taonga
  • The spirituality of taonga
  • The profound nature of taonga
  • The influence of taonga

As such when learning about taonga Māori, the mana associated with each artefact needs to be recognised and understood.


Artefacts embody mauri. Mauri | can be understood as an energy or life force. As explained in this article about wellbeing from He Paiaka Tōtara;

Mauri refers to the life force or the essence of life that binds together the body and spirit of a being or a thing. Mauri flows through all things, land, trees, birds, rivers, mountains, space and time, through to people – individually and collectively. Mauri is present in the relationships between living and natural things.

Therefore when learning about Māori artefacts, their mauri, energy or life force needs to be acknowledged and respected.

Protection of taonga

In Aotearoa New Zealand under the Protect Objects Act 1975, the Crown is responsible for the care and custody of newly-found taonga tūturu. Taonga tūturu are protected objects that whakapapa to Te Ao Māori and embody mana, tapu, and mauri. Taonga tūturu can take many forms, from 800-year-old waka to early twentieth-century weaving.

Manatū Taonga the Ministry of Culture and Heritage, on behalf of the Crown, engages with iwi and hapū, to create advice for long term ownership and custody to be recommended to the Māori Land Court. In the interim, Manatū Taonga also provides expertise and financial support to place iwi and hapū in control of how their taonga are looked after.

Understanding that all taonga are protected under this legislation is important to recognising their national cultural importance. This short video about the recent He Hononga Tangata, He Hononga Tīpuna: Awakairangi Waka Relocation, shows some protocols being enacted to ensure the protection and care of a recently re-discovered ancient taonga, the hull of a waka | canoe in Te Awakairangi, Lower Hutt near Wellington.


Pūrākau stories, ancient myths and legends are an important vehicle for transferring mātauranga between people and between generations. Pūrākau are a central foundation of learning within te ao Māori | the Māori world.

Taonga Māori relate to pūrākau in different ways. Pūrākau may be depicted within a taonga such as whakairo | carvings, tukutuku | lattice work panels or kowhaiwhai | painted scroll patterns.

Alternatively taonga might feature as significant objects within pūrākau, such as kete | woven baskets, matau | fish hooks, or korowai | cloaks.

Sharing pūrākau depicted within taonga or those that are related to taonga can help to bring them to life for ākonga | students. Pūrākau can enable ākonga to make connections with Māori artefacts and understand some of the various contexts, people, places and concepts that they relate to.


Some pātai | questions that might be useful to consider when teaching and learning with taonga Māori are:

  • What mātauranga | Māori knowledge can the taonga help us to understand?
  • What do we know or what can we find out about whakapapa | genealogical connections in relation to the artefact? Which tāngata | people, whānau | families, hapū | sub-tribes and iwi | tribes are connected with this taonga Māori?
  • How can we describe the mana | prestige, authority, power or control associated with the taonga Māori? How is the mana related to particular people and specific events?
  • How might we feel, understand and connect with its Mauri | energy or life force?
  • What Pūrākau stories, ancient myths and legends are associated with the taonga Māori?
  • What tikanga | protocols are associated with it?

In the next step, we hear from Kaiako Kaupapa Māori Natasha Hanara at Te Papa about what we can learn from taonga.

Extend your learning! To learn more about topics mentioned in this article, explore the links below:

Te Māori exhibition

Taonga Tuturu Ministry of Culture and Heritage

He Hononga Tangata, He Hononga Tīpuna: Awakairangi Waka Relocation

Protect Objects Act 1975

Blog by Migoto Eria from Te Papa about mana taonga

Article about a whakapapa approach to history featuring Dame Anne Salmond

New Zealand Herald article explaining whakanoa bowls

Article about Nga Taonga Tuku Iho

Episode of Nga Taonga Tuku Iho filmed at Te Papa

Webinar by Director of Audience and Insight at Te Papa, Puawai Cairns

Creative New Zealand

Toi Ake – Mātauranga Māori Te Awe Kōtuku Fund

Haumanu Collective

A challenge to museums – keeping our taonga warm

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Object-Based Learning (OBL) in the Cultural Heritage Sector of Aotearoa New Zealand

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