Monday, September 12, 2011

Conserving Taonga For the Future

Back in February, several Awarua runanga members gathered at Te Rau Aroha Marae at Bluff to attend a two-day workshop on taonga and korowai conservation, run by Wellington-based freelance conservator, Rangi Te Kanawa (Ngati Maniapoto), who is on leave from her role as Textile Conservator at the Museum of New Zealand, Te Papa Tongarewa
Stories of treasured taonga being stored in unlikely and often very damaging places are not new to Rangi Te Kanawa. She’s spent twelve years visiting iwi all around New Zealand in the hope of saving as many taonga as she can.
“Whanau usually keep their taonga close because they know they’re precious but I’ve heard of them being folded and tucked away in the back of cupboards or under beds. I remember one case of a Rarotongan cape – now in Te Papa’s Pacific Gallery under push button lighting – coming to me for restoration. It had been folded and folded and stored in a Griffin’s biscuit box but the rats had gotten into it.”

Gavin Reedy (Ngati Porou), is Te Papa’s National Services Te Paerangi Iwi Development Officer, who coordinates workshops like these all around New Zealand and often travels with Rangi. He too, has seen taonga emerge from unexpected places.

“This workshop is all about helping iwi take care of taonga that are held in homes, on marae, stuffed in boxes, or in attics. One lady up north brought in a beautiful kahu kiwi stuffed in a rubbish bag. Rangi has seen a 300 year-old cloak in the Far North but you only see those sorts of things if the iwi and whanau trust you. That’s why we see these workshops as a cornerstone, a beginning. It’s about building relationships with iwi, to see where they’re at in relationship to their heritage and culture and, depending on their needs, we then run workshops in either textile conservation, digital photography (so iwi can record and preserve their marae photos in case of fire), building a taonga database, or paper conservation to protect things like whakapapa papers, kaumatua diaries and Maori Battalion souvenirs,” he says.

“The important thing about all the workshops is that we teach our people to teach others. We can’t go to every marae, so we tell them how to get the funding, where to buy materials and then we visit them with the best tutors we can find to teach them the skills they need to pass on.”
Rangi Te Kanawa says iwi react to the workshops with intense interest. They share their experiences; they talk of taonga and whakapapa; and they leave with a renewed sense of pride.

“It’s lovely to go onto marae and have people bring in their taonga – which we often transform from stressed, tired or damaged treasures into a piece that looks like new. I’ve seen tears fall when cloaks have been cleaned and repaired, and put into their new boxes. Most whanau truly care about their taonga but they don’t always know how to physically care for them. My job is to get the word out there – roll, don’t fold and don’t use handles to hang garments; and store your cloaks, piupiu, kete and whāiki in acid-free boxes.

“There are those who want to have their treasures on display, not shut away in boxes; but the majority, once they see the cushioning, safe environment of the boxes, accept that this is the best way to give their treasures a much longer life – sometimes fifty to a hundred years longer life. People can always put photographs of the items on the outside of the box, or have a replica made that they can use and display, knowing the original will last for future generations to enjoy.”
Rangi comes from a long line of traditional Maori weavers. Her mother was Diggeress Rangituatahi Te Kanawa (1920-2009) and her grandmother was Dame Rangimārie Hetet (1892-1995) – both of whom dedicated their lives to the promotion and preservation of traditional Maori weaving arts. Diggeress Te Kanawa was also one of the co-founders of the Aotearoa Moananui-a-Kiwa Weavers Association in 1983, which was the driving force behind Rangi’s own conservator’s training.

“It all happened after the Te Maori exhibition in the early 1980s. There was a growing awareness then, of the need for Maori to be involved in the preservation and conservation of taonga, and Aotearoa Moananui-a-Kiwa were approached to find someone to train. They found me,” says Rangi.

“I was at home in Oparure, near Te Kuiti and in my early 30s at the time and when my mother got the call, she nominated me. I grew up surrounded by weavers and I also weave, so I took up the challenge.”
After studying conservation at Canberra College of Advanced Education in Australia, Rangi’s passion for conservation was ignited. She speaks of “a tremendous feeling of accomplishment” that comes with every successful project or workshop.

“Conservation makes for fabulous before and after treatments but more than that, you know you have helped arrest the degradation of a treasure, that you’ve upheld the integrity of the taonga and its wairua, its history, its stories. There’s a very real sense of pleasure of giving and iwi receiving, of them grasping the idea that if they roll a garment, it won’t be damaged by fold lines.
“That’s like an awakening and when they rest their cloak into a box they’ve made themselves, there’s a feeling that the taonga has been given the special attention it commanded, that it’s become a part of them and an item of even greater value for that. It gives them peace of mind knowing that the archival box they’ve created has provided the best storage that can be had and that their taonga can now safely be handed down through the generations. The workshops also bring communities together and the kaupapa is great. I love it.”

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