Te haerenga, the journey: towards Waikato Museum, Te Whare Taonga o Waikato
On Saturday 3 October 1987 New Zealand’s Governor General, Sir Paul Reeves, opened the Waikato Museum of Art and History. The gleaming, Ivan Mercep-designed building near the banks of the Waikato River in central Hamilton would win awards for the remarkable synthesis it achieved with the landscape. A tapu-lifting ceremony performed at dawn by Tainui elders, and attended by more than 700 people, preceded this civic opening and celebrations continued through the weekend.
For several interlocking reasons, the opening of the Museum was one of the most significant cultural events to ever take place in the Waikato. In the first and most concrete sense, the new building was the manifestation of years of local aspiration for a purpose-built museum and art gallery in Hamilton.
Hamilton had grown in the post-war decades from a sleepy service town to become New Zealand’s fifth largest city. Amid this growth, building roads and sewers to keep pace with urban expansion, took priority. For years, Hamilton lacked the degree of cultural investment of New Zealand’s longer-established centres. In the early-1970s this situation began changing when the Council took control of both the city’s art gallery (this small facility, run by the Waikato Society of Arts had staged many important exhibitions in the 1950s and 60s) and a material heritage museum that members of the Waikato Historical and Museum Societies had opened in 1965.
These two organisations subsequently combined, first as a Council administrative unit and then a new institution, the Waikato Art Museum. In 1973, the Art Museum opened on the top floor of the PSIS (Investment House) building on London Street. The merger was the beginning of a sometimes uneasy but long-term and fruitful amalgamation of the major fine art and history facilities of a young city.
Despite the many achievements of a creative team at London Street, by the late-1970s, its rented premises were inadequate to house growing collections and visitor access was proving a problem. Plans took shape for a new building at Grantham Street in the southern end of the central city. Following many years of planning and several delays, construction finally began in this location on the renamed Waikato Museum of Art and History in 1984.
Three years later, Hamilton at last had a state-of-the-art modern museum. Comprising five interior and three exterior levels, the JASMaD building had high tawa ceilings, spacious galleries filled with natural light and ample room for administration, collections and workshop operations.
The significance of the new museum, however, lay not only in its fulfilment of a dream to improve amenities in the city. The new building and the institution it contained also represented a unique opportunity to further the cause of biculturalism, a potential remarked upon at the time, in particular by Sir Paul Reeves in his short but eloquent opening speech. Reeves and others considered Waikato, with unhealed wounds related to its history of war, land appropriation and forced conscription, as an ideal location to start the process of partnership and the critical reckoning with the past this would involve.
The task would be challenging, but the region was also uniquely privileged as a traditional locus of Māori organisation and autonomy embodied by the Kīngitanga movement. Indeed, a key moment in the pre-1987 history of the institution had been the gifting in 1973 by the Māori Queen Te Arikinui Te Atairangikaahu of Te Winika. Te Puea Hērangi had recovered the majestic waka taua (sunk during the Waikato War) from Port Waikato, overseeing its restoration by a team of carvers at Tūrangawaewae in the 1930s. Te Winika took pride of place in the London Street gallery space, symbolising the developing relationship between the Museum and Tainui. Fourteen years later, cranes lifted Te Winika into its new home at Grantham Street: a permanent gallery overlooking the Waikato River, where it remains today.
In its first years of operation, Waikato Museum of Art and History staff enthusiastically embraced both the bicultural and the pragmatic interdisciplinary visions for the institution. The young team was led by Bruce Robinson, who had been Director and Clerk of Works during the planning phase and would make a number of important hires of Māori and female staff in these years. Prior to the opening, Robinson had observed that the institution intended to break with the traditional view of a museum as a “cold, esoteric place, a perfect environment for the preservation of dead things” and it would rather be “a totally plastic venue which will allow for a range of diverse activities philosophy”.
This commitment was evident in the extent to which, in addition to many vital exhibitions held during this formative era, non-traditional outputs such as lecture series, community installations and other collaborative projects counted among the Museum’s most successful activities during the period. Worth noting in particular were the dynamic and well attended lecture series associated with the exhibitions Ngā Iwi o Tainui Waka (1990) and Ngā Mahi Whatu a Rangimarie Hetet (1991).
Perhaps the greatest reflection of the Museum’s bi-cultural potential occurred a decade after its 1987 opening, but was in many ways the culmination of collaborative practices establishing during its early period. In 1997, the Museum opened 'Te Ara o Tainui/Tainui: The Journey'. The exhibition, which told the story of the people of the Tainui waka through the use of historic and contemporary taonga, had a budget of close to $1.5 million. A key component of the vision of the exhibition was to unify Tainui taonga scattered in institutions around the country.
In a sense, the mana of the taonga was expected to help signpost the future of Waikato-Tainui following the watershed Waikato Raupatu Claims Settlement Act 1997 and Crown apology. Preparation for this challenging project crucially involved the establishment of a landmark partnership between the Hamilton City Council and the Tainui Māori Trust Board. The unprecedented financial and curatorial collaboration between the groups is credited with playing a key early role in helping to galvanise the beginnings of long-term and still unfinished process of reconciliation following the 1995 settlement. In the approach that had proved successful earlier, the exhibition was accompanied by a lecture series featuring Kaumātua, and kuia, politicians, historians and experts weighing in on the history of the Waikato and the Kīngitanga. Tainui The Journey was considered a great success and its influence would be felt locally for many years.
For three decades in its current building and during earlier incarnations, Waikato Museum has realised community hopes for a combined art gallery and museum, while promoting a bicultural vision for Hamilton and the Waikato. The core goal of the institution is to reflect the bicultural heritage of the region to its current multicultural communities in fun and accessible ways, while expanding horizons through a range of interdisciplinary local and touring exhibitions. Here’s to another 30 years!
This story was originally published in Museums Aotearoa Quarterly in December 2017.