On Thursday December 4 2008, a powhiri (welcome) and ceremony of dedication took place at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, marking the installation in the permanent galleries of an eight-metre pouhaki, or fully-carved Maori flagpole. The pouhaki was carved in 1920 by Tene Waitere, a great Maori artist of the colonial period. An object with a remarkable story, it is the only flagpole of its kind outside New Zealand, and is the most significant addition to the Museum’s collections for decades. Tene Waitere was of Ngati Tarawhai tribal descent, and worked in the Rotorua region in the centre of New Zealand’s North Island. Famous for its hot springs and spas, the town was a tourist destination from the 1880s onward. Waitere carved souvenir objects for visitors, but is most famous for his work on whare whakairo, carved houses, among them whare now outside New Zealand, notably Hinemihi, on the National Trust’s Clandon Park estate in Surrey. He carved not only for Maori clients, but also often for museums and the New Zealand government, taking advantage of changing times to experiment. He is famous particularly for introducing an arresting naturalism into the classic styles of Maori carving.
The pouhaki was one of many Maori treasures given to the then Prince of Wales at a huge gathering in Arawa Park, Rotorua. The Prince (later King Edward VIII, who abdicated after reigning for only 326 days), was touring the dominions to thank them for their support of Britain in the First World War. Photographs of the occasion show the a host of tribal flags being flown from the pouhaki, which travelled back to England with Edward, and was presented by him on arrival to HMS Excellent, a shore base on Whale Island in Portsmouth Harbour. The pole was erected in gardens there, sharing the space for some years prior to the Second World War with a exotic animals from various parts of the world that had been presented to visiting naval captains.
Only in the last few years did scholars of Maori carving and Tene Waitere’s own descendants become aware that the pouhaki remained on Whale Island. It was visited in 2006 by James Schuster, Tene’s direct descendant, himself a conservator of Maori heritage, and soon afterwards by Nicholas Thomas, Director of MAA. Though the pole was in good condition, given its exposure to the severe coastal weather for some 85 years, it was apparent that it ought to be moved to an indoor setting. It was agreed that the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology might provide an appropriate, longer-term, publically-accessible home, and staff of the Ministry of Defence Art Collections agreed that the pouhaki could be transferred on long-term loan.
In late October, 2007, James travelled from New Zealand with his wife Cathy to perform karakia, to settle the mauri (spirit) of the pole, and ensure that the process of relocation would pass without incident. He did so, holding a tokotoko or walking stick, carved by Tene Waitere, brought down specially from MAA’s collections. The pouhaki was then transported by truck to the museum stores, where James, together with staff and volunteers, undertook some conservation work. During November 2008, the most extensive reorganization of the Museum’s permanent galleries for twenty years took place, as treasures were carefully shifted to enable scaffolding to be constructed and the pouhaki installed permanently, in the company of other great heritage objects such as the Museum’s Haida totem pole.
The Museum wishes to thank: the New Zealand Historic Places Trust, the New Zealand Link Foundation, MOD Art Collections, and Brian Witts MBE (HMS Excellent) for supporting James Schuster’s visit, and the transfer of the pouhaki.