In our museums you come across extraordinary objects. Special because of the material it is made of, its rarity, the story that can be told about it or the way it was made. Precisely this information also makes this ancient Māori staff from New Zealand a real masterpiece.
Mandible of a sperm whale
The lower jaw of a sperm whale was used for this 1 meter 20 long, eighteenth-century staff. Before the beginning of whaling around New Zealand (early 19th century), whalebone was very rare and thus very valuable. Maori, the original inhabitants of New Zealand (Aoteaora in Māori), did not hunt whales, but did use everything from the beached animals. Since whales were a rich source of food, objects made from whalebone allude to leadership and the ability to sustain the community. Objects made of whalebone showed the mana (power and authority) of a leader. Moreover, whalebone is very hard and durable, making it perfect for making weapons.
Beautiful and powerful
The maker has kept the line of the lower jaw of the sperm whale and trimmed it a bit, so that the graceful and simple shape is fully appreciated. At the top of the handle, the staff is openwork and decorated with spiral motifs. The decorations refer to fern leaves that have not yet been unrolled, something much more commonly seen in Māori art forms such as facial tattoos.
Carving artists were held in high esteem for their skills in creating something special that also had supernatural powers.
Staff and weapon
Important men of high rank possessed hoeroa like these. The staff has a dual function as both a weapon and a symbol of prestige and authority.
It is therefore a precious treasure, a taonga in Māori. These treasures are always associated with particular places and their riches, and they therefore embody the common identity of a family or tribe. Taonga include woven cloaks, jade and wooden weapons, war canoes and musical instruments as well as hot springs or fishing grounds. Even wood carving and the singing of a lament is considered taonga. These treasures become more valuable as they are passed down from generation to generation.
A famous owner
Much is known about the history of this hoeroa. The original owner was the important Māori leader Tamati Waka Nene (born around 1780), from a distinguished family. Nene was seen by Europeans as a reliable leader to whom people could turn for advice.
In 1840, he convinced the leaders of New Zealand's North Island to sign the Treaty of Waitangi. This document is the foundation of the formation of New Zealand. When Nene died in 1871, he was regarded by both Europeans and Maori as a great leader with great mana (power and authority).
How the hoeroa got here
Nene gave the hoeroa to a certain Colonel Dunn. A descendant of Dunn donated the staff in 1932 to James Thomas Hooper, a private collector of mostly Polynesian artifacts. And it was given a place in his "Totems Museum" in Sussex, Great Britain. Most of that collection was sold to Christie's auction house between 1976 and 1983. The hoeroa came into the possession of the French Barbier-Mueller collection. Finally, the National Museum of World Cultures (Museum of Ethnology) acquired the hoeroa from the private collection in 2010.
'I walk backwards into the future with my eyes fixed on my past' (Māori proverb)
This hoeroa has a lot of mana due to its connection with the important leader Tamati Waka Nene, especially for his descendants and tribesmen. For contemporary Māori, coming face to face with this hoeroa means meeting Tamati Waka Nene. It not only unites the past with the present, but is also a guide that helps people understand ancestral history. In doing so, the hoeroa connects the living with the dead and strengthens relationships among the living. Thus, you can actually say that taonga allow Māori to use ancestral knowledge to focus on the future. Indeed, for Māori, the past is before them since they can see it; conversely, the unknown future is behind them.