Digital Repatriation Project

As part of the on-going research of the history of the Maori meetinghouse Te Hau Ki Turnaga, several scholars have identified carvings from the meetinghouse that have ended up in collections abroad such as the British Museum and National Gallery of Australia. Even though the title of Te Hau Ki Turanga now belongs to the tribe Rongowhakaata, because of different national legal frameworks, it looks unlikely that these objects outside of New Zealand will be physically retuned to the guardianship of Rongowhakaata. In an effort to reconnect these objects with its community a digital repatriation project is underway, documenting the objects in 3D and “returning” this information back to the tribe for their records. The goal of this effort is to track all of the carvings from the meeting house that ended up in collections abroad an “re-align” the ancestor carvings to tell the correct genealogical history of the house through an educational and interactive visualization in VR or AR.

This project raises several important questions related to twenty-first century cultural heritage practice. First, can 3D data of an object associated with cultural patrimony mediate its social context, in this case the Rongowhakaata community that created, used, and assigned meaning to it, with its physical context, museum collections outside New Zealand? Second, can the digitizing of Maori heritage within the “global mediascape” allow for the separation of this objects from its more recent location and promote reconnection with (and recirculation within) its original source community?

I was very lucky to have had the opportunity through the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa to travel to the British Museum and National Gallery of Australia to complete the 3D imaging of the carvings and then work to create accurate 3D models from the data for interpretive and educational projects.


Digital Documentation of Routokomanawa at the National Gallery of Australia and British Museum

I arrived at the National Gallery of Australia and quickly went to work on 3D imaging Routokomanawa, ancestor figure that was originally used as one of the interior house supports (poutokomanawa) in the round using photogrammetry techniques and a 50mm lens. The carving was originally done by the master carver Rokupo, who lead the creation of Te Hau Ki Turanga in 1842. From the museum records, this carving was accessioned into the collection in 1981, though it is unclear of its history between when it was taken out and brought to the National Gallery. The two post figures in the house as it now stands in the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa were carved in the 1930s when Te Hai Ki Turanga was restored in the new museum building (then Dominion Museums).

Currently, the University of Victoria New Zealand has taken this digital information and 3D printed a replica for the exhibition at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa to help tell the story of how several carvings from the meetinghouse ended up outside New Zealand.

In this context digital return is not a unidirectional process, traveling only from museum to source communities, but rather involves the flow of knowledge and representations in many directions and via multiple technologies. Projects such as this one need to acknowledge the social, political, and economic conditions embedded in and central to the project.