Auckland War Memorial Museum South Atrium revamp shines light on tikanga Māori

Joanna Wane explores a new age of enlightenment.

“Uber kaitiaki” Dion Peita takes his guardianship role at the Auckland War Memorial Museum very seriously. The tumuaki (head) of Māori and Pacific Development has fond memories of school trips to Tāmaki Paenga Hira as a youngster – like most kids, Rajah the elephant was a favourite. Now, he’s helping reframe the museum’s vision for generations to come.

The former head of collection care moved into his new position on April 1 in the middle of lockdown, and was given a mihi whakatau (welcome) by zui, a virtual online hui via Zoom. When he gave Canvas a sneak behind-the-scenes preview of the South Atrium, a few days before it reopened on Thursday after a 20-month, $38 million transformation, his passion for the project and what it symbolises for Auckland was palpable.

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“What has been created here is a really progressive, cutting-edge, 21st century museum, in the way we’ve captured the many voices of Tāmaki Makaurau through the South Atrium,” he says. “All peoples of all diversities will be welcome. It’s going to be ka rawe. Amazing!”

The Grand Foyer entrance, looking across to the harbour, is known as Te Whei Ao, the threshold. The revisualised South Atrium, the entrance to the museum’s 2006 extension, is Te Ao Mārama, which Peita translates as “coming into the light” – referencing not only the natural light that pours into the soaring, open space but enlightenment and the spark of imagination.

Inside the entrance stand two carved totara panels that visitors can slide apart like fins. The artwork, Te Tatu Kaitiaki (the Guardians’ Gateway) by Ngāti Whātua artist Graham Tipene, depicts two female figures who offer a powhiri as you pass, opening to reveal an audio-visual display projected on to the back wall of the atrium beneath the mighty tanoa bowl suspended above.

The looped animation tells the stories of the museum’s three mana whenua iwi, and surrounds what will be used as a performance space. The timber-clad Tanoa, part of the original 2006 Noel Lane design (and inspired by a Fijian kava bowl), was previously partly obscured but is now revealed in its full glory.

The atrium is a fusion of He Korahi Māori (the Māori dimension) and Teu Le Vā (the Pasifika dimension). On either side of Tanoa, climbing two of its “legs”, are twin sculptures by Auckland-based Tongan artist Sopolemalama Filipe Tohi. Called Manulua, they’re patterned on the ancient Pacific art of lalava (lashing) and symbolise unity.

Beyond the atrium, two exhibition spaces also act as a bridge between the past and the future. In March, Tāmaki Herenga Waka: Stories of Auckland will open as a permanent gallery. In the meantime, the main attraction for summer will be the blockbuster Lego display, Brickman Awesome, which runs right till the end of February.

Two beautiful basalt stone Wāhi Whakanoa water fonts by Waiheke Island sculptor Chris Bailey flank the South Atrium doors, enabling the tikanga practice of whakanoa as visitors exit (making themselves “noa” or common after potentially coming into contact with taonga that are tapu).

And for anyone who’s found themselves completely lost trying to navigate the maze of galleries between the South Atrium and the Grand Foyer, two corridors now lead directly from the new exhibition spaces straight to the Māori Hall.

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