Lifting the cloak on Maori heritage

Last updated 10:36 07/06/2012
Te Papa cloaks
Carefully does it: Textiles conservator Rangi Te Kanawa and mount maker Penny Angrick attach a cloak to a mount invented for the exhibition.

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It has taken six years of dedicated work by a small team of people to get Te Papa's latest exhibition, Kahu Ora: Living Cloaks, ready to open on June 8.

Most exhibitions at Te Papa are the culmination of one-and-a-half or two years' work.

Living cloaks is based on the Whatu Kakahu: Maori Cloaks book published last year by Te Papa and the National Weavers Collective. Research for the book started in 2007.

Lead Maori curator Awhina Tamarapa said after doing six years of research for the book, creating an exhibition was natural.

"We had all this information and the networks we had made by seeing weavers around the country.

"It just seemed silly not to have an exhibition and put our taonga [treasures] on display," she said.

"The normal process at Te Papa is there is a team of people who work on different aspects.

"We have a curator with the ideas and building the context and information.

"We have designers, conservators, mount makers producing the mounts, writers to hone the writing for the labels and more."

When Tamarapa gave me a sneak peek in the exhibition room, normally top-secret until opening day, she was noticeably emotional about seeing her team's work set up.

"At the moment I am just worried and nervous. I am hoping people will come in here and be proud of their heritage. Then I will know we have succeeded."

The exhibition room on the fourth floor of Te Papa is changed completely for every exhibition.

The walls are repainted and new display cases are constructed or recycled from previous exhibitions.

The display cases for Kahu Ora: Living Cloaks were used for the Unveiled: 200 years of wedding fashion exhibition. They are designed to ensure a stable environment for fabrics.

Tamarapa said one of the main things the team considers when designing the space is that an exhibition is an experience.

"You want them to be inspired and learn about history and about the collections - you want to captivate the audience," she said.

"It is in how you place an object, the lighting, what they read about it. You have to look at the overall layout of the show, consider different segments and their themes."

Head designer Lesley Fowler said when the designers decided on the colours, fonts, and other visual elements, they focused strongly on bringing the concept to life.

"There's lots of little details that help give life to the exhibition.

"We try and give it an emotive and lifelike feel," Fowler said.

"For this exhibition we got our first clue about what we needed from the title. It is clear that 'living' is a big part of it."

Many exhibitions at Te Papa incorporate interactive elements.

"The point of difference with this exhibition is that we will have weavers in an area central to the exhibition and people will be able to see cloaks being made," Tamarapa said.

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"It is that hands-on element. The weavers being able to engage with the public creates an interactive experience.

"We felt that was important because the exhibition is called Kahu Ora: Living Cloaks. They are symbols of mana in our culture.

"When you touch something or you engage physically with it, you will learn so much more."

For Kahu Ora: Living Cloaks, the biggest challenge was the age and fragility of many of the cloaks, some of which are more than 150 years old.

Textiles conservator Rangi Te Kanawa said the 50 cloaks had to be handled as little as possible.

"I was quite clear from the beginning that some of them would have to be lying flat. Their condition means we should give them an overall support, which is why they are on board.

"Also we were quite limited with our handling. We worked on a once- only approach, so templates were important."

Mount maker Penny Angrick has designed stands that enable each cloak to be hung on the best form for its shape. The stands were recently presented at a mount makers conference in Chicago.

The work does not stop when the exhibition opens.

Tamarapa and her team will be giving talks, guided tours, running education programme and ensuring the taonga stay safe. The exhibition team also liaise with Te Papa's web designers, marketing and media staff to promote the exhibition. zKahu Ora: Living Cloaks, June 8 to October 21. Free entry.

- The Wellingtonian


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