New Zealand, Wharenui and Maori, Oh My!

January 10, 2011 at 12:57 pm (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , )


As I’ve mentioned two dozen once or twice, I’m currently a docent (in training) at the Field Museum.  This means that I’m chosen to work with an exhibit (just one to begin with…I could get trained in lots of them if I really want to) and I undergo a period of research, observation and study while I train to answer questions on my specific spot.  Many exhibits, such as Sue the T-Rex and some of the other larger, more popular ones have tests that the docent must pass in order to be allowed to interact with guests.  The exhibit that I was given after my docent interview is the Maori meeting house, which was originally built and used in New Zealand (the volunteer coordinator was thrilled to hear I’d actually been to NZ, hence the assignment). The Maori are the indigenous people of New Zealand who worked hard to maintain their culture after the invasion of the Europeans and continue to fight for their rights even today.

Ruatepupuke II at its re-dedication event

I’m actually pretty psyched to work this house, and not just because this exhibit doesn’t require a test.  The meeting house that we have here is called Ruatepupuke II and it’s one of three in the entire world that currently resides outside of New Zealand.  The wharenui represents the ancestors of the Maori people and is thought to contain their souls.  It’s a very sacred (though not religious) structure and every Maori community has a house such as this.  The building is the center of just about any major community event and is integral to the Maori culture.  It’s also very impressive, as the entire thing is hand carved and tells a story.  It’s so revered that visitors are asked to remove their shoes before entering it, even though entering itself is completely encouraged.

The meeting house that we have at the Field was built in New Zealand in 1881 and was sold as a curio to a European dealer in the 1890’s.  It was then sold to the Field Museum in 1905, where it sat for good long while because people didn’t really know what to do with it.  In 1995 the entire building was reconstructed with help of Maori people and it has been on display ever since.

Obviously, this exhibit is rather awesome.  A good portion of my initial time as docent is spent just orienting myself with my exhibit and the others, so I’ve spent a few weekends shadowing people who hang around the meeting house, answering questions and interacting with the guests.  I’m also supposed to go on as many museum highlight tours as I can (what a punishment, right?) so this Saturday I watched a few Maori documentaries and then went on a tour of the Ancient Egyptians exhibit (yup, the mummies).  I learned more than the little display case cards could ever tell you, trust me.

Currently, I’m just training to be one of the docents that stands around answering questions.  Eventually, though, the plan is for me to lead my own Maori house museum highlights tours, which would be the first of that kind for that particular exhibit.  It’s really exciting to think about while simultaneously being really intimidating.  There’s a lot of cultural sensitivity that goes into something like that and I would absolutely want to get everything right.  Good thing there’s no rush on putting it together, though working on it is one of my personal New Year goals.

So yeah, this is something I’ve been working on in my spare time.  If you’re ever in Chicago and want your own personal Maori house exhibit tour just let me know – I can even use my special pass to get us in the side door!  I accept payment in the form of pizza and beer.

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