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Whopper bird claim flaps iconic NZ museum

March 14, 2019 Headline News No Comments Email Email

New Zealand’s capital city is proclaiming a ground-breaking new exhibition as the biggest change to its iconic Te Papa museum since the museum opened 21 years ago – but a contentious statement about a giant bird may ruffle a few feathers.

The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, New Zealand’s national museum, is located in Wellington and is one of the city’s biggest tourist attractions. It will unveil Te Taiao Nature, a AUD 11.6 million nature zone, on 11 May 2019.

The giant extinct bird involved is the moa, taller than a man and possibly able to kill with a single peck.

The museum describes Te Taiao Nature as “a bold and immersive journey through the natural world of Aotearoa New Zealand, combining cutting-edge science with matauranga Maori (knowledge and understanding of the universe).”

A priceless moa egg, one of only 36 in the world, occupies the heart of the spectacular new space.

An illustration from the 1896 book Hunting Monsters depicts a Maori hunting a tall species of moa

A statement from Tourism New Zealand explains: “The moa was a species of giant flightless birds that were hunted to extinction by early Maori and Europeans.”

Europeans? They never hunted moa – Maori wiped out the giant birds before Europeans arrived in New Zealand. Scholars estimate as few as 500 Maori exterminated all the moa in the lower half of the South Island in 50 years. By the time the moa went extinct, New Zealand’s Maori population numbered, at most, just 2000 people, according to recent academic studies. Within 120 years of humans (Polynesian settlers) arriving in the 13th or early 14th century, the birds were gone – certainly before the first European explorer, Dutch navigator Abel Tasman, sighted New Zealand on 13 December 1642.

New Zealand scene before the arrival of humans. John Megahan. Wikimedia Commons

Tasman’s visit to New Zealand was brief. His only encounter with Maori ended badly, with four of his crew killed. Crew fired upon Maori in retaliation.

No doubt the museum will clear that error up. Its 1400-square-metre Te Taiao Nature zone will be a permanent new addition and includes four main exhibition themes:

  • Ika Whenua Unique NZ explores New Zealand’s weird and wonderful wildlife.
  • Ruaumoko Active Land explores the geological forces that shaped New Zealand.
  • Te Kohanga Nest focuses on the fragility, beauty and power of the natural world.
  • Nga Kaitiaki Guardians looks at some of the big environmental challenges facing Aotearoa New Zealand.

Moa Egg

Te Taiao Nature will feature over 1200 collection items from New Zealand’s natural world, along with dozens of new interactive experiences, from creating your own tsunami to weighing in against a giant moa. While the exhibition is completely new, two old favourites from the original nature exhibition will return: the colossal squid and a revamped Earthquake House.

Te Papa chief executive Geraint Martin says the world-leading exhibition “is a brand-new experience, unlike anything else in the world.

“Twenty-one years ago, Te Papa redefined how New Zealanders see themselves and their country, and Te Taiao Nature is the next twist in that Te Papa DNA,” Martin said.

The exhibition explores pressing environmental issues such as climate change, ocean health, fresh-water quality, and pest eradication.

Size comparsion between four species of moa bird and a human. 1. Dinornis novaezelandiae (3 metres tall). 2. Emeus crassus (1.8 metres tall). 3. Anomalopteryx didiformis (1.3 metres tall). 4. Dinornis robustus (3.6 metres tall).

The museum’s incredible natural history collections will be showcased throughout, including that moa egg, which at least 700 years old.

Te Papa’s head of science, Dr Susan Waugh, says the exhibition will inspire visitors to take action and be catalysts for change.

“In true Te Papa fashion, the exhibition addresses big ideas in a way that is fun and interactive. Te Taiao Nature is all about sparking curiosity, wonder, and positive action as we embrace our role as kaitiaki of this precious land,” she says.

Te Papa has worked closely with iwi (Maori tribes), communities and researchers to create Te Taiao Nature.

Te Taiao Nature is an exhibition in four parts:

  • Te Ika Whenua Unique NZ: Visitors will experience what’s weird and wonderful about NZ wildlife, from the gigantic to the flightless, from multiple species of moa to a plethora of moths, discover the abundant whales and dolphins in the surrounding seas, and learn about how Zealandia split from Gondwana.
  • Ruaumoko Active Land: Visitors will enter the realm of Rūaumoko, god of volcanoes and earthquakes, and explore the geological forces that shape Aotearoa New Zealand. The Earthquake House returns, revamped to be more interactive and to reflect the latest understanding of quake action.
  • Te Kohanga Nest: At the heart of the exhibition is a 70-square-metre, 4-metre-high “nest” woven together from recycled materials. It symbolises the fragility of the natural world, its beauty and power – and hope for the future. Visitors will be surrounded by beautiful bird song and images, and in the centre will be a whole but fractured moa egg. One of the nation’s most precious taonga, it is a symbol of lost mauri [life force] but also of hope.
  • Nga Kaitiaki Guardians: This inspiring exhibition looks at some of the big environmental challenges that face us, such as pests, water quality, and climate change, and what New Zealanders are doing to care for their own backyard. Visitors will leave the exhibition energised to play their part as kaitiaki (guardians) of our natural world. The colossal squid, the only complete specimen of its kind on display in the world, returns following a refresh.

About the moa egg:

There are only 36 known mostly intact moa eggs in the world. Te Papa has four of these in its collection.

One of the moa eggs is from a burial site at Te Pokohiwi-o-Kupe (the Boulder Bank/Wairau Bar) in Blenheim, home to the Rangitane o Wairau iwi. The burial ground is of international significance as it contains the graves of the earliest known Maori. Buried with the moa egg was a necklace fashioned from moa bone, which is also held at Te Papa. It is believed to be from a stout-legged moa and dates back to 1280-1300 AD.

Written by Peter Needham

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