Missal cover from 13th Century Limoges

A missal cover, dating from the 13th Century, which depicts the crucifixion.

This missal cover, which depicts the crucifixion, was purchased in Zurich in 1930, and acquired for the Auckland Museum in 1944. You can see it on display in the Landmarks gallery.

For Easter, we visited our Applied Art and Design galleries to photograph this beautiful enamel missal cover. Curator Damian Skinner provides a short history of how the French city Limoges, where the cover was made, became famous in the Middle Ages for this style of champlevé enamel.

A missal is a book that contains prayers, readings and instructions from which a priest celebrates mass through the course of the year. This missal cover is made of champlevé enamel and was produced in the French city of Limoges in the 13th Century.

Limoges enamels became famous after the first workshops were established in local monasteries in the 1200s, and a huge export trade sent religious or ecclesiastical objects into church treasuries around Europe.

Located on many trade and pilgrimage routes, Limoges had a thriving economy and wealthy monasteries that created the perfect conditions for its enamels to become the primary industry of the city. It was thus the premier European source of enamel objects until 1371, when Limoges was invaded by Edward the Black Prince from England.

There is a strong connection between Limoges enamels and those of the Mosan School from the Meuse valley in what is now Belgium. Both traditions favoured the champlevé technique, and had similar colour schemes (blue, yellowish green, white and red), although Limoges enamels are quieter and less expressive than those from Mosan.

Champlevé enamel is created by placing enamel into cast or worked recesses in a metal surface, which is then baked at low temperature. Enamel is a mixture of silica (the same substance as glass), pigment to create colour, and a fluxing agent like soda, lime or borax, which fuses the ingredients during baking.

The use of such a beautiful hand crafted technique demonstrates the great importance of these liturgical books for the church. Missal translator and editor Abbot Dom Gaspar Lefebvre wrote in 1951: ‘In the light of the sacred text contained in the Missal, the altar becomes each day before our eyes a corner of Palestine, where we celebrate with Jesus the events of His life; His coming (Advent), His birth (Christmas), His preaching (Lent), His suffering and death (Passion), His resurrection (Easter), His ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit (Pentecost) whereby we receive those special graces which Holy Communion infuses into our souls.’

Visit Auckland Museum

You can see the missal cover on display in the Landmarks gallery.

Robin Morrison’s work through contemporary eyes

As part of our exhibition A Decade of Days – Auckland through Robin Morrison’s eyes, we collaborated with Manukau Institute of Technology, Fresh Gallery Otara, the public and invited experts to explore people, places and themes represented by photographs within the exhibition.

Robin Morrison (1944-1993) was one of New Zealand’s most celebrated photojournalists. His striking, unpretentious images allowed us to see ourselves, and our way of life, as if for the first time. They are revealing and unexpected, and still provoke us today. We were curious to find out more about some of the photographs we selected for the exhibition; to gather local stories of the people, places and social history that Morrison captured for the New Zealand Listener all those years ago.

Otara Markets by Robin Morrison.

Morrison, Robin (1981). Otara Markets. Auckland War Memorial Museum – Tamaki Paenga Hira. PH-TR650-M881-NP2

Opening worlds – taking the exhibition beyond our walls

In collaboration with Fresh Gallery Otara and Manukau Institute of Technology (MIT), we took elements of the exhibition to other venues in Auckland. We installed image reproductions in Otara Town Centre and at MIT; including a few of the photos Morrison took of the early Otara markets, local community spaces and local people.

MIT window boxes

Reproductions of Robin Morrison’s images were installed at MIT asking the question ‘Do these spark a memory?'

To share some of these wider contextual stories with the communities they came from, on the 12th March 2014 Fresh Gallery hosted the first of two evenings. Our speakers, Janneen Love (Auckland Museum), Ron Brownson (Auckland Art Gallery) and Vinesh Kumaran (contemporary portrait photographer), conducted an interactive session.

What’s love got to do with it?

Janneen was the exhibition developer for A Decade of Days and our first speaker. She gave us a behind-the-scenes look at the exhibition with her unique insight into Morrison’s work. She titled her presentation “What’s love got to do with it?” and in six minutes (the time limit we gave her) she was able to define love (a strong feeling of affection) and how it was woven into not only Morrison’s photos, but also into the work the museum’s collections and exhibitions teams do when caring for the images and developing the exhibition.

Portrait of Dame Whina Cooper by Robin Morrison

Morrison, Robin (1975). Dame Whina Cooper. Auckland War Memorial Museum – Tamaki Paenga Hira. PH-TR650-M881-n7p1

Love illustrated the process of culling the large number of Morrison’s black and white prints that he had compiled into a folder he titled ‘Decade of Days.’ In this way, Morrison had already begun to curate the exhibition. Through further discussion the team was able to identify strong thematic narratives that were evident in his collection, which then informed the final exhibition design. She offered a discerning and compassionate representation of Robin Morrison, and reiterated the importance of sharing these stories to wider audiences – breaking down the perceived institutional walls and reaching out into the community.

The exhibition team select images.

The exhibition team select images from one of Robin Morrison’s image folders which he labelled ‘Decade of Days.’

Morrison non-intrusively captured intimate moments

Ron Brownson – Senior curator of New Zealand and Pacific Art at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki – opened his presentation by listing the extensive number of publications that Morrison was involved with, a testament to the photographer’s prodigious creative output.

Brownson guided us through many of Morrison’s photographs, discussing his legacy as “one of the key photojournalists of our time” who had the ability to “make connections with his subjects.” He evidenced a series of Morrison’s images from Takaparawha/Bastion Point, where “Robin was one of the very few people Ngati Whātua allowed to photograph at the Marae – there was no sense of him being an alien to that environment.” He also drew comparisons with current photographers’ who are able to non-intrusively record intimate moments in the manner of Morrison.

'Target Māori men first' by Robin Morrison.

Morrison, Robin (1978). Target Māori men first. Auckland War Memorial Museum – Tamaki Paenga Hira. PH-TR650-M881-N10p3

Documenting people and a sense of place

Contemporary portrait photographer Vinesh Kumaran gave us a fascinating insight into his own work, and how he, like Morrison, seeks to establish connections with his subjects. He spoke about his work and how photography can open worlds for its audience, as illustrated by his series of Auckland dairy owners—a theme which Morrison also explored in his images of Ponsonby shop owners. Both Kumaran and Morrison seek to convey the hard work and dedication of these business owners, hence Kumaran’s series title Open all Hours. As he said of one of his subjects: “he wants us to see his pride, that this is his shop”.

'Open all hours' by Vinesh Kumaran.

Kumaran, Vinesh (2012). Khandy K. Patel, part of a series from 'Open all hours'.

Morrison, Robin. Washing Machine Man. Auckland War Memorial Museum – Tamaki Paenga Hira.

Morrison, Robin. Washing Machine Man. Auckland War Memorial Museum – Tamaki Paenga Hira.

Kumaran showed us his work in South Auckland, particularly his portraits at Polyfest and of people inside their homes, in which he seeks to “put a positive spin on South Auckland”. This is another connection he has with Morrison, who was one of the first photographers to explore and document the people of South Auckland. Morrison’s photos of the early days of Polyfest provide us with a wonderful juxtaposition to Kumaran’s contemporary images, and together show the evolution of the festival and document the experience and community that has been built around this major Auckland cultural event.

Morrison, Robin. Polyfest. Auckland War Memorial Museum – Tamaki Paenga Hira.

Kumaran, Vinesh (2012). Agene Filoa, Polyfest hair project.

Challenges in the digital realm

The evening ended with a Q&A that raised a number of topical points such as the correct identification of people featured in photos, and the ownership of an image in our digital world. Many of the people captured in Robin Morrison’s photos have not been identified. Is it the responsibility of the photographer or the institution displaying the work to ensure the subject is correctly identified? And if we don’t have correct identification, then should the images be left out of public view? Or do we share them with wider audiences in the hope of unlocking some of the background stories?

Ainslie Dewe, an advisor in our digital team, notes that “social media and the web provide the opportunity for co-creation of knowledge, not just from traditional experts but also drawing on the knowledge of the public in ways that have not previously been possible. The images may have already been publicly available but were hard to find. The web makes them more visible and social media provides the ability for anyone to contribute new knowledge about them.”

You are welcome to share your thoughts on this topic in the comments box below.

About the writers

Bethany Edmunds is Youth Outreach Programmer and Olivia Willock is Social History Programmer, in the Learning and Engagement team at Auckland Museum.

Image: From left Janneen Love, Vinesh Kumaran, Ron Brownson and Olivia Willock.

The Robin Morrison collection at Auckland Museum

In 1993 Robin Morrison bequeathed his entire collection to the Auckland Museum. Our current estimates on the collection size is it contains 50,000 colour, and 50,000 black and white images. It is one of the largest photography collections we have by a single photographer.

The exhibition A Decade of Days – Auckland through Robin Morrison’s eyes features a selection of Morrison’s black and white photographs of his city, Auckland, from 1971 to 1985.

Online reading

A Decade of Days – Auckland through Robin Morrison’s eyes

Our exhibition features a selection of Robin’s black and white photographs of his city, Auckland, from 1971 to 1985. Most were found in a folder labelled ‘Decade of Days’ amid the vast collection of images given to the museum before he died.

Robin Morrison

A brief biography of Robin Morrison and a selection of his images.

Robin Morrison online collections Auckland Museum

Browse Auckland Museum’s online catalogue for publications and images relating to Robin Morrison.

Robin Morrison biography on Art New Zealand

Read Rhondda Bosworth’s essay on Robin Morrison life and work.

Sense of Place: Robin Morrison, Photographer

Watch this full length Robin Morrison documentary on New Zealand On Screen.

Vinesh Kumaran

Visit the photographer’s website.

Fijian breastplates inspire contemporary artist

Paper breastplates series (2014) by Ema Tavola.

Paper breastplates series (2014) by Ema Tavola.

I recently attended #Tattoo4Tonga: Pacific Artists fundraising for Ha’apai held at Fresh Gallery, Otara where a series of paper breastplates by Ema Tavola caught my attention. They were abstractions of prestigious civavonovono, Fijian chief’s breastplates of whales tooth and pearl shell, which she saw in Auckland Museum’s Pacific collections.

Ema is an independent writer, curator and arts administrator under her own company PIMPI KNOWS. She was one of a group of artists, that included Tongan tattooist Stanley Lolohea, who organised the event to raise funds for people of the Ha’apai islands devastated by Cyclone Ian in January.

Ema visited the museum in early February to join Associate Curator Māori, Nigel Borell, for a back-of-house tour of the Ethnology collections when she came across some civavonovono. In the information that accompanied the paper breastplates Ema writes that:

I was inspired after a visit to the Auckland Museum storeroom where I encountered some exquisite Fijian breastplates kept in dark little drawers. Being so close to them without a glass cabinet between us, I felt attached and energised by them; I’ve been intrigued with Fijian breastplate design for a long time. Although I was able to photograph them, I was asked not to share the imagery. I loved encountering these beautiful objects and wanted to tell the world! As a social media creature, I found this proposition quite challenging… So, this series came about.

So in an ingenious way Ema then created works that she could share and discuss on social media and her blog.

Ema’s experience highlights the importance of museums not only having collections on display in the exhibition spaces – in which we currently have five civavonovono displayed – but also providing back-of-house access that allows for closer, more personal experiences and encounters with collections. This also provides opportunities for quiet research and study.

Auckland Museum has many and varied stored collections here for the public to enjoy, which can be accessed with some advanced planning. Providing access to our collections helps to demystify museums and museological practices, creating more awareness and understanding of why we do what we do.


A civavonovono from the James Burton Turner collection. AM 13336.

A civavonovono from the James Burton Turner collection. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. Ethnology 13336.

This image is of one of the civavonovono from our Pacific collection that inspired Ema’s paper breastplate series. It comes from the Hon. James Burton Turner collection, which includes over 200 other items from Fiji. Turner was born at the Bay of Islands, New Zealand in 1849 and educated at Wesley College and Auckland Grammar School. He lived in Fiji in the late 19th century and later became the mayor of Fiji in the early 20th century. During his time in Fiji Turner accumulated a significant collection, which was gifted to the museum in 1925.

This civavonovono is made of four pieces of whale ivory. They are bound to the central polished civa (or black-lipped pearl shell) with hibiscus fibre and then attached to a braided sennit cord.

Civavonovono like this one are said to have been made by Tongan and Sāmoan master canoe builders for Fijian chiefs. There are similarities in the techniques that are used to make civavonovono and canoe hulls, where binding is on the inside and can’t be seen from the outside. They are worn around the neck during dancing and in combat.

A modern reinterpretation

Ema’s series of paper breastplates are made using pages from magazines and journals about Auckland, Renaissance art, American muscle cars, contemporary art, oceans, Fijian arts and culture and the Bible. This reflects some of the historical and cultural landscape within which some civavonovono have been created, as well as mirroring the contemporary context where the breastplates exist today.

Her paper series are each beautifully framed and have in turn become adornments to be hung on walls. For me, they are a wonderful reminder of the value that museums have as guardians of our koloa tukufakaholo (cultural heritage) and provide a rich source of inspiration for artists such as Ema Tavola.

Further reading

  • Pacific Jewellery and Adornment by Roger Neich and Fuli Pereira (2004)
  • Pacific Encounters: Art and Divinity in Polynesia, 1760 – 1860 by Steven Hooper (2006)
  • Yalo i Viti: Shades of Viti: A Fiji Museum Catalogue by Fergus Clunie (1986)
  • Visit Ema Tavola’s website to view the full series of paper breastplates

Archaeological ‘dig’ in Pacific Ethnology collection reveals new connections

James Flexner at work with the Auckland Museum Pacific Ethnology collection

Australian postdoctoral fellow James L. Flexner is on a global quest to tell the story of life in the colonial New Hebrides, and recently spent time examining the Museum’s ethnographic collections.

The archaeologist is working on an archaeological survey of Presbyterian mission sites and the surrounding landscapes in the islands of Erromango and Tanna, Vanuatu. A collaborative project, James works closely with the local people on Tanna and Erromango under the auspices of the Vanuatu Kaljoral Senta (VKS, Vanuatu Cultural Centre).

By examining the interactions between Melanesian people and various outsiders, James says the project will shed light on “the connections between global and local networks of people, places, and things”.

During his time at Auckland Museum, James made yet another connection, and will now take this knowledge back to the Vanuatu people for their interpretation.

“I initially became interested in Auckland Museum because of their collections from the Anglican Melanesian Mission, which was active throughout Melanesia beginning in the mid-1800s.

“I had heard that this collection included objects from the New Hebrides, which is what the islands we now call Vanuatu were named by Captain Cook in 1774. The name stuck until Vanuatu became an independent nation in 1980.

“My goal in researching this and other museum collections throughout the world (elsewhere in New Zealand but also in Australia, Canada, Scotland, and Austria) is to try to find objects that might be connected to the places where I’m doing archaeological fieldwork, but that we are unlikely to come across during our survey and excavations.

A ring of white quartz used as currency on Erromango Island, Vanuatu. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. Ethnology 14930.

“Many kinds of objects made out of organic materials, such as basketry or wooden tools, simply do not preserve for long in the humid tropics. However, during the 1800s and early 1900s, people collected thousands of objects from all over the New Hebrides and elsewhere in the Pacific, which have been carefully preserved in museum collections. While my archaeological excavations in Vanuatu tend to recover a lot of the glass, ceramics, and metal objects imported by Europeans, museum research helps to add more indigenous material to the overall “assemblage” of artefacts from Tanna and Erromango.

“While in the Auckland Museum, I worked with Fuli Pereira, Kolokesa U Māhina-Tuai, and Tessa Smallwood, who were extremely helpful and knowledgeable. We started off with the Melanesian Mission materials, but quickly expanded our search to include the broader Pacific Ethnography collection to make sure we found the objects that were most relevant to my research.

“In the end, there were dozens of objects from Tanna and Erromango that help to tell the story of life in the colonial New Hebrides. They span a range of materials, including stone adze blades, bows and arrows, wooden clubs, baskets, grass skirts, and tapa (bark cloth). There are also relatively rare and unusual items, such as “stone money,” an exchange valuable from Erromango made of calcite or giant clam (Tridacna sp.) shells, called navela (sometimes also spelled navila or navilah).

An example of the motif which features on many of the collection items. Tessa Smallwood (2014). Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira.

“One of the interesting things I’ve noticed in objects at Auckland Museum and elsewhere is a recurring pattern of pointed leaf shapes, usually arranged in interlocking cruciform patterns. This motif occurs on barkcloth, club pommels, and armbands made of wood and coconut shells from Erromango and Tanna.

“What is unclear is what meaning, if any, might be behind this recurring symbol. Having found this pattern, I can now bring the information back to living people on Tanna and Erromango who have a deep knowledge of kastom (which can be translated loosely as “traditional culture”) to get their take on the meaning of objects about which they might have social memories (in addition to looking for hints in various documentary sources).

“This kind of back and forth both enhances the kinds of interpretations that museums can make about objects in their collections, and helps to reconnect objects with their source communities.

“In this way, it’s important to remember that museum collections are not simply dusty shelves of old stuff, but in many ways living assemblages of objects, all of which have stories to tell, and which can be important memory devices for living people around the world.

“My research in this vein is ongoing, but hopefully will add a significant part to the story of local people’s participation in and engagement with different aspects of globalization in Vanuatu, which is likewise ongoing”.

Read more about James’s research interests

James L. Flexner is an ARC Postdoctoral Fellow at the School of Archaeology and Anthropology at the Australian National University. This project is supported by the Australian Research Council (DECRA Award No. DE130101703).

Reflections on Waitangi Day

Waitangi Day means different things to different people. Andrea Stevens talks to Auckland Museum staff born in other parts of the world, to find out what this national day means to them.

Museum staff member Dina Jezdic (Serbia)

Dina talks with Mere Tipene next to the dog skin cape in the Māori Court. The tōpuni (dogskin cape) was a ceremonial cloak worn by high-ranking chiefs.

Dina Jezdic – Serbia

“What Waitangi Day means to me, as an immigrant, is about knowing my own whakapapa (genealogy) and understanding the kaitiaki (guardians) of this country at the same time. So I have a foot in two different countries.

For me as a mother, it is also important to teach my son this because I want him to have his feet in both countries too. So in a sense he will be a New Zealander first, and a Yugoslav second.

“But I also think there has been a huge partnership and relationship between people from Dalmacia and former Yugoslav with the Māori because we are quite similar – we are very family orientated, we love song and dance, and we love food. So there is a common understanding.

“The dog skin cape for me is a perfect way of understanding the knowledge of the whakapapa and the ancestors—because the dogs that the cloak was made from came from the original home land. We know the whakapapa of the dogs which was why they are the taonga. It’s about making roots in a new homeland but maintaining the links from where you came from.”

View the tōpuni in our Taonga Database.

Museum staff member: Valerie Noiret-Leblanc (France).

Valerie sits next to the carved ipu pungarehu (ashtray) in the Māori Court. A metal bowl sits atop a carved timber plinth of four carved figures, each with paua shell eyes.

Valerie Noiret-Leblanc – France

“The object that represents the Treaty for me, is an object in the gallery that has a traditional carving of a figure – a beautiful figure with a hand on the puku – but on top of the head an ashtray! And that for me really symbolises those two very different cultures, trying to become one but they don’t really have a clue about each other.

“And do they want to know? They’re not quite sure. For me this object is a perfect summary of the Treaty: the temptation to combine both, but they don’t have a clue how they shall do it.”

View the ipu pungarehu in our Taonga Database.

Ma’ara Maeva – The Cook Islands

“So what does Waitangi mean to me? Wai is water. Tangi is to cry or tears. So for me it is the flowing waters, it is the tears falling. So in that sense, I think Waitangi is about agendas brought upon some Māori, not all Māori, upon some iwi, driven by colonialist agendas and imperial paradigms, to fit into a certain mode of thinking.

“The collection objects we have at Auckland Museum related to the Treaty of Waitangi reignite the passion.

“Even in the Cook Islands today, the New Zealand expats celebrate their identity on this day. They hold a dawn service or the like, the partaking of food, the hangi, and then games of touch rugby, and haka. I think it is more meaningful outside the country as a day of national identity. Inside your country you take it for granted, but when you are removed from your culture, you miss your culture so you wish to remember. So that’s one way those in Rarotonga are doing it. Both Māori and kiwi Paheka.”

Staff member Johnny Hui (Hong Kong).

Johnny admires Te Toki a Tapiri, a waka taua (war canoe) built about 1836 near Wairoa on the East Coast for Te Waka Tarakau of Ngati Kahungunu.

Johnny Hui – Hong Kong

“Waitangi Day feels like the national day of New Zealand, and it gives us a chance to reflect on the diversity of cultures here. The focus is for Māori, but multiple cultures can reflect on the history here, in what is quite a young country. So to me Waitangi Day is a celebration of the growth and the cultures of New Zealand. But we have to respect the significance of Māori culture first.

“For me, the waka is symbolic of Waitangi Day. People first arrived on waka to New Zealand. It symbolises journey, how people got here.

“But for Chinese people in New Zealand, Waitangi Day always falls inside Chinese New Year. And during the two-week celebrations it is all about family. So I guess Waitangi Day, because it is a holiday, gives us a chance to get together and catch up with family and friends in the New Year. So it has another dimension for me. A celebration dimension.”

Read about the waka Te Toki a Tapiri.

Carl van den Berg – South Africa

“The Treaty to me was the starting point of a conversation. Initially it failed, and turned into a protracted war. But even though some people get frustrated around Waitangi Day with the protests and uncomfortable things that can happen, I think that is part of the process, part of the ongoing conversation.

“For me, the Treaty of Waitangi is an important conversation document in an era when multicultural diversity does sometimes mean the loss of identity. And having the start of a conversation, on a document such as a Treaty I think is an advantage.

”Coming from South Africa, with all its conflict, then coming here to New Zealand and seeing hīkoi in Queen Street happening around Waitangi Day – I see the protests as good democracy. To me it is not failure of the conversation. It is the conversation. It is the ongoing process, and the Treaty is the basis from which to talk.”

Staff member Moya Radley (South Africa).

Moya studies a series of pounamu (nephrite jade) adzes in the Māori Court. The large one on the left is made of a South Island pounamu known as totoweka – weka’s blood. Weka are native New Zealand birds.

Moya Radley – South Africa

“When I think about Waitangi Day, I think about land, people and inclusivity. This Pounamu adze is reflective of the land because it comes from the land. Inclusivity is a really big one for me because it is about including people, and everyone contributes to make something. We are all building together. People are respected for who they are, what they believe in, their culture, and they form part of the whole.

“This Pounamu is such a beautiful piece because it has all sorts of different colours in it, and the colours all form to make something really beautiful. So I think that is the thing about Waitangi for me; diverse people can come together and form something amazing.”


The opinions stated here are personal reflections, and not the views of Auckland Museum.

Further reading

Read about the history of the Treaty of Waitangi on Te Ara, The Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, told by Claudia Orange.

Visit the online Māori Dictionary

Tale of the Giant Moa

Auckland Museum’s giant moa reconstruction was built by L.T. Griffin in 1913 from timber, papier mâché and emu feathers. Photo: Andrea Stevens.

One of our most remarkable exhibits – a three-metre tall female giant moa reconstruction – has turned 100 years old. Built in 1913, she tells a unique (but ultimately tragic) evolutionary tale and recalls museum displays over the century.

For 80 million years, species native to Aotearoa New Zealand evolved in isolation from ground-based predatory mammals. It was a land that became dominated by birds, with the only furry inhabitants being the tiny nocturnal bats/pekapeka, their body about the size of your thumb.

This extraordinary context led to the evolution of some very strange creatures, unlike anywhere else on earth.

As George Gibbs writes in his book Ghosts of Gondwana, “a few New Zealand organisms would qualify as outlandish freaks on the world stage. They do just not seem to belong amongst their relatives.”

Without the need to fly out of harms way, or nest high in trees, many bird species became quite un-birdlike, growing into giants of their kind and losing the power of flight.

They took up ecological niches that mammals did in other parts of the world. However, without an in-built cunning or ability to escape from predation, the sudden arrival of foreign species from around 800 years ago led to the naïve populations becoming quite overwhelmed. And one of the first to vanish was the moa.

The giraffe of the bird world

Moa were part of the ratite bird family – along with the kiwi, emu, cassowary and ostrich – flightless but with powerful legs. They branched earliest off the family tree, “so moa are the most primitive you might say,” says ornithologist Dr Brian Gill, “with no close relatives.”

The nine different species of moa – there is still some uncertainty on the number – ranged in size from the little bush moa (about turkey-size) up to the giant moa.

Comparative sizes of dinornis, ostrich and a man.

Comparative sizes of dinornis, ostrich and a man. Illustration from The moa: (Dinornis) and the probable cause of its extinction, Volume 1, Moa pamphlets, 1890. Reserve collection QE 872.D5, Auckland Museum Library.

Female giant moa stood about two metres high to the top of their back. So in an upright standing position, with their head held high, they could reach three metres tall, allowing them to pluck leaves from tall trees like a giraffe.

Their maximum weight was about 250 kilograms – as much as a cow. But while they are the tallest bird on record, they are not the heaviest. That title goes to the largest of Madagascar’s extinct elephant birds.

The giant moa were colossal birds and a natural wonder both as an example of gigantism and (along with the other moa species) as the only birds in the world with no wings at all.

Māori and the moa

The people who knew the most about the moa’s habits and appearance were the first Polynesian settlers to New Zealand, who arrived about 1250 AD.

Māori oral history tells of a large bird with ‘hair’, presumably referring to their strange feathers: like kiwi feathers, they had a loose open structure more like hair.

Archaeological evidence shows moa were a major part of the settlers’ diet. And in addition to eating the meat and eggs, feathers and skins were used for clothing, and bones were made into fishhooks, pendants and other tools. Moa were a major resource, but over-hunting led to their extinction within the first 150-200 years of human arrival.

In her book The Natural World of the Māori, Margaret Orbell writes about a “proverbial expression mate-a-moa, ‘lost like the moa’, which means ‘lost utterly and hopelessly’.”

Western science reconstructs the moa

Sir Richard Owen next to his reconstruction of a giant moa skeleton

Sir Richard Owen next to his reconstruction of a giant moa skeleton from Memoirs on the Extinct Wingless Birds of New Zealand, 1879. In his hand is the first bone fragment he examined 40 years earlier.

The first European to attest to the moa’s existence, and to attempt to reconstruct it, was Richard Owen, the British biologist and palaeontologist. In 1839, a trader offered him a thighbone fragment; apparently it was part of a great New Zealand eagle.

Owen deduced overnight that it was a bone, not from an eagle, but from a giant flightless bird. His colleagues doubted his conclusion based, as it was, on such a small amount of evidence.

However, within a few years he was sent further bone samples, which enabled him to start reconstructing a skeleton. He based his drawings of the moa on the cassowary. But it would appear he had not seen a live cassowary, for his illustrations show the bird in an atypical erect posture, with the moa illustration matched to it.

Based on Owen’s widely published work, colonial reconstructions of the moa were mostly made in an upright position. It wasn’t until the 1980s that a more accurate, typical posture was proposed; where the neck looped down to form an S with the body, with the head held just above the high point of the back.

“They occupied the ecological niche of a large herbivore,” explains Gill, “and before the first humans arrived here the islands were mostly forested. So the moa would have had to push their way through the forest undergrowth with their head and neck held forward. The erect posture is not a wrong position as such, as moa would have used this position if reaching up to feed on leaves or to survey the scene.”

Ancient DNA shows females could be more than twice as big as males

Analysis of recovered ancient DNA by various research institutes over the past decade “has been revolutionary to our understanding of the giant moa,” says Gill. “It has shown that there weren’t three species as was previously thought, there were only two: one in the North Island and one in the South Island. But the most surprising finding was the extreme sexual dimorphism (differences between the sexes) in the giant moa. The females could be more than twice as big as the males.”

“Each of the four main museums in New Zealand has very large moa bone collections, and the DNA researchers sampled from all these collections. You may not know exactly how collections are going to be used, but you know that, by keeping them safe and having them catalogued and available, they might have a value in the future. And the DNA work shows just how this comes true.”

Auckland Museum’s giant moa reconstruction

Moa have been an important part of the collection since the museum first opened in 1852. Successive curators have developed the collection, and associated knowledge, for over a century and a half.

In his paper History of the Land Vertebrates Collection at Auckland Museum, Dr Brian Gill recounts the giant moa reconstruction:

“In 1912 a successful public appeal was made to raise £700 for the two-fold aim of purchasing some Māori carvings and setting up a plate-glass case containing a moa “restoration,” a large moa skeleton, and mounted examples of various living ratites… L.T. Griffin built a reconstruction using emu feathers. The ratite display was finished in 1913 and placed in the centre of the Main Hall … It was inaugurated by a conversazione on the evening of 8 October 1913 attended by about 550 people.”

The giant moa model has been more or less on continuous display ever since. She has been admired and photographed by local and international tourists for 100 years and is now a historical object in her own right.

You can visit her in the Origins Gallery on level two at Auckland War Memorial Museum.

Ground level of Main Hall, Princes Street building.

Ground level of Main Hall, Princes Street building. The photo was taken in 1928, just before the move to the current site. The giant moa reconstruction can be seen in the large glass case in the background. Photo: Auckland Museum Library, C41107.

Events at Auckland Museum

Join us for The Mummy and the Moa school holiday programme until 31 January 2014.

Radio New Zealand interview

Listen to Radio NZ’s interview with ornithologist Dr Brian Gill

Further reading at the Auckland Museum Library

  1. The life and death of New Zealand’s legendary bird. Berentson, Q. (2012). Moa. Craig Potton Publishing.
  2. Ghosts of Gondwana. Gibbs, G (2006). The history of life in New Zealand. Craig Potton Publishing.
  3. The Lost World of the Moa. Prehistoric Life of New Zealand.Worthy, T. H., & Holdaway, R. N. (2002). Indiana University Press.
  4. History of the Land Vertebrates Collection at Auckland Museum .Gill, B. J. (2000). New Zealand, 1852-1996. Records of the Auckland Museum, 36, 59-93.
    Download PDF (5MB)
  5. The Kiwi and Other Flightless Birds. Gill, B. J. (1999). David Bateman.
  6. Moas – Lost Giants of New Zealand. McCulloch, B., & Cox, G. J. (1992). HarperCollins.

Online reading

You can find an excellent overview of all the moa species at Te Ara: The Encyclopaedia of New Zealand.

Memoirs on the Extinct Wingless Birds of New Zealand. Owen, R (1879). This rare book has been digitally scanned by the University of Texas, with an introduction to the digital version by Timothy Rowe.


Snippets from Prof Kenneth Cumberland’s 1981 documentary series Landmarks:

Te Awe – a window into our taonga Māori collection

Letting people see inside our Museum stores and giving others a chance to connect with and gain a better understanding of our taonga collections is all part of the thinking behind our new space Te Awe.

Located on our ground floor just around the corner from our He Taonga Māori gallery, Te Awe offers a window into the ‘behind the scenes’ of the museum and will allow visitors to observe how we care for our collections.

Te Awe offers a window into the ‘behind the scenes’ of the Museum.

Named Te Awe, it is the first public-facing major project initiated by Future Museum. Te Awe describes the tufted decoration on a taiaha, a weapon of hard wood. It also means strength, power and influence. This name refers to the adornment on taonga in the collection and the mana they hold. The name also speaks to the work of this project – to improve our care of the taonga and enhance the knowledge associated with them.

This project will help revitalise the Māori galleries and other spaces in collaboration with iwi and other communities, enhance research at the Museum and provide richer experiences for visitors to the Museum onsite, online and offsite.

Starting with the Museum’s vast collection of hei tiki, the Te Awe team will digitise and record, in more depth, the taonga for future access via an online database.

A Museum collection technician photographs a taonga.

A member of the Te Awe team photographs a hei tiki.

Auckland Museum Director Roy Clare says: “The Museum has relationships with iwi, hapū and whānau right across Aotearoa New Zealand and we look forward to deepening these as we work to honour the taonga that has been entrusted to our care through many generations.”

Te Awe also sees the addition of five new staff who will work solely with the taonga over the next three years. They include three collection technicians, a storage technician and a dedicated Māori collection conservator. (Make sure you smile and wave if you’re passing – it can be a little unnerving working in a glass room for all the world to see!)

This team will utilise the latest technologies so that the processes are in keeping with the museum’s responsibility to provide the best care, protection and access to the taonga. The intention is that taonga will be conserved, documented and photographed and the data will be digitised in a record that will be available to iwi, hapū, whānau, museum staff, and researchers and in many cases the public at large.

We look forward to bringing you more information on the Te Awe project along with introductions to the team in our upcoming posts.

members of the Te Awe hard at work.

Make sure you smile and wave if you’re passing by.

August 22, 2013

Posted by:

Auckland Museum

Exhibitions, Learning


ANZAC education programme

My name is Olivia, the museum‘s new Human History Educator. Over the past few months I’ve been busy delivering our WWI and WWII programmes. I was fortunate enough to start in early April when we were in the midst of delivering our fantastic Anzac programme, in which students alternate between an interactive drama in the Scars 1 Gallery and the Educator session in the WW1 Hall of Memories.

School children explore the Hall of Memories

School children explore the Hall of Memories

We are so fortunate to have our great actors, Col and Saraid who really bring the experience of WWI alive. It’s a great segue into the educator session where we look at the scale of loss, as illustrated by the 7297 names engraved on the marble walls.

Museum actors run WWI education session with school children

Actors, Col and Saraid, help to bring alive the WWI experience.

Our extensive handling collection of objects from WWI has proven to be an invaluable resource as they really help bring the stories alive. Students love having the opportunity to handle objects such as helmets, dog tags and periscopes.

A school child examines a WWI era gas mask

A school child takes the opportunity to examine a WWI era gas mask

I have been so impressed by the respectful and reflective attitude of the students – they understand the gravity of the space and the significance of our contribution and loss in international conflict.

The Anzac programme is offered annually in term two and three and I am already looking forward to delivering the programme next year. The opportunity to work with students of all ages and from a variety of schools has been a fantastic experience. Each group has helped remind me just how important it is for us to ensure we don’t forget the sacrifice and loss of so many men and their families.

Life on a Battlecruiser

In 1913 the battlecruiser HMS New Zealand took a world cruise through the then-British Empire. On board was a very special passenger, the British Bulldog Pelorus Jack, the ship’s mascot.  What was life on board HMS New Zealand like?  How does this compare to life on board a battleship today?
Staff from the museum were recently on board HMNZS Otago where they made several short movies about life on a battleship now, and 100 years ago. Through these films you will get to know a little about a modern battleship, and how that might compare to life on board HMS New Zealand 100 years ago. Follow Jo as she acts as your guide in a series of 10 movies.

And don’t forget to check out www.hmsnewzealand.com to learn more about the journey and of course about Pelorus Jack – he even has his own blog!



Steering a battleship

Know your Food Rations

Stay tuned for more videos from the Museum’s HMS New Zealand team.

A Massive museum experience

Massive Theatre Company’s South and Central ensembles are part of Auckland Museum’s Urbanlife project which aims to give youth a platform to express their views on the city they live in. The issue the Massive group is looking at is economic wellbeing – an issue that confronts a lot of people working in the creative arts. This is their account of the Urbanlife process which they began in April 2012.

At the start of the process we spent hours looking at the museum collections and used photos from the museum’s pictorial collections to spark inspiration, including the work of two female photographers Margaret Matilda White and Una Garlick.


Margaret Matilda White's image - Nurses with Mr Hodson smoking in the garden at Auckland Private Hospital 1890s

Margaret Matilda White's image - Nurses with Mr Hodson smoking in the garden at Auckland Private Hospital 1890s

Margaret Matilda White's image - Three nurses on bicycles at the Auckland Private Hospital, 1890s

Margaret Matilda White's image - Three nurses on bicycles at the Auckland Private Hospital, 1890s

Looking at these images and talking about these female photographers lead us to think about the sort of expectations that were placed on women at the time – the fact they were expected to give up their passions like photography to settle down and look after their families.

Una Garlick's image - Una Garlick's image Rangitoto from Mission Bay. Large pine trees on the beach at Mission Bay, with man in hat walking past park bench. Panorama of Rangitoto in background.

Una Garlick's image - Una Garlick's image Rangitoto from Mission Bay. Large pine trees on the beach at Mission Bay, with man in hat walking past park bench. Panorama of Rangitoto in background.

We also took inspiration from important figures of history in the museum like Sir Ed Hillary. We thought about his struggles and used those as inspiration to talk about the struggles in our own lives and the lives of our family to do with our economic wellbeing and the fight to meet our needs and wants.

Bula performs his piece inspired by Sir Ed's story during Massive Company's Urbanlife performance at Mangere Arts Centre

Bula performs his piece inspired by Sir Ed's story during Massive Company's Urbanlife performance at Mangere Arts Centre

As we left one of the early workshop sessions at the museum Bethany Edmunds who heads up the Urbanlife project said: “Stories exist here at the museum, it’s just a matter of unlocking them and letting them live and come alive.” It’s a very potent statement and a great overall idea. The museum is the natural home of inspiration and stories and that’s a great thing to introduce young theatre groups to as they learn about storytelling and finding their voice.

Massive Central during a research visit to Auckland Museum

Massive Central during a research visit to Auckland MuseumExhibition Developer Janneen Love sharing the stories and history of Auckland Museum's collections with Massive Central

Massive South taking inspiration from Auckland Museum's WWI Sanctuary - a memorial to the lives lost and the sacrifices of war

Massive South taking inspiration from Auckland Museum's WWI Sanctuary - a memorial to the lives lost and the sacrifices of warWWI Sanctuary

On leaving one of those sessions we all talked about how we were feeling and what ideas the visit had sparked – some of the words we used were: aware, inspired, overwhelmed, full, different ideas about how to tell my story, women in a man’s world, Maori spirituality, passion, looking forward, new feeling about how important the Museum is, emotion and detail in art and photography, openness to growing, branches going off in different directions, excited to jam the stories and start playing, learnt so much, sense of knowledge and taking advantage of that, history, energy behind the objects, intrigued by the war section and women in the war, connection to non-human objects and stories, 1000 ideas.

Shaun (who guided us through the pictorial collection) and Janneen (exhibition developer) were really amazing with sharing their knowledge and skills. Janneen had so many stories to tell everyone about particular areas, people and exhibits and she really made the museum come alive. In my group I know both the library and then going around the museum was so stimulating for everyone.

We also spent time exploring the museum’s galleries and seeing which spaces resonate with the stories we’re trying to tell through our theatre pieces.

Exploring the museum's galleries and spaces ahead of the live performance

Exploring the museum's galleries and spaces ahead of the live performance

Rehearsing ahead of the Massive performances in the museum

Rehearsing ahead of the Massive performances in the museum

It was incredible going from flooking through the collections, galleries and spaces to drawing together the ideas and creating our own stories and transforming that into our devised theatre pieces.

The live performances in the museum and Mangere Arts Centre were a buzz – seeing people react to what we had created and the stories we were telling was a great feeling.

Massive South's performance at the Mangere Arts Centre

Massive South's performance at the Mangere Arts Centre

It’s great to think our stories are now being told inside Auckland Museum. We’re coming back to give more live performances in November (Sunday 18 November – Devised Theatre with Massive Company at 11AM, 1PM, 3PM – meet in the Grand Foyer) and then we will have come full circle.