For Māori, taonga are precious as the living embodiment of tūpuna or ancestors, and they need to be handled respectfully. This means that not only are there many scientific elements involved in the conservation and restoration of taonga, but the spiritual element and tikanga are of vital importance as well.
Pare 5168, a carved door lintel from Maketu in the Bay of Plenty, was badly damaged in a storeroom accident at the Auckland War Memorial Museum. How the pare was damaged was unknown, but for staff at the museum, including curator Chanel Clarke from the Māori Department, appropriate restoration of this precious taonga was important.
Museum conservation involves the intersection of science, history and culture. This is because museums have many objects that require specialised work and knowledge in order to conserve and maintain them – and sometimes to repair damage. Each object demands a unique set of experts.
Chanel assembled a working group that included specialist advisor Bernard Makore, conservator Heika Winkelbauer and intern Alexander Lencz who had a particular interest in wooden objects. Bernard Makore, a member of Taumata-ā-Iwi, a committee that represents the interests of Māori, was able to assure tikanga (protocols) were observed. Bernard, a carver, was able to enlist the help of master carver Lyonel Grant of Te Arawa.
The work began with a careful observation of the broken parts of the pare. This observation was to determine what the next steps would be in the process to restore the pare to its former glory. After determining the wood was totara, chemical analysis was used to identify the original glues and paints. Identifying these was important to ensure that chemical solutions used to remove old glue and then new glues used in the conservation would not further damage the pare. Microscopy was used to identify the layers of paint.
Observation in science
Observation is an important tool in science. Auckland Museum conservator Heika Winkelbauer says, “Before you even think about any treatment or conservation, you have a very close look at the artefact, you examine it, you look at markings, tool markings, you look at the damage.”
Learn more about observation in science.
In this activity, students discuss the importance of observation in science.
After determining and removing the original glue, a synthetic resin was selected for reassembling the shattered pare. An important property of this glue is that it is easy to reverse – the pare was broken into many small pieces and would need a process of trial and error to reassemble.
A small machine was made to measure the pressure that the new bonding – the resin glue – could withstand. It was important to test the strength of the new glue to ensure the reassembled pare would be permanent.
Conservators Heike and Alex also used microscopy to analyse the layers of paint on the pare.
Alex used a variety of stains to test the chemical composition of the original glue on the carving. For example, copper sulfate and sodium hydroxide allowed him to determine the presence of proteins, which suggested the glue had animal origins.
Microscopy and stains are used in many areas of science. Discover how stains and microscopes are used with biological samples to distinguish between parts of a sample and to determine different components.
It was an emotional thing to see the degree of restoration and also the care that the conservators took in the process, and the results mean a great deal for the new museum practice, the linking of modern technology and ancient lived mātauranga Māori.
The work of museum conservators and Māori experts ensured that the precious taonga pare 5168 was restored with respectful handling and adherence to tikanga. Further, the restoration work by conservators and Māori master carver Lyonel Grant provided new clues about the background of the pare. For example, the animal-based glue was able to narrow the date of the carving to the second half of the 19th century, and the early carvers may have used a primer in the painting of the wood.
Science and heritage work
Science provides a set of tools for museum conservators and archaeologists in the heritage sector. Carbon dating and other methodologies allow archaeologists to date objects, bone and other materials to learn more about their provenance. Find out more about
Science also provides important answers in the fight to conserve fragile materials such as fabrics and fibres, find out more in this article,
Nature of science
This story demonstrates the incredible amount of knowledge and understanding that is held by the people in our communities. Working together to share and build on each other’s knowledge can create better outcomes for everyone.
National Services Te Paerangi, based at Te Papa Tongarewa in Wellington, works in partnership with museums, galleries and iwi (tribes) in New Zealand. They have a number of online resources about the care, treatment and preservation of historic objects and collections.
Watch Series 2/Episode 13: Pare 5168
Project Mātauranga is a television series that investigates Māori world views and methodologies within the scientific community and looks at their practical application. Each of the 13 episodes in series 2 shows how western science and Māori knowledge systems are combining to provide solutions to a variety of challenges.
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