Trip Downunder Sept 07 – Entry 10: Te Papa Museum

New Zealand Forest after European settlement
The road from Tongariro to Whanganui, and on down from there to Wellington, takes the whole morning to drive, but past some very stunning scenery – including a wonderful waterfalls.

At Wellington itself – the capital, although a smaller city than Auckland, but similarly a harbour town – I went straight to the Te Papa (‘the People’) National Museum, which proved to be well worth it.

Here were a number of excellent exhibitions about the flora and fauna, the history of New Zealand, and the tectonic geology of the country – including audio-visual record of the 1995-96 eruptions at Ruapehu, over
the chateau where I stayed.

Grand Chateau under volcanic eruption in 1995

But all these were crowned, for me, by the permanent exhibition “Blood, Earth , Fire” which documents how the arrival of humanity has devastated The Land That Was – only 1000yrs ago an untouched island paradise.

New Zealand Forest before and after European settlement

It is quite stunning how, in the 700odd years that the Maori were here, humanity had already begun, inexorably to take its toll, for all that their ways trod more lightly upon the earth than ours. But the shere
orgy of destruction that the creation of the virtual England of grass, sheep and cows unleashed upon this land in the space of 80years from 1840 to 1920 is truly awesome to behold. The exhibition does not pull any punches, making it clear what impact the Maori had, but not pretending that the Europeans were anything but a million times worse. One of the most poignant parts of the exhibition was a memorial to the dozens of species known to have been lost in this process.

Testament, also, is given to those who, as early as the mid-1930s, began to question this savage repurposing of what was once ancient native New Zealand forest – with trees thousands of years old – into the short-term gain of introduced European grassland for introduced grazing animals bred mostly for export. Today’s New Zealand, it is clear, vehemently defends what is left of its natural heritage; the tide of destruction has been halted.

Herbert Guthrie-Smith quote on the destruction

Also documented here is the sad tale of how the European settlers signed the wonderful treaty of Waitangi and then proceeded to welch on every aspect of the deal, disenfranchising, disinheriting, and simply hoodwinking the Maori out of the lands. The full, formal apology for such treatment from none other than Queen Elizabeth II, quoted in full in the exhibition, is testament at least to the beginnings of reparation – the ‘Claims’ now being heard by Moari people for rights to their own land. Interesting too to note the large numbers of Scots – some refugees from the Highland clearances – Dalmatians, and Chinese, who helped to swell the numbers of English settlers. There were some 100,000 Maori on New Zealand before the Europeans arrived. Now some 4.1million people live here altogether – very very few of them pure-blood native Maori. The fourth floor of the Museum includes an enormous Meeting House for all the tribes and peoples and New Zealand – it gives a really good feeling that, for all the darker side of the colonial history, honesty and a willingness to make good past mistakes characterise the present.

Te Papa Meeting House

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