Case study: Repatriating Te Pahi’s medal

Investigator: Associate Professor Deidre Brown

Architecture and Planning, National Institute of Creative Arts and Industries

Summary

The longest-surviving cultural artefact to represent the connection between the Crown and Māori was repatriated to New Zealand after more than 200 years thanks, in part, to University research verifying its great historical value and cultural significance.

Research into a silver medal gifted to Māori chief, Te Pahi in 1806, spurred the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa and Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira to jointly bid for the medal when it came up for auction in 2014. The medal, having been in private hands for over 200 years in Australia, is now on display at Auckland Museum. Brown’s research was not only invaluable in securing the purchase and return of Te Pahi’s medal, but also informs how it will be displayed and understood.

Underpinning research

Brown’s research on the history of a pre-fabricated house gifted to the Bay of Island’s paramount chief, Te Pahi, by the New South Wales Governor, Philip Gidley King –the first “European house” to be built in New Zealand, in 1806 – led her to investigate the Governor’s gifting of a medal to Te Pahi; a medal which was struck in Sydney, Australia, to commemorate Te Pahi’s 1805-6 visit to the Governor, and which was presented to the chief just before he returned to the Bay of Islands. This medal is thought to be the earliest cultural artefact to represent the connection between the Crown and Māori that exists.

The medal was one of many taonga looted by the crew who attacked the chief and his house after Te Pahi was erroneously blamed for the 1809 attack on the ship Boyd. Te Pahi died of his injuries, and the medal was one of many taonga to be taken and on-traded. Its whereabouts were unknown until it came up for auction in April 2014 at Sotheby’s, Sydney, having been in one family’s collection in Australia for well over a century.

Brown’s research into the medal (involving primary sources and done in consultation with Hugh Rihari, Te Rϋnanga o Ngāpuhi, Distinguished Professor Dame Anne Salmond and University of Auckland art historian, Dr Ngarino Ellis) provided clear evidence of the provenance of the medal, and the multiple narratives attached to it. 

Contribution, impact, benefit

Brown’s research into Te Pahi’s medal helped support the claim that it is an artefact of historical value and cultural significance. Thanks in part to this research, the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa and Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira were able to jointly bid for that medal when it came up for auction in 2014. The medal, after over 200 years in private hands in Australia, is now on display at Auckland Museum.

While both museums independently investigated the medal’s provenance, Brown’s research helped ensure that they were given approval by their respective boards to bid jointly for the medal. This is the first time the two museums have collaborated for such a purpose. The total cost of the medal was around $400,000, and Auckland Museum’s annual budget for acquisitions is $200,000; that the purchase was approved is an acknowledgement of the medal’s value as taonga tuku iho (treasure of heritage), for which the research provided evidence.

The medal was returned to New Zealand in December 2014, with shared guardianship between the two museums and descendants of Te Pahi. 

The impact of the repatriation of the medal to the descendents of Te Pahi was most apparent when the medal was briefly returned to the Whangaroa hapū of Ngāti Rua, and the Purerua hapū of Ngāti Torehina, at a ceremony held on the Purerua Peninsula, Wairoa Bay, Bay of Islands. This was the first time that Ngāti Rua, whose ancestors had been massacred in the attack on Te Pahi and family, had returned to the site of the massacre in two centuries.

In a press release sent out by the Ministry of Culture and Heritage, Ngati Torehina kaumatua, Hugh Rihari said: “[The medal’s return] brings closure to the pain and suffering that our people have endured for these past 204 years, following the medal’s loss in the attack on Te Pahi’s islands, Motu Apo and Roimata.”

Brown’s research was not only invaluable in securing the purchase and return of Te Pahi’s medal, but also informs how it will be displayed and understood. According to David Reeves, Director of Collections and Research and Auckland War Memorial Museum: “The medal is of itself, a beautiful and valuable piece, but so much richer for the stories of people that were associated with it. So having all of that extra research to call on makes it a much richer proposition. For a museum that’s important, as we’re interested in being able to tell multiple stories from our collection.” (Te Papa and Auckland Museum have also funded a brief documentary about Te Pahi’s medal, to be made by Ninja Productions.)

It was at the ceremonies at Wairoa Bay that Brown shared her own research with her fellow descendants of Te Pahi. According to Reeves: “People were hanging on her very word... they appreciated knowing more about what the medal could tell us about the time, the trade between the Bay of Islands and Sydney, the visits between people – it was really a wonderful experience to see that community learn from Deidre’s research, in quite an informal setting. I’m sure they would have gone home with a much richer sense of who Te Pahi was and why this medal was so important. It’s the personal stories that adhere to collections that bring them alive.”

The return of the medal was extensively reported on in mainstream media, evidence that the medal was widely recognised as an artefact of historical value and cultural significance. 

Corroborating Evidence

Selected media

Key research outputs (so far)

2012, Brown, “Te Pahi’s Whare: The First European house in New Zealand”, SAHANZ conference proceedings, University of Tasmania.