Crossing Points: Anthony Hoete, Hinemihi: How a Grass Hut is Transforming Global Heritage 

Anthony Hoete
Chair of Te Maru O Hinemihi; Director, What_architecture

Once upon a time, in a place far, far away lived a chief called Āporo Wharekaniwha and his hapū (community), Ngāti Hinemihi. The hapū lived around the small village of Te Wairoa, close to the shore of Lake Tarawera.

When Europeans arrived in Aotearoa (New Zealand) they found an exotic new world: unknown species of flora and fauna included many flightless birds; a temperate sub-tropical climate offered respite from northern winters; and a unique geothermal landscape, of which the Pink and White Terraces formed part, was a monumental creation of volcanic activity. As a Garden of Eden, New Zealand was ‘God’s Zone’ – after all, paradise has no snakes! The Europeans also encountered a new race of Indigenous people – the Māori.

In traditional Māori society, space and place are inseparable. This connection can be heard in the pepeha (introduction), which Māori use to establish identity and heritage, and which tells a story of the people of a place. For Chief Āporo, his pepeha would recall not only his people – whakapapa (ancestors), hapū, iwi (tribe, Tūhourangi) – but also the landscape features of his place: awa (river), maunga (Mount Tarawera). Te Wairoa was a constructed space of colonial encounter, a site created by the migration and subsequent interaction between Māori and European. Te Wairoa would grow to become an established settlement for 19th Century tourism where one could experience all this foreignness, conveniently, in one small place. But this was the 1800s and getting to Te Wairoa took great effort. The ships that sailed from Europe to New Zealand undertook the longest journeys of migration in human history, lasting three or four months. From Auckland the tourist caught a steamer to Tauranga, rode the bridle track to Ōhinemutu, hired a coach to Te Wairoa, and paddled by canoe across Lake Tarawera before setting off on foot up the Kaiwaka Channel, over the hill to the swampy shores of Lake Rotomahana to finally land at the Terraces. Exhausted, undoubtedly.

By 1880 Chief Āporo had decided that he too wanted a slice of this burgeoning tourist market. He decided to create a whare (house) that could fulfil both the traditional roles of a whare whakairo (carved house) as well as, just as importantly, entertaining tourists through accommodating waiata (song and dance).

In Māori culture a whare is more than mere shelter. It has a living presence beyond any metaphorical association that might be applied to a European building. A whare is not like an ancestor, it is the ancestor! This means that a whare tipuna  (ancestor as building) has gender, and in this case the whare Hinemihi is a woman. As living heritage a Māori orator is obliged when speaking on a marae to address and extend greetings to the whare tipuna standing in front of him before engaging those gathered around.

One talks to the house before those at hand. From a Western perspective, talking to a building, like Doctor Doolittle talking to the animals, might be considered madness. Yet it is no longer appropriate to apply a Western perspective, with its seemingly well-intended heritage practices, to indigenous culture. Māori architecture, for example, has its own kaupapa (values), and so Hinemihi teaches us something about understanding architecture from a South Pacific rather than a colonising European perspective.

Chief Āporo’s whare was Hinemihi o Te Ao Tawhito, (Hinemihi of the Old World). Carved from native totara wood, Hinemihi was completed in 1881 by Wero Tāroi and Tene Waitere. As a gesture towards his emerging status and wealth, Āporo added a final flourish to Hinemihi: instead of using traditional paua shells to depict eyes on the carved figures that adorned the whare, Āporo attached gold sovereigns. Hinemihi was now the House with the Golden Eyes.

Many periods of economic prosperity have had abrupt endings, and the golden age of tourism at Te Wairoa came to a sudden stop on the 10th June 1886 when Mount Tarawera erupted without warning, covering the landscape with magma and ash. The eruption claimed the lives of 153 people, but a fortunate few found shelter in Hinemihi. Among those taking refuge was the carver, Tene Waitere, and his family.

The scale of devastation was such that the remaining population of Te Wairoa left with Chief Āporo’s Ngāti Hinemihi tribe, re-settling in nearby Rotorua (or Roto-Vegas as it is known today, with a nod to the continuing tourist trade).

The 19th Century was also a time of tremendous change in European landscape design. Collecting expeditions to all points on the globe resulted in an incredible influx of new plants and building exotica into the gardens of Victorian England. It was in 1891 the that the fourth Earl of Onslow, who was approaching the end of his term as Governor of New Zealand, sought a souvenir to take back to Clandon Park, his mansion in England.

Earl Onslow drew up a bill-of-sale legitimising the purchase of the 23 carvings (that comprised Hinemihi) from Chief Āporo’s son Mika. Easily dismantled and transported, Hinemihi was shopped and shipped to the United Kingdom.

This story of Hinemihi is a story of transience.

Originally reconstructed (badly) next to the ornamental lake at Clandon Park as a boathouse, Hinemihi was to move again in 1917. Soldiers from the Māori Pioneer Battalion, who were recuperating in Clandon House, discovered Hinemihi and, sensitive to her deteriorating physical state, relocated her opposite the main building.

Much like the traditional Māori greeting – the hongi – this spatial arrangement between large Palladian mansion (Clandon  House) and small grass hut (Hinemihi) has cultural roots in a kanohi ki te kanohi (face-to-face) engagement. As a colonial face-off the new location symbolically mirrored the historic, and at times confrontational, relationship between Pākehā (Whites) and Māori.

Yet the siting of Hinemihi in the garden of Clandon House was also positively transformative: today the grass lawn also serves as marae ātea (a rural form of public space specific to the South Pacific). The lawn allows for the traditional ritual of pōwhiri (welcome) and thereby anchored Hinemihi’s shifting space to her new place. She has sat there for the greater part of her life. Hinemihi now has two meaningful historic settings: one in Te Wairoa and one at Clandon Park, with neither taking precedence.

In New Zealand, tribal narratives continue to reference the absent Hinemihi in oral commentaries as the ancestress of the hapū (community) and as a method by which to recall and consolidate whakapapa (genealogy). Despite the radical changes to the cultural, social, economic and geographic landscape of the UK over the past 130 years, Hinemihi continues to resonate with a distinctly Māori cultural identity. Kia kaha! (Stay strong, girl!)

Having fallen into a state of disrepair and neglect for most of the 20th Century, the future for Hinemihi is brighter thanks to her core Māori values being better understood. The Māori construct of Hinemihi as living heritage allows her, for example, to be spiritually in two places at once! Such a perspective can serve to placate and pacify otherwise competing political agendas. So how exactly?

This story of Hinemihi’s transience means she is susceptible to movement and exchange: her presence in the UK is due to a transaction, after all. The organisation I chair, Te Maru O 

Hinemihi, offers a pānui (proposal) that overturns and mitigates the perceived negativity of repatriation by recasting any future transaction as a positive opportunity for exchange.

Two historically tied nations, the UK and New Zealand, can now develop a sustainable, mutually beneficial and reciprocal partnership between the National Trust – the legal owners of Hinemihi – and Ngāti Hinemihi of Tūhourangi, her spiritual owners. This is an alliance which puts two parties, Māori and Pākehā (White), on the same side of what is inevitably a long process of complex negotiations which could lead to her deteriorated carvings being sent on permanent loan in return for others carved to a fuller, original dimension being created.

As an exemplar project of future heritage, Hinemihi represents a common ground that connects her two places: Clandon Park and Te Wairoa.Thanks to this partnership both places would be imbued with her dual timeframes: her past as Hinemihi o te Ao Tawhito (old world) and her future Hinemihi o te Ao Hou (new world). This is not unlike the European concept of twinning towns: for example, Clandon’s neighbour Guildford has been twinned with Freiburg im Breisgau since 1979. Clandon could be twinned with Te Wairoa for the reasons articulated here.

Such a partnership requires the exchange to be more than that of material: it is also about the exchange of knowledge.

In relation to material, in order to restore Hinemihi at Clandon Park to her original dimensions (when she was 50 per cent longer and 25 per cent taller), replacement carvings are required, as the existing carvings have been drastically altered or have simply deteriorated over the past 127 years. This conservation process has already been initiated with an LBC (Listed Building Consent) for restoration igniting the necessary TLC (Tender Loving Care!). The 23 existing carvings have been removed and will need to be cleaned, documented and stabilised prior to transportation. This process can also inform the creation of replacement carvings, which will be unique with their own mauri (life force). The Māori diaspora living in the UK – including Ngāti Rānana (London Māori) – will ensure that any exchange is imbued with the highest cultural ambition. As a result, confrontation cedes to a win-win scenario.

What will the new carvings look like? Will they just be made from NZ native timbers or can we imagine British hardwoods, oak for example, being utilised? And who would carve them? The descendants of Hinemihi? Or could the knowledge of Māori carving be rigorously captured by esteemed institutions such as University College London’s Institute of Archaeology, so as to become inclusive, allowing others to participate in an indigenous practice?

The creation for ‘export’ of a whare is unheralded. British stakeholders will be asked to participate in the formation of the new carvings as this shared narrative has multiple voices and influences. For example: in 1979, repairs to Hinemihi were undertaken by British specialists in restoring historic wooden buildings. The restorers had little visual material to refer to apart from old Burton Brothers photography taken a few days after the eruption, when her roof was covered in volcanic debris. Innocently mistaking several tons of rooftop ash for traditional English thatch, the restorers replaced the roof with a thick covering of Norfolk reeds. The replacement roof, however, need not been seen as ‘error’. In Māoritanga (Māori way of life) craft can become crafty and assume a material intelligence. A thatched roof is created from natural local materials, much like Hinemihi. Although heritage organisations typically prioritise value on the ‘original’, there is a counter argument regarding features that arise out of accumulated history.

Given that Hinemihi has today spent more time in the UK (127 years) than in New Zealand (eight years), value can also be assigned to the inheritance of a thatched roof as being a more authentic korowai (cloak) for Hinemihi than the ‘original’ shingles which were, at the time, a new building material in New Zealand. While purists might argue that this represents a dilution of the cultural object, the fabric of any living heritage means that change is always a given.

This conservation process of caring demonstrated through carving means heritage can be interpretative, inclusive, innovative and transformative. In writing these words I would like to recognise the value of creative thought. Creative thinking can help unlock unwieldy processes. In the indefatigable pursuit of a design solution, creative thinkers remain resolute optimists. A good thing to be if you’re looking for a happy outcome.