A look inside a Māori wharenui

On Thursday afternoon we took the bus up to the War Memorial Museum, which had been highly recommended to us by several people. It’s housed in a beautiful classical building on a hill overlooking Auckland. We made it through the exhibitions on all three floors, leaving just as they closed at 5.

Auckland War Memorial Museum
Auckland’s stately War Memorial Museum

The Māori Court exhibition was impressive, and provided an opportunity to photograph the wharenui or meeting place named “Hotunui”.

Hotunui belongs to the Ngāti Maru (Māori) people of the Thames area. Hotunui was built in 1878 by the Ngāti Awa people of Whakatane as a wedding present for Mereana Mokomoko from her father. The meeting house takes its name from Hotunui, the celebrated tupuna (ancestor) of Ngāti Maru. The pou (vertical panels) inside Hotunui commemorate other ancestors of the Ngāti Maru people. One is unusual in that it portrays Ureia, a marakihau (sea monster) who warned the Ngāti Maru of impending storms and the approach of enemies. –From the Auckland Museum’s Māori Court educational resource.

The structure of the wharenui symbolizes the body parts of the person it was built to honor (usually the tribe’s chief). From the outside, the head at the top is obvious, the edges of the roof represent outstretched arms with hands and fingers at the ends. The outer supports are the legs, the door is the mouth, the window is the eye, the ridge of the roof is the backbone, the supports along the walls on the inside are the ribs, and the central supports are the heart and the spleen.

Outside of the Hotunui wharenui
The wharenui is sacred, so we removed our shoes before entering

Panorama of the inside of the Hotunui wharenui

Panorama of the inside

Back wall of the Hotunui wharenui
Totemic back support of the wharenui

Carved 'spine' of the Hotunui's wharenui
One of the many carved figures on the “spines”

Carved face on one of the spines of the Hotunui wharenui
Close up of a carved figure’s face

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