Light shone on remarkable story of Hinemihi

Hinemihi Te Ao Tawhito at Clandon Park (image used with permission of Ngāti Hinemihi)

The College of Creative Arts is doing its bit to connect a Māori meeting house in the grounds of an English estate with its original community. Hinemihi Te Ao Tawhito, the meeting house, was built at Te Wairoa (the ‘buried village’) and survived the Tarawera eruption. She now stands near an 18th century Palladian mansion at Clandon Park in Guildford, Surrey.

Researchers from the college are currently in the UK and will play a New Zealand dawn chorus at the site tomorrow morning, on the anniversary of the eruption. This will be translated into light that will wash across the meeting house.

Hinemihi Te Ao Tawhito is one of just three intact wharenui outside New Zealand, the only one currently exposed to the elements, and rare in having a female identity.

Lecturers Kura Puke (Whiti o Rehua – The School of Art) and Stuart Foster (Nga Pae Mahutonga – The School of Design) have previously applied new technology to make light respond to sound vibrations at different cultural sites. Working through Te Matahiapo Indigenous Research Collective, of which Ms Puke is a member, they will help the Rotorua community of origin ceremonially connect with their ancestor. A live 'virtual mihi' across the world was originally planned for 10 June but has had to be postponed due to a tangi. A bigger event is planned for 2016.  “We are combining new technology and ancient knowledge to make the invisible visible. Virtual connections are well-understood by Māori; by bringing the intangible into the light, these cultural relationships can also be understood by non-Māori.”

The Ngāti Hinemihi hapū of Te Arawa have gifted this project the name Te Hononga – A Joining of Worlds.

 Hinemihi Te Ao Tawhito (Hinemihi of the Old World) was originally sited at Te Wairoa, near Lake Tarawera (near the buried village). She was commissioned in 1880 by Chief Aporo Wharekaniwha, the rangatira of Ngāti Hinemihi, working closely with Chief Wi Kepa Rangipuawhe of the Tūhourangi hapū and was a meeting house for both hapū. To local non-Māori and hundreds of Victorian tourists who flocked to the hot lakes areas, she was known as “Hinemihi of the Golden Eyes” in which the tekoteko and koruru (primary carved figures) displayed gold sovereign eyes (rather than paua shell). This signified the wealth of the hapū; where one shilling was charged to look inside or £1,10s. for a full haka performance.

 When Mt Tarawera began to erupt in the early hours of June 10 1886, many people sheltered inside. They used benches provided for tourists to prop up the roof sagging under the weight of volcanic debris – rocks, ash and mud. The eruptions ceased by about 6am, but the sky stayed dark. Half-buried, Hinemihi Te Ao Tawhito and those she sheltered survived. The village was destroyed and people moved away.

 Five and a half years later, the then Governor of New Zealand, William Hillier Onslow, fourth Earl of Onslow, bought the meeting house as a meaningful memento of his time here. For £50 she was dismantled and shipped to his family estate of Clandon Park.

 During World War I, Clandon Park and neighbouring properties were used as military hospitals; more than 5000 troops were treated at Clandon Park. Recuperating New Zealand soldiers, including members of the Māori Battalion, cleaned and reconstructed Hinemihi as near as possible to her 1880s form.

 Eventually, however, the house fell into disrepair.

 Finally, in 1956, Clandon Park and gardens, including Hinemihi, were donated to The National Trust, UK. The trust commissioned restoration work in the 1960s and late 1970s and continues to administer the property today. Her significance as an ancestral house rather than an artefact is acknowledged by these UK-based guardians, who are now working with the hapū to keep her ‘warm’.

More information:

Hinemihi: the story of a Maori meeting house, and more about Clandon Park

Te Maru o Hinemihi (UK)

Te Matahiapo Research Oraganisation (NZ)