What happens when an anthropologist and an artist go in search of a long-dead carver? Some of the results can be seen at Two Rooms in Mark Adams' large-format photos of the work of Ngati Tarawhai carver Tene Waitere (1854-1931).

There is also the accompanying book, published by the University of Otago Press, which is credited not only to Adams and Cambridge University fellow Nicholas Thomas but to Waitere's great-great-grandson James Schuster and carver Lyonel Grant.

The first Waitere work Thomas saw was the Ta Moko panel in the post-Te Maori show, Taonga Maori, which travelled to Australia in 1989. It features three heads, two male with eyes open and one female with eyes closed, rendered in a realistic fashion from a single slab of wood.

It was not in Te Maori - its early 20th century creation, the fact it was not made for a house or traditional use, and even the fact Waitere incised his name on the back made it marginal to the canon of great works that show was arguing for - "but when I saw it I thought it was impressive and interesting", says Thomas.

About that time he was setting up a research centre at the Australian National University, and working out where to take his earlier research in the Marquesas and Fiji on colonial histories and cross-cultural exchanges.

"I was seeing those histories very much from the exchange point of view, the messiness of it rather than the sheer dominance, and seeing a lot of that through the material objects that indigenous people appropriated and turned to their own purposes."

Thomas turned to urban settings, in particular the Pacific and Maori contemporary art emerging in Aotearoa.

"I was attracted to New Zealand because I had a sense a lot of interesting stuff was going on here, triggered by curator Rangi Panoho's 1990 Sargeant Gallery show which included Mark's photos of Samoan tatau and also early John Pule [with whom Thomas has co-written a book about Niuean hiapo or tapa]."

His strategy was to talk to artists and see what happened. In the case of Adams, he found someone with similar interests. "I started thinking it was not really a case of me being the academic and writing about them.

"Particularly in the case of Mark, we were trying to deal with the same questions, the same problems, what do we make of this cross-cultural history in the present."

While his initial contact was over Adams' pictures of the Samoan tattooing tradition, the two men found a shared interest in the voyages of James Cook which led to a series of voyages of their own. They also shared a fascination with Rotorua, which Adams started documenting in 1979 at the invitation of then-Rotorua Museum director John Perry.

Adams says his work is driven by a desire to challenge the conventions of anthropology and ethnological image making. "I want to be the Burton Brothers in reverse," says Adams, referring to the colonial-era photographers whose slides and postcards of Maori scenes scrupulously removed any modern trappings.

"The modern context is as much a part of the images as the work of Tene Waitere. That's where it started, that you could read the context as a set of power relationships."

Thomas says he found Rotorua "an enigmatic, thought-provoking place, in part because of features like Whakarewarewa village, but also because of the way you drive down a suburban street looking like a settler town in Australia or South Africa or any other place, then you turn a corner and there's a set of carved figures on someone's picket fence."

When Thomas moved to England in 1999 to become director of Cambridge University's Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, the collaboration expanded into the northern hemisphere, visiting more Cook sites and also looking at Maori art north of the equator.

The focus on Waitere and the carvers he worked with was inevitable because he was involved in three of the four Maori meeting houses outside New Zealand: Hinemihi in Surrey, Rauru in Hamburg and Te Wharepuni a Maui in Stuttgart.

In putting together the book, they considered other voices to talk about Waitere's achievement. From Schuster, a heritage adviser to the Historic Places Trust, came a rich interview on the family's view of their ancestor.

They also invited Lyonel Grant to take a break from carving a meeting house for Unitec and join them for a week in Hamburg, where Adams was to take pictures of Rauru.

"He was an obvious person to ask to support the project because the depth of his knowledge is astonishing. He knows a huge amount about the Ngati Tarawhai corpus, the Ngati Pikiao corpus in the museums," Thomas says.

"Rather than being an informant, Lyonel is a co-interpreter. He is interested in researching these histories in a way that has as much rigour as anything I might do, but he is asking the questions as a practitioner rather than a writer." Thomas says museum circles tend to debate whether the presentation of indigenous objects should be an aesthetic or a more contextualising ethnographic one.

"I think they are false oppositions."

His preference is to bring indigenous people into the process, breaking with the sort of museum culture such as is currently evident in Auckland, where Sir Edmund Hillary's family is being treated with the kind of arrogant disdain that Maori and Pacific donors have endured over the years.

Grant says Rauru was an extraordinary experience, especially as museum staff allowed him to sleep in the whare overnight.

He was able to spot details such as the way the chisel rolled off the grain of the wood, or the areas where Waitere added extra wood to pou because the milled slabs he was given didn't give enough room to create the three-dimensional effects he wanted.

"There's so much energy in Rauru. It's clear Tene was working at full throttle."

Rauru was commissioned by C. E. Nelson, the owner of Rotorua's Geyser Hotel, as an attraction for guides to take tourists and concert parties to perform.

Within a few years he sold it for £1500 ($3825) to a traveller who was buying up artefacts for German museums.

Because it was not done for a specific hapu, the carvings depicted mythological figures such as Maui and Hinenui te Po, making it a precursor to the types of houses now found in universities and institutions, where carvings may commemorate specific events.

The other two houses in the Two Rooms exhibition also have links to the early tourism industry. Hinemihi was built to host parties going to the Pink and White Terraces. Te Tiki a Tamamutu was commissioned by an entrepreneur who wanted a feature for the Spa Hotel in Taupo, where it is still a lounge.

Adams says there is a tension between what can be done in a book and the way the images need to be seen, which is large.

"Showing them in a gallery is almost a way of repatriating the carvings so people here can see how they look."

What: Rauru, by Mark Adams
Where and when: Two Rooms Gallery, 16 Putiki St, Newton, to June 27
In print: Rauru: Tene Waitere, Maori Carving, Colonial History, editor Nicholas Thomas, photographer Mark Adams, interviews with James Schuster, Lyonel Grant (University of Otago Press $120)