Contemporary and heritage korowai among pieces at museum exhibition.

Six of Auckland War Memorial Museum's rarely seen but most prized possessions are on display for the first time in a unique art exhibition.

Korowai (woven cloaks) take pride of place in Korero Mai, Korero Atu which features work by contemporary Maori artists Areta Wilkinson and Te Rongo Kirkwood. The korowai and other taonga in the museum collection provided inspiration for Wilkinson and Kirkwood to create contemporary artworks.

The new pieces - korowai, jewellery and sculptures - are exhibited alongside objects from the museum's taonga Maori, Botany and Applied Arts collections.

Museum staff describe the exhibition as one where contemporary artworks are "in conversation with compelling objects from the museum's collections".


The cloaks were a significant research tool for Kirkwood, who made four modern korowai, weaving together fibre, glass and light. One of her works was recently acquired by the museum and will be in the exhibition.

The museum's korowai are usually kept flat between layers of protective paper in full-length drawers in a special storage room. Kirkwood was given access to its collection, numbering about 200, and chose the six which span a broad timeframe and use materials such as tui feathers, peacock feathers, wool and harakeke (flax).

Laid out carefully and displayed under protective glass, they complement Kirkwood's current work and show how the decoration of korowai changed over time as new materials became available to Maori. One of the rarest, Kahu huruhuru, uses only tui feathers but some later korowai, dating from the mid-1880s, include feathers from native and introduced birds. Coloured wool also makes an appearance.

Exhibition designer Janneen Love says the korowai have an air of mystery because little is known about who made them or where exactly in New Zealand they come from. They have either been donated to or bought by the museum, having passed through several generations and hands.

But Love describes the weavers who made them as innovators, like Kirkwood and Wilkinson, using new materials in unique ways. Maori weaving is set up between two stakes and done by hand, not on a loom, and requires great skill as finished cloaks must be soft against the wearer's skin and shaped to their body. Preparing the fibres is a lengthy and skilful process.

"We might not know much about their makers, but we do know they were skilled craftspeople," says Love.

Meanwhile Wilkinson, who was last year awarded the Creative New Zealand Craft/Object Fellowship, crafted new pieces inspired by objects from the McCready Jewellery Shop in the museum's much-loved former Auckland 1866 exhibition. These are exhibited alongside some of her earlier work.

Outgoing museum director Roy Clare says all around the world, museums are coming up with new ideas to engage the public, cast fresh light on objects in their collections and reveal knowledge, memories, emotions and whakapapa or connections.

• Korero Mai, Korero Atu: Artists Areta Wilkinson and Te Rongo Kirkwood at Auckland Museum opens today and runs until September 11. Free with museum entry.