A major Auckland Museum project involving centuries-old Māori cloaks has unlocked new information about the way the some of the country's first human inhabitants lived.

Museum staff have been carefully rehousing its kākahu (clothes) collection, some estimated to be 400 years old, and made from materials including kurī (dog) skin and even now-endangered kākāpō feathers.

Auckland Museum's Māori curator Chanel Clarke said the project was about reorganising and improving the care of the taonga, but had also allowed them to more closely examine and learn about their precious collection, with the aim of making it more visible to the public.

The Te Awe project started in 2013 as part of a major museum revamp, and involved shifting more than 5000 ancient Māori wood artefacts.

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The second and final stage, due to end next month, has involved moving and preserving some 5000 textile items, including about 300 items of kākahu from across the country.

Auckland Museum has more than 300 items of ancient Māori clothing, kākahu, some several centuries old. Photo / Greg Bowker
Auckland Museum has more than 300 items of ancient Māori clothing, kākahu, some several centuries old. Photo / Greg Bowker

They engaged iwi and expert Māori weavers who were able closely study the techniques and materials, and assist with interpreting the various patterns and where they originated from.

"When they came from the Pacific they obviously found New Zealand much more temperate, snow even in places, so had to find appropriate materials they could use," Clarke said.

"Items like tapa (bark cloth), used in the islands, was not prevalent here, so instead we have seen a lot of harakeke, cabbage leaf and pingao used."

Harakeke was used for both inner and outer wear.

With the outer leaf kept on it was waterproof and used as a raincoat, while stripped back the inner "muka" was much softer and used for more casual wear. Shoes were also fashioned out of the native plant.

Items that came from the deep south could be differentiated from those used in the more temperate far north.

The more serious cloaks and some of the earliest items were made from kurī and even seal skin. One of the most popular materials was kiwi feathers, but with tūī and kākā were also common. The museum even had one korowai made from kākāpō feathers.

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Further changes could be seen between pre and post European contact, Clarke said.

"Māori quickly adapted to European clothing, and we started to see them incorporating materials like wool into cloaks.

"We also saw less of the long cloaks, as traditional items went from everyday wear to more ceremonial or fashion use, as they would wear European items underneath."

Through the project the museum aimed to make the taonga Māori collection more visible to those who wanted to experience it, and ultimately shift it online.

"The interest has always been there, the weavers collective been really strong, but lately there has been a greater push for traditional items, especially with an increased focus on sustainable, natural items such as kete (bags made from harakeke)."