A Te Arawa treasure is a step closer to retuning home from England.

Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga said today it was delighted with the in-principle support from the National Trust in England to return the Hinemihi carvings home to Aotearoa New Zealand in exchange for new carvings.

The carvings, part of the historic Hinemihi meeting house which survived the Tarawera eruption, have been lost to the people of Rotorua for almost 130 years.

The carvings left New Zealand in the 1890s after the Earl of Onslow, William Hiller, bought the entire meeting house as a souvenir.

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Whare Hinemihi at Clandon Park, Surrey. Photo / File
Whare Hinemihi at Clandon Park, Surrey. Photo / File

The meeting house was moved to a country estate in Surrey but somehow the carvings were separated from the meeting house.

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The in-principle support was an important first-step as discussions continued with the Guildford Borough Council and the secretary of state for the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, who together were the decision makers in approving their return.

Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga chief executive Andrew Coleman said they were indebted to the National Trust's guardianship of these hugely significant carvings since being placed in their care in 1956.

Hinemihi. Clandon House, Surrey, United Kingdom. Photo / File
Hinemihi. Clandon House, Surrey, United Kingdom. Photo / File

"The open and positive discussions between the National Trust, Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga and Ngāti Hinemihi have been highlighted with reciprocal visits and face-to-face discussions.

"While acknowledging there are still more discussions to be had before the return of the Hinemihi carvings are confirmed, Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga believes this is a very positive and important step in seeing Ngāti Hinemihi taonga returned home.

Coleman said they agreed with the National Trust's view that this proposed exchange took forward the story of Hinemihi.

"It is in keeping with tikanga and te ao Māori principles that these carvings are returned."

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Hinemihi's construction began at Te Wairoa in 1880 to fill the traditional roles of a meeting house but also to entertain tourists interested in cultural performances. During the 1886 Tarawera eruption people took shelter in Hinemihi, surviving through the night.

In the summer of 1986 Hinemihi was visited by Emily Schuster, a great-granddaughter of the carver Tene Waitere.

"We could feel the presence of our ancestors, those who sheltered inside Hinemihi during the eruption, and those who didn't make it to safety," she said.