"Do you remember Te Māori?" an old university friend, now an art curator and patron in the UK, asked me on an early morning call from London. Everyone does, I replied.

The 1984 exhibition was one of the few times Māori art and culture had been portrayed positively, purely in its own terms, in the New Zealand media. Until then, the exposure of Pakeha to Māori culture was often limited to poorly executed All Black haka and school cultural performances with piupiu made out of kleensaks and tī rakau played with rolled-up Heralds.

Given the cultural cringe of the time, the approval of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art allowed Pakeha to celebrate New Zealand's Māori heritage. People flocked to Te Māori when it came home in 1987.

My friend, Sigrid Kirk, cut to the chase: "There's an exhibition being put on by the Royal Academy called Oceania and it will be bigger and better still. Get yourself to London to see how you can help the RA get the New Zealand Government to back it." And so I did.

Oceania is the first major exhibition of its kinds in the United Kingdom. Photo / Supplied
Oceania is the first major exhibition of its kinds in the United Kingdom. Photo / Supplied

Nearly two years later I am in Green Park on Piccadilly about to participate in the procession to the RA's Burlington House headquarters to begin the opening ceremonies for Oceania.

Oceania is certainly bigger than Te Māori. It is about the art, culture and history of our wider region, from Papua New Guinea in the west, Hawaii in the north, Tahiti in the east and New Zealand in the south. More than 200 objects are included, some never before having been exhibited publicly.

Is it better? It is certainly different. Oceania reflects nearly 40 years' further development in how Māori and the other indigenous people of the Pacific have evolved their cultures and also how European people – in the Pacific and in Europe – perceive their ancestors' role in the region since the 1700s.

During today's ceremonies at the RA, former Governor-General Sir Jerry Mateparae pointed out that many – or most – of the Pacific objects held by European museums had originally been stolen. This was not awkward as it would have been in 1984. It was acknowledged by the RA's president, painter Christopher Le Brun, as a statement of fact.

Through traditional and contemporary art, Oceania tells the story of the settlement of the Pacific by uniquely skilled mariners over several millennia, the evolution of their cultures across the Pacific, the bad and good of encounter with Europeans, the still-incomplete process of decolonisation, and emerging challenges such as climate change. It marks the 250th anniversary of both the RA and Captain Cook's first voyage to the Pacific, but consciously from the perspective of the original inhabitants.

New Zealanders can see the exhibition free of charge. Photo / Supplied
New Zealanders can see the exhibition free of charge. Photo / Supplied

Oceania is the result of five year's work by curators Dr Adrian Locke of the Royal Academy, Professor Nicholas Thomas of the University of Cambridge and Dr Peter Brunt of Victoria University of Wellington. Thomas and Brunt are authors of Art in Oceania, which in 2013 won the Art Book Prize, the equivalent of the Man Booker prize, for the best book on art or architecture published anywhere in the world in English.

My interest in Oceania was less high-minded and was about securing the sponsorship for the RA to ensure it was fully resourced. In addition to promoting New Zealand in the UK ahead of Brexit, Jacinda Ardern and Winston Peters added other objectives to advance their Pacific Reset before agreeing that New Zealand should be the principal sponsor.

Oceania also positions the arts to play a lead role in a three-year story of New Zealand excellence that includes next year's Rugby World Cup and the America's Cup and Apec in 2021.


And so on Monday, representatives from New Zealand, Tonga, Papua New Guinea, Samoa and Tahiti – including those with the closest relationships with the objects to be displayed – left Green Park soon after sunrise and proceeded up Piccadilly. Guests at the Ritz gawked out the windows and Londoners going to work stopped and stared. Piccadilly was filled not just with waiata but other sounds from our region, less familiar to us New Zealanders but far from foreign.

When we entered the RA's courtyard at Burlington House, we were met by the Ngāti Rānana London Māori Club, which was taking the role of something like (but obviously not the same as) the tangata whenua of London. The club has been active in the city for 60 years and were the ones who lent the Prime Minister the stunning korowai she wore to Buckingham Palace back in April.

There was a public conversation between those who arrived at Burlington House as guardians of Oceania's objects and Ngāti Rānana, representing the RA. Why does the RA want to borrow our treasures? Will the RA respect them and look after them? Who is the exhibition for? The assurances were all satisfactory and Oceania is for the whole world.

The guardians of the 250 objects then entered Burlington House to ensure each one was properly blessed. Everyone else, including those from the RA, had to stay outside. It felt beautifully ironic that the old colonial master was cleared out of Burlington House, one of the symbols of the British Empire, to make way for the indigenous people of the Pacific to bless their treasures in the capital city that once subjugated them.

Afterwards, breakfast was served in the Reynolds Room, where Charles Darwin first presented his theory of evolution. Reserved for the RA's most important occasions, today the Reynolds Room was filled with laughing and singing in a way it may never have been before.

Tomorrow will be the much posher opening reception and Oceania will be open for viewing for the first time. Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex, is attending, her first solo royal engagement and a full media contingent from the UK and beyond is expected. With Arts Minister Jacinda Ardern on unavoidable other business in New York, New Zealand will be represented by Associate Arts Minister Carmel Sepuloni, with Samoan, Tongan and Pakeha heritage, and Mateparae, New Zealand's first Māori High Commissioner to the UK. Together they strongly symbolise contemporary New Zealand.

If the memories of my 12- and 15-year-old self serve me correctly, Te Māori was largely static and focused on the past. Oceania of course covers the history of the region but seems more dynamic and confident. There are the masks and weapons and other static objects but Lisa Reihana's in Pursuit of Venus (infected) uses more than three trillion pixels to bring to life an image of Pacific encounter drawn from 18th century French wallpaper. Michael Parekowhai's piano will be played. Symposia will be held at the RA throughout the nearly four months Oceania will be on in London before moving to Paris. Oceania is about alive and evolving cultures not stagnant tributes to the past.

Oceania will almost certainly never come to New Zealand. After the Paris show, the objects will return to the more than 30 museums and other institutions from which they have been borrowed, including Te Papa, the Auckland War Memorial Museum and the Auckland and Christchurch art galleries. But through the internet, it promises to create the same pride as Te Māori did during the 1980s. And that will encourage the ongoing re-evaluation of where Māori and broader contemporary New Zealand culture fit within the wider world today and the ways in which they may continue to evolve in the future.