Wednesday, January 31, 2007
Paid a visit to the Field Museum last night to hear about an upcoming visit from a Maori delegation from New Zealand. There are three Maori meeting houses outside of New Zealand: Hamburg and London each has one, Chicago has the third.
The delegation is coming to talk about the third.
A few years back there was a ceremony in which the house was dusted off and reinstalled the right way -- barrier glass removed, weavings restored to the walls, form rebuilt so that the central beam slants downward toward the back of the structure the way it was intended. The whole of the house – with its elaborately carved beams – resembles the human form – carved faces and arms stretched wide and welcoming at the opening, central beam running like a spine through the house. The Maori believe that a meeting house is a living thing where the ancestors reside -- and to stay alive and well it must be used, and it must touched.
Seems like we were blowing it for awhile at the Field – the house was tucked away behind glass where it couldn’t be touched, couldn’t be used. An attempt was made to remedy that with the reinstallation in the early ‘90s – however, we haven’t done the best we could do to put it to good use. It sits quietly on the second floor of the museum, usually occupied by a single attendant whose responsibility is to tell the story of the house – how it is used and what it means. All of this came about through conversation with the Maori of Tokomaru Bay in New Zealand, where the house originated (it was sold to a German fellow in the early 1900s – Chicago bought it from him).
The last time I visited the house was on the tail end of experiencing an exhibit of photography from Auschwitz, which was installed nearby, and was deeply unsettling. I stepped into the house, found a little niche along the wall, and just sat there awhile. People came and went, and before too long I felt calmer, quieter. Not resolved after what I had seen, but better than before. I could tell the house was Maori because I was vaguely familiar with that style of woodcarving, but I didn’t realize then what a rarity it was.
For a time there was a conversation about repatriating the house, and so the Field Museum sent a delegation to New Zealand to talk to the original community about what should be done. It was agreed that if certain steps were taken that it could live and be well at the Field. As the delegation was leaving an older Maori woman, known as Aunt Ida, handed Dr. John Terrell of the Field a small carved wooden box and said: “When the house is ready, you’re going to need this.” Terrell asked if he could look inside and she said of course – inside he found an infant’s umbilicus. It’s now interred in the house – in a hidden spot.
Terrell explained, when he told this story, that it’s the umbilicus that brings the house alive.
What he didn’t say, but what I thought immediately, was “Yeah, baby: belly buttons.”
Anyway, the conversation about repatriation has reared up again, and the Maori will be visiting again this coming April to make sure that Ruatepupuke II (the name of the house) is alive and well under the care of the Field Museum. Clearly the folks at the Field feel that they have done well by the structure as conservators, but there was much conversation tonight about whether all has been done that can be done to put it to good use – food and drink is an important part of that use, as is activity, music, and dance. All things that it doesn’t see much of on the second floor of the museum.
Time will tell if we, entrusted as the Chicago marae, can pull this thing off -- or if the house will be going home soon.