Carving jade is a miracle. The toughest material on earth, nephrite jade is stronger than steel. Ranging in color from the palest white to its trademark shade of brilliant green, its abilities to carry sound vibrations and retain bodily warmth imbue it with an ethereal subtlety, like touching the hand of a loved one. This intimate quality has allowed people to develop deeply spiritual connections with jade objects as far back as the Neolithic era. Its sanctity is felt in the regions and cultures that have found it in abundant supply: Mesoamerica, China, the Pacific Northwest, and Oceania. Institutions that collect jade artworks conserve and preserve their physical condition, but it begs the question: how can a museum care for the metaphysical life of its collection, as well?
That’s a question often contemplated by Maia Nuku, a scholar of Pacific history and visual art, especially in regards to a nephrite jade hei tiki pendant from Aotearoa New Zealand in The Met collection. Neck ornaments like this one are often family heirlooms, passed between generations and representing the lineage of their wearers. Striking in their own right, hei tiki become powerful symbols of Māori heritage in a radical set of portraits from the nineteenth century featuring Māori women proudly displaying their hei tiki over layers of Victorian era garments. Encountering these images in her twenties set Nuku, who is of both English and Māori descent, led her on a journey of research until she eventually became The Met’s curator of Oceanic Art.
Like Nuku, Lisa Ruaka Reweti, public programs presenter at the Whanganui Regional Museum on the North Island of New Zealand, is part of a global community of curators, academics, and educators who reference their own Pacific heritage to teach the connection between cultural traditions and artworks. Reweti shares a similar story about a 1937 photograph of her grandmother in which she wears Te Rauna, a hei tiki given to her by Rose’s great aunt. Her grandmother handed the pendant down to Reweti, who wears Te Rauna today and shares her with young museum visitors.
This episode explores the story of the pounamu (nephrite jade) hei tiki from many angles—personal, historical, and geological. Along the way, we meet Dougal Austin, senior curator, Mātauranga Māori, at Te Papa Tongarewa, The Museum of New Zealand. Austin’s whakapapa, or genealogy, includes the iwi Kāi Tahu, for whom pounamu is a protected possession. Like Reweti, his work intersects with providing spiritual care for his community’s treasures. Geologist and earth systems scientist Dan Hikuroa ties the formation of New Zealand’s pounamu to a water-like being named Whatipu. And it all comes back to the galleries for Oceanic art at The Met, where Nuku is rethinking what a gallery is and who it’s for… the visitors, or the art itself?
Listen for the whole story, and scroll through the gallery below to take a closer look at The Met’s hei tiki and other greenstone objects from The Met collection.
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