12 minute read

What is heritage?



To truly protect and keep New Zealand’s heritage alive, we need to think beyond ‘lovely old buildings’. So how do we define heritage? We asked some heritage professionals how they see it

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When Wellington’s Central Library, at just 30 years old, was added to the New Zealand Heritage List/Rārangi Kōrero in 2021, it created quite a stir. Reactions ranged from enthusiasm to rage, with many wondering how a building younger than them could be ‘heritage’.

The reaction over the concurrent listing of Gordon Wilson Flats was even more heightened. Described by some as dangerous, due for demolition and one of Wellington’s ugliest buildings, its Category 1 designation seemed to fly in the face of what a ‘heritage’ place was popularly understood to be.

Annie James had just started in her listing advisor role with Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga at the time. “I opened the paper one day, happy to see coverage of the new listings, and the next to an outcry about them, and I realised just how much of a static view of heritage people can have.”

A place’s condition, age and appearance can make it hard for some people to see its value, Annie says. “And I get that. But a building that’s significant will be old one day, if we look after it. Heritage is all about foresight. A place can be valuable for the stories it tells, the communities it connects or the innovation behind its construction.”

Part of the challenge in how we understand and assess heritage lies in our inherited approach; as Annie explains, our tools and processes (including the List) largely come from European roots. However, this is slowly changing, with a more Aotearoa-appropriate approach emerging both via legislation and practice.

Both the Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga Board and Māori Heritage Council have clear strategies to prioritise Māori heritage in every aspect of the listing process, and advisors work with pouārahi (Māori heritage advisors local to the site) to develop narratives around listings, whether they are a library, a pā, or a shed. The Rainbow List project –which incorporates previously unrecognised queer narratives of significance into existing listings, as well as establishing new listings – is another recent development that reflects a wider representation of heritage.

Annie describes heritage as “how people, places and time relate to each other”, with heritage practitioners shifting away from the idea that heritage is frozen in time, and towards the idea of heritage having a living identity.


Any place that is fixed to the land within the territorial limits of Aotearoa New Zealand and can be shown to have one or more of the following significance values: aesthetic, archaeological, architectural, cultural, historical, scientific, social, spiritual, technological, or traditional.

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The observance of Matariki as a national holiday is helping to perpetuate the mātauranga of Māori and Polynesian astronomy and is a great example, says Dr Rangi Mātāmua, of how heritage is being created.


When we chat, Dr Rangi Mātāmua is sitting in Te Papa – “a pretty relevant location really,” laughs the author of Living by the Stars, who is renowned for his work in bringing the observation of Matariki back into national consciousness.

This year, the museum raised eyebrows when it used some cloaks from its collection as part of its Matariki celebrations; they are valuable heritage items, after all. But Rangi says it’s the sharing of heritage, not the maintaining of it, that is most important to him.

“From a Māori perspective, they’re flax and feathers until they are used. It’s people who give them their special quality. I’m pretty sure when the weavers were putting them together, they weren’t thinking, ‘I hope this sits in a cabinet for 400 years’. They’re meant to be used, and it’s the practice of making them and the sharing of the knowledge of how to do that, which matters.”

His privileging of what he calls ‘knowledge heritage’ may be controversial for some, but Rangi makes a key distinction between protection and activation, arguing that it’s the interaction with heritage that keeps it alive, and that can, in fact, protect it.

“If the objects

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Dr Rangi Mātāmua – a Māori astronomer and Professor of Mātauranga Māori at Massey University –says heritage is about activation rather than preservation


have no connection to people, they don’t activate the cultural identity heritage response. For me, ringfencing our heritage off and building a wall around it, not letting people interact with or access it, actually speeds up its decline.”

The Glenorchy Shed provides another example. The shed is iconic, and well signposted, “Which is right; it’s part of heritage”, says Rangi. But a traditional Ngāi Tahu pā site directly opposite, where people have been eeling for 600 years, is unmarked.

“But they still go eeling in that place, 600 years later. For them, it’s not about the structure, it’s about the activity.”

So how can we protect such sites so their heritage value can continue to be activated and that knowledge heritage cultivated and passed down?

Rangi’s grandfather Jim Moses (Timi Rāwiri Mātāmua) once told him, “Knowledge hidden isn’t knowledge at all.”

In 1995, in response to Rangi’s questions about Matariki, his grandfather produced a 400-page astrological manuscript written

in te reo Māori by Timi’s grandfather, Rāwiri Te Kōkau, and his father, Te Kōkau Himiona Te Pikikotuku, who was a tohunga of Tūhoe and Ngāti Pikiao. It had previously been kept private – but he told Rangi to share it.

Partly as a result of that, Matariki is now observed with a national holiday and the mātauranga of Māori and Polynesian astronomy has been activated for many in Aotearoa New Zealand and around the world. For Rangi, this new observance of Matariki is a great example of how heritage is also being created.

“Heritage is also the continuation of the knowledge. It lives because of the interaction with people. And we’re constantly adding to it, like with Matariki. In my mind, that’s where we need to go.”

“Heritage is also the continuation of the knowledge. It lives because of the interaction with people”


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Dr Paola Boarin – Associate Professor at Te Pare School of Architecture and Planning at the University of Auckland and co-founder and codirector of the Future Cities Research Hub – says heritage is an enabler of a more sustainable and resilient future

Growing up in Italy, Paola Boarin was “always living in historic environments” – by which she means the tangible, built heritage harking back to the Pantheon for which the country is so famous.

“In a way, for people like me, it becomes an automatic thing to think about the heritage around you,” she says.

However, she explains, there’s another side to this.

“You can get so stuck with the conservation approach, to the point where you think you can’t do anything with these buildings. Where you can’t touch it and you can’t change anything, which can take heritage to a point where it is not useful anymore.”

Moving to New Zealand, Paola was glad to see a more open approach, although discovering Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga’s stories of ‘lost heritage’ came as a shock. She says she couldn’t imagine such a thing in Italy.

The architect and academic says the definition of heritage that resonates best with her is provided by UNESCO, which she articulates as: “The legacy of physical artefacts and intangible attributes of a group or society that are inherited from the past generations, maintained in the present, and bestowed for the benefit of future generations.”

Adapting heritage buildings for contemporary use, which is a focus of Paola’s research, is a direct fulfilment of this definition; it is ‘activating heritage’ –to borrow Rangi’s term.

“For me, adaptive reuse is about incorporating this transmission of past to the future through transformations that enable heritage to maintain its usefulness. When you stop using a building, you start losing it, because people don’t see it as useful anymore. It really links to heritage not being a thing of the past but a thing of the present tense.”

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Heritage New Zealand


hapū: sub-tribe *kāika (kāinga): village mātauranga: knowledge

rohe: tribal area tapu: sacred tīpuna/tūpuna: ancestors

*tūraka (tūranga): foundation whakapapa: genealogy whanaunga: relatives *Ngāi Tahu spelling


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Marie Dunn and Sabre Baker-Anderson are a graduate and


student of the Master of Arts in Archaeology at the University of Otago


“How we see our history really affects how we navigate the world”

“For me, heritage is anything that connects me to my tūpuna,” says recent archaeology master’s graduate, Marie Dunn, from Murihiku Southland.

Fellow archaeologist Sabre BakerAnderson (Ngāti Ranginui, Te Rarawa and Ngati Porou) agrees. “Heritage depends on the people. For me, it’s about my tīpuna and what they were doing and the knowledge they’ve passed on.”

Marie spent her childhood immersed in archaeology, although she didn’t realise it at the time. She grew up on an archaeological site in the Catlins, the tūraka of her hapū. She describes her grandmother as an amateur archaeologist and naturalist and says there were always archaeological artefacts around home.

“These sites were my playground. But I assumed everyone’s nan had an adze in the house! So when I found out you could actually study it, I got so excited.”

Her master’s thesis examined the connection between Kāi Tahu and Kāti Māmoe identity and the cultural landscapes in Murihiku using the kāika where she grew up, and her nan’s writings about tūpuna, as a case study.

“It’s so important to show that there is evidence of Māori being here,” she explains, noting that the history of the Catlins tends to be overly focused on sealers, whalers and loggers, with mentions of Māori often only a sentence.

“Just because you don’t see huge pā sites in the Catlins, doesn’t mean we weren’t here. But if people aren’t aware of what was here, it’s easy to brush it under the rug.

How we see our history really affects how we navigate the world.”

Sabre’s research focuses on the interaction between people and the environment at Cape Kidnappers to better understand settlement, subsistence and the mobility of people in Hawke’s Bay. Her nan was a native te reo Māori speaker, her grandfather a carver and weaver, and her mum’s husband a carver, so she grew up “with a lot of Māori ‘stuff’ around me. Things my family had made all the time”.

From a young age she wanted to be an archaeologist but wasn’t initially interested in pursuing Māori archaeology.

“From what I learned growing up, I wasn’t exactly comfortable with excavating in a rohe I don’t whakapapa to. It wasn’t until I came to the [University of Otago] department and saw their enthusiasm for the Pacific and for Māori archaeology that I really started getting interested in Māori archaeology.”

Both Sabre and Marie are hugely encouraged by the increasing presence of Māori archaeologists and changes to indigenous archaeological practice and fieldwork in Aotearoa New Zealand. Marie points out that while historically archaeologists have studied material culture in order to look at our heritage, work by indigenous archaeologists has paved the way to look at the intangible as well.

“For a long time there weren’t enough Māori archaeologists looking at, for example, oral traditions from a Māori perspective,” says Sabre. “That’s changing.”

Marie and Sabre credit mentors such as Dr Gerard O’Regan, currently Pouhere

Kaupapa Māori Curator at Tūhura Otago Museum; University of Otago lecturer Zac McIvor; and Makere Rika-Heke, Director Kaiwhakahaere Tautiaki Wāhi Taonga at Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga, with helping to chart the way forward.

“Being involved in the excavations with Gerard and his whanaunga opened our eyes to how our people can be involved in cultural heritage management. It’s helped us see that there are inspirational Māori archaeological projects that involve the community in cultural heritage management, excavation and so on, where their interests are key to the whole thing,” explains Sabre.

Their optimism shifts though, when talking about threats to archaeology in New Zealand. Says Sabre: “With rising sea levels and climate change, there’s a lot more erosion happening and a lot more archaeology being lost, and cultural heritage.”

Marie says that both the sites she’s worked on, at Cape Kidnappers and Moeraki, have already lost significant material.

But it’s the site where she lives in the Catlins that drives the point home. “We recently lost about three to five metres from the dunes due to erosion in just a few days, which was shocking, and it is threatening a really tapu place for my whānau.”

She suggests the conversations about heritage now happening in communities will centre on whether to let nature take its course or intervene and rescue the material.

“The decision,” says Sabre, “will depend on the people.”

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