Wednesday, 23 January 2008

Moko; or Māori Tattooing

The New Zealand Electronic Text Centre is pleased to announce a new collection of historical texts on Ta Moko as the result of a project which tries to take into account sensitivities around the digitisation of mātauranga Māori and textual taonga.

The collection can be found here

The project was centred on the digitisation of an annotated copy of the 1896 publication “Moko; or Maori Tattooing” by Horatio Gordon Robley. An additional six texts have also been digitised to provide contextual information about Ta Moko, mokamokai, Robley himself and his art. These texts include


The project raised various issues for the NZETC because, notwithstanding the status of the Robley text as a significant part of our documentary heritage, the Centre recognised that the mātauranga that it contained belonged to the wider Māori community and providing online access to this material had the potential to offend as much as to inform. The NZETC therefore undertook consultation with a range of groups such as academics, librarians and the general public, as well as source groups, Māori and Ta Moko artists. As a result of these conversations “Moko; or Māori Tattooing ” has been made freely accessible online with additional contextual material and those images depicting mokamokai or human remains have been suppressed and cannot be viewed. The same approach has been taken to all other images in the NZETC collection.

The decision to provide contextual resources and to suppress parts of the digitised book is an attempt to balance the interests of scholarship in the integrity of the work, the importance of free public access to New Zealand’s documentary record, the need to respect the tupuna depicted in Robley’s illustrations, and the need to inform readers about the context in which the text was created. A full report of the project provides more details on the issues that were considered. It can be read here

We would welcome feedback on the project and the paper.

Further Information:

Horatio G. Robley came to New Zealand, as an officer in the British Army, in 1864. While here he had many opportunities to sketch those Māori he encountered and he became interested in moko design. Later, after Robley had retired from the army, he began to collect mokamokai (preserved heads), buying them from dealers, auction houses and the owners of private collections. He used his collection as well as those available for viewing in Europe as the basis for his sketches that he included in his book.

The copy of “Moko; or Māori Tattooing ” which was digitised is part of the J C Beaglehole Room collection at Victoria University of Wellington Library. It is particularly interesting because it contains both handwritten annotations by Horace Fildes, a Wellington book collector and historian, and several letters from Robley to Fildes about the text and its content. Robley’s memoirs, organised and annotated by Fildes, are also held in the University Library and the NZETC intends to digitise these in the coming months.

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