"Taonga" means, almost literally, "treasure" - but like everything Maori that is not the end of it - Maori taonga doesn't just mean a pile of artefacts or jade or bone carvings, it means so much more than that. Maori art is invested with a magical and mystical dimension which it is sometimes difficult for an outsider to comprehend or wrap their head around. A piece of art isn't just to be admired. It carries a history, a story, a deeply unique spiritual value of its own.
Being the person I am, of course, I gravitated immediately to this new and fascinating set of ideas and objects. And one of the places that served to quench the new thirst was the Auckland Museum.
Technically it's the Auckland War Museum, because there is a cenotaph there, and a large section of the museum is dedicated to New Zealand's wars and the men who fought and died in them. The museum itself is situated in a beautiful and enormous park on a hill, and from the entrance portico of the museum it is possible to enjoy magnificent views of the city and the sea and the sky. But inside, once through its white pillars and into the marble halls of its entrance hallway, it's a house of treasure and glory.
Whether your interests lie in those wars which history has led New Zealand into, or the natural history of the area (stuffed kiwis, anyone?) or ancient worlds of both Maori mythology and other geo-historical locales (there's even an entire Egyptian mummy for your delectation, which I am certain has been a firm favourite with Auckland schoolchildren of a certain bent for QUITE some time...), or that taonga I spoke of earlier - Maori carvings, a replica of a Maori meeting house, a whole world of exquisite detail and a completeness and complexity which gives the lie to, and probably irks beyond measure, those of the Western mindset who believes everything Western is inherently superior by virtue of being itself. You walk into this museum from a vibrant modern metropolis, by way of verdant greensward and shady woods, and you find yourself in a different, ancient, powerful world where magic walked the earth and words and shapes held true power. (I had the opportunity, some years after I had first wandered the halls of the Auckland Museum, to do a bone carving with my own fair hands - I chose a stylised representation of a manaia, a creature open to a wide range of incarnations and which held real power as a tribal guardian spirit. And it was the Auckland Museum which had informed my heart and hand.)
But this museum does hold a completely different memory for me, too.
It hosted, at one point, a travelling exhibition of spiders. Yes, LIVE spiders. All sorts. This arachnid extravaganza was hardly something I would have gone to myself, feeling a little... icked out... by spiders. But a friend of mine was interested and needed somebody to go with her, and so I was dragged along.
The first thing you saw as you entered the exhibit area was a huge glass terrarium.
And in it was something that was billed as the South American Bird Eating Spider.
One of these guys:
Did I believe this thing ate birds? You bet I did. Not just sparrows and finches, actually, I could believe it ate EAGLES when it could get them.
I spent the rest of the visit sidling sideways, keeping a weather eye on that original container, making absolutely CERTAIN that it had not been breached. Because in the absence of any birds that monster in there would quite happily, I am wholly convinced, have eaten ME.
I didn't have the opportunity, on THAT visit, to scuttle off to the peace and calm of the Maori taonga galleries to calm my jagged nerves - but in some ways it was enough just to know that they were there.
Eh. Visit a museum. You NEVER know what you might find.
Some pictorial addenda:
The Auckland Museum: Haere Mai. Welcome.