At the University of Canterbury (UC) Engineering and Physical Sciences Library lives a treasured carved sculpture - Te Taonga O Rūaumoko – that is of very special significance to earthquake engineers.
Rūaumoko at the UC library
The detailed, dark, wooden carving is an interpretation of the Māori mythological god of earthquakes and volcanos – Rūaumoko. His stylized form is the logo for not only the New Zealand Society of Earthquake engineering but also the International Association for Earthquake Engineering (IAEE) and there’s a fascinating back story as to why.
The year was 1965. Then President of the IAEE, American Earthquake Engineering specialist, Mr Karl Steinbrugge, was in attendance at the third World Conference in Earthquake Engineering (WCEE), held in Auckland and Wellington, New Zealand.
Also in attendance and on prominent display was Rūaumoko. Intricately sculpted by Wellington Dominion Museum’s Chief Māori carver at the time, Mr Charles Tuarau (1912-1996). The artwork had Mr Steinbrugge intrigued.
Clive Fugil 1949-
Te Taonga O Rūaumoko (2009), carved totara, 370 x 140 mm, UC-REG-1136, University of Canterbury Art Collection
Charles Tuarau 1912-1996
Te Taonga O Rūaumoko (1970), carved wood, 370 x 140 mm, UC-DEP-0268, University of Canterbury Art Collection
In a letter to Professor Robert Park (UC Head of Civil Engineering and internationally renowned earthquake engineer), Mr Steinbrugge, penned that he had, “greatly admired the carving and what it represented.” He persuaded the IAEE to also adopt the symbol of Rūaumoko in their logo and commissioned master carver Tuarau, to create another version (presented to Mr Steinbrugge during his second visit to New Zealand in 1970).
Over the next 20 years, this version of Te Taonga O Rūaumoko was displayed in America and travelled extensively throughout the United States and Europe, with a debut conference appearance at the fifth WCEE in Rome, Italy in 1973.
Nearly two decades later, in 1991, Mr Steinbrugge, generously gifted Rūaumoko to the UC’s civil engineering department. His rationale was that this was the natural choice as the treasured sculptures permanent home, especially given the influence and significant output of the department in earthquake engineering.
Professor Park explained the importance of the ceremonial blessing of Tuarau’s sculpted Rūaumoko into the UC’s guardianship, in a letter to Ms H McCarrigan at the Engineering Library in June 1991:
“….Mr Tuarua did not want Te Taonga O Rūaumoko lodged in a museum in New Zealand because of the ‘red tape’ that would be involved in taking him out to be displayed at the WCEE.” (held internationally every four years).
Mr Tuarau informed us that it was imperative the carving be taken to WCEE as an important display of New Zealand’s involvement and influence. He felt placing Rūaumoko under the guardianship of the UC would make it easier to take overseas on those occasions.”
As trusted (and fondly attached) guardians of this special Taonga, it is of course with some trepidation that library staff and UC Arts Collection Curator, Lydia Baxendell, part with Rūaumoko every four years, to leave the safety of his glass-encased library home for the WCEE’s.
“Those with institutional knowledge recall (and are quick to remind me) of the incident in Bejing when our original Taurau sculpture was stolen,” says Lydia.
She is referring to the the 2008 14WCEE in China when the sculpture was taken out of New Zealand hands and into those of a thief while on loan from the UC. Todays carved Rūaumoko by artist Clive Fugil was commissioned in 2009 to replace the stolen work by Charles Tuarau.
Lydia is swift to point out, “when both carvings are compared they are really quite different, the Fugil is not a replica or a copy – it is an artwork in its own right and needs to be treated with respect.”
After some rigorous training on packaging, handling and protocol, as well as the usual loan and insurance forms, Dr. Ali Sahin Tasligedik, (Earthquake Research Engineer for the UC and the UC Quake Centre), took responsibility to transport Rūaumoko to this years 16WCEE.
“As caretaker of such a significant Taonga, Sahin was given training on both handling a museum object, as well as cultural considerations,” explains Lydia.
This includes always displaying and storing Rūaumoko facing forward (it would be disrespectful to turn your back on an audience for instance), not placing or storing the sculpture around the vicinity of food or drink, handling with clean hands and without jewellery that could scratch the surface. Also, the importance of not leaving him unattended and to communicate what Rūaumoko is and his cultural value.
“Our approach with Rūaumoko is to think of him as a personification of an ancestor to be treated with dignity and respect,” says Lydia.
“I was reassured by Sahin that it was on display during the opening and closing ceremony with security cameras on it at all times and, when not on display, Rūaumoko was in a high security lock up,” says Lydia. “He emailed me regular images and updates and I couldn’t have asked for a more caring custodian. I heard later that Sahin had missed his flight due to being held up at customs – this shows his dedication to protecting our Taonga!”
“Despite my concerns, the ceremonial significance of this carving is considered of great importance to all at the earthquake conference’s and I believe it’s integral to continue this positive representation of UC, New Zealand and Māori culture to an international audience.”