Although instantly recognisable even to non-Māori, popular knowledge barely scratches the surface of the deep significance of hei tiki. Tāmaki Herenga Waka: Stories of Auckland Project Curator Tharron Bloomfield shines a light on just some of the hei tiki in the Museum's collection. 

Opening in early 2021, Tāmaki  Herenga Waka: Stories of Auckland is a new permanent gallery that will tell the stories of the people and places of Auckland.

The first display case visitors will encounter when entering from the Museum’s iconic Māori Court is a large display of hei tiki. Reaching nearly floor to ceiling, this display shows the beauty and variety of one of the most recognisable of Māori taonga.


Image: Hei tiki, pounamu. Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira. 1934.124, 20085.1.

Hei tiki are stylised humanistic forms normally made of pounamu to be worn around the neck (the word hei denotes neck). Hei tiki are easily recognisable but not well understood. A variety of meanings for hei tiki have been put forward by scholars – an embryo, fertility symbols, a representation of ‘first man’. An even more extraordinary (and incorrect) theory purports tiki are derived from Buddha.1 



Image: Hei tiki, bone. Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira. 1990.38, 53401.2.

In addition to showing the variation and size of the Museum’s hei tiki collection, this selection provides insight into the early collecting practices of museums. Early colonial collectors were often interested in Māori objects for their aesthetic appeal or as curiosities rather than for their connection to people. The records of many of these hei tiki are therefore brief or non-existent. Sadly, the connection these taonga had to iwi, whānau or individuals may never be known.  


Image: Hei tiki, pounamu. Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira. 1934.124, 20085.3.

The significance of hei tiki for Māori is the personal connection they hold to an individual. This is strengthened when they have been passed down a family line. For Māori, this is the importance of hei tiki rather than meanings assigned by scholars. Hei tiki are taonga tuku iho – treasures passed down.2 

During the planning for Tāmaki Herenga Waka: Stories of Auckland, I received an email from an overseas colleague with the subject ‘Hey Tiki’. Obviously a spelling error, possibly even created by a computer spell-check programme rather than the email’s author, this innocent typo lead me to further think about the significance of tiki in wider popular culture and not just for Māori people.



Image: Hei tiki, pounamu. Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira. 1992.107, 54083.

Shortly after New Year’s in 2020, Te Papa reported they had purchased a large, bright green tiki made from moulded plastic. It had been worn by John Lennon during the Beatles’ infamous tour to New Zealand in 1964. Images of Lennon and his bandmates wearing the comical, oversized hei tiki are iconic. By today’s standards this might be considered culturally insensitive, maybe even grotesque.  


Image: Wooden Hei tiki, painted red and green. Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira. 2015.100.551.

Similarly, Auckland Museum holds a large array of twentieth century depictions of tiki collected by the late Mick Pendergrast. An ethnologist with a particular expertise in fibre arts, Pendergrast’s ‘tacky tiki’ collection show tiki as part of souvenirs or ornamentation – teaspoons, bookmarks, ash trays and other everyday items. Kitsch, offensive, comical, trashy – this collection shows Pendergrast’s own commitment and foresight as a collector, as well as the wide fascination Pākehā New Zealanders have with hei tiki.


Image: Beer mat with “tiki NZ”. Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira. 2015.100.565.

Cultural icons and taonga tuku iho, the hei tiki that welcome visitors on entering Tāmaki  Herenga Waka: Stories of Auckland can metaphorically be seen as a representation of the people of Auckland. They have each taken different journeys to reach Tāmaki from other shores. No two are the same. They vary in size, shape and hue. Some are pristine, others are flawed. Some have known histories, while the stories of others have been forgotten.3

There is a very well-known whakataukī (proverb) that refers to pounamu: Ahakoa he iti, he pounamu – although small, it is precious. Although hei tiki are small, their significance as taonga is huge.


Image: Hei tiki, pounamu. Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira. 1992.312, 54344.


1 Robley, Horatio Gordon 1840-1930 : History of the tiki of greenstone and other papers, Alexander Turnbull Library; MS-Papers-0734.

2 For an excellent discussion of the cultural meaning of hei tiki as well as information on the manufacture and variety of hei tiki, see the recent book written by Dougal Austin, Curator – Matuaranga Maori at Te Papa Tongarewa.

3 With acknowledgment to Kirsten O’Regan for some of these descriptions. 


Header image: Detail, Hei tiki, pounamu. Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira. 1934.124, 20085.1.