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Image Statue of the explorer Kupe and his companions, 1939

TLF ID R4232

This is a very large monumental sculpture of three human figures. The Polynesian explorer Kupe holds a spear at the prow of his waka (canoe), Mätähoua; his wife, Hineiteäparangi (or Kuramarotini), points to the horizon; and the tohunga (skilled and respected person) Pekahourangi holds a tewhatewha (wooden battleaxe) and sits gazing into the distance. The sculpture is made of plaster with a concrete and wood base, and is painted a bronze colour. It was made by William Trethewey for the 1940 Centennial Exhibition in Wellington. The sculpture is 6.78 m (height) x 2.8 m (width) x 2.60 m (diameter), and weighs an estimated 4-5 tonnes.

Educational details

Educational value
  • This asset is an example of the work of the prominent New Zealand sculptor William Trethewey – he was responsible for a number of major pieces related to New Zealand history, including a similar over-size sculpture of Captain James Cook in Christchurch and a number of works produced for the New Zealand Centennial Exhibition held in Wellington from November 1939 to May 1940.
  • It is a work that was commissioned for and given a prominent place at the main entrance to the New Zealand Centennial Exhibition - this event not only commemorated a century of European settlement in New Zealand and the centenary of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, but was also part of a conscious attempt to create and promote a sense of national spirit and achievement.
  • It highlights the prominence of Kupe - in a number of tribal narratives he was the first Polynesian to discover the islands of New Zealand and, as a result, the namer of many places that have been preserved by generations of Mäori.
  • It illustrates a legend associated with the discovery of New Zealand - Kupe's journey was triggered by difficulties with fishing in Hawaiki, his homeland, due to the actions of a giant octopus belonging to his competitor, Muturangi; Kupe set out in his canoe to kill the octopus, and such was the length of the pursuit that it brought him to New Zealand, which his wife, on seeing the North Island for the first time, called Ao-tea-roa (long white cloud), a name which is still commonly used today.
  • It highlights the historical debate questioning the validity of the Kupe tradition as promoted by men such as Stephenson Percy Smith and artists such as William Trethewey - this was an attempt to create a heroic tradition that gave the human settlement of New Zealand not only greater depth but also created a shared tradition with the European explorers who were to follow; half the Mäori tribes in New Zealand have no Kupe traditions and most evidence points to human settlement not occurring until some time between 1250 and 1300 AD.
  • It was initially constructed to last only for the duration of the Centennial Exhibition - after the Exhibition ended in 1940, the statue was housed for many years in the Wellington Railway Station and Wellington Show and Sports Centre; it was removed in 1997 and stored in a badly damaged state at Te Papa before being cast in real bronze and installed permanently on the Wellington waterfront in 2000.

Other details

  • Contributor
  • Name: Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa
  • Organization: Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa
  • Description: Content provider
  • URL:
  • Name: Education Services Australia
  • Organization: Education Services Australia
  • Description: Data manager
  • Person: William Trethewey
  • Description: Author
  • Copyright Holder
  • Name: Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa
  • Organization: Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa
  • Publisher
  • Name: Education Services Australia Ltd
  • Organization: Education Services Australia Ltd
  • Description: Publisher
  • Address: VIC, AUSTRALIA
  • URL:
  • Resource metadata contributed by
  • Name: Education Services Australia Ltd
  • Organisation: Education Services Australia Ltd
  • Address: AUSTRALIA
  • URL:
Access profile
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  • Device independence
  • Hearing independence
Learning Resource Type
  • Image
  • © Education Services Australia Ltd and Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, 2013, except where indicated under Acknowledgements