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"Moko; or Maori Tattooing" Project: A Report on Consultation

This paper reports on the results of conversations held between the New Zealand Electronic Text Centre and various parties on the NZETC's proposal to digitise and make freely available Horatio Gordon Robley's Moko; or Maori Tattooing and several associated texts. The paper provides some background to the project, outlines the digitisation options considered, reports on the advice and feedback received through consultation activities, and describes the decisions which have subsequently been taken.

[Note that throughout this document we use the spelling ‘mokamokai’ rather than ‘mokomokai’. During our research we have found both spellings used in historical and modern texts and have not been able to identify whether one is more ‘correct’ than the other. Where source or reference texts use ‘mokomokai’ we have not edited the spelling]


Moko; or Maori Tattooing was published in 1896 by Chapman & Hall in London. Written by Horatio Gordon Robley, the text was based on predominantly secondary sources and contained a wealth of drawings made by Robley himself. Many of these were drawn while he was resident in New Zealand.

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 and photos of mokamokai that he included in his book.

The Moko project was proposed to initially include the digitisation of Horace Fildes’ annotated 1st Edition copy of Moko; or Maori Tattooing, which is held in the Fildes Collection in the J. C. Beaglehole Room (the special collections library within the Victoria University of Wellington Library), and six other texts about Ta Moko, mokamokai, Robley himself and his art. In addition to these newly digitised texts, the proposal was to provide links to other texts and resources in online collections such as Te Ao Hou.

The purpose for providing as much contextual material as possible is that we hoped by providing access we would support readers’ understanding of the text, its topic and its author.

Moko; or Maori Tattooing was first chosen as a text to digitise as it is considered, by some at least, as a seminal work on moko. It is still popular and can be freely found in reprint form in most bookshops. Fildes’ annotated copy was of particular interest for a number of reasons: it contains a number of ‘letters’ from Robley to Fildes about the text and its content; it includes a hand-painted water-colour of a mokamokai by Robley; and for some of the images of people or mokamokai within the text where the caption gave no indication of who the people were within them, Fildes has provided a name.

Despite the recognised importance of this text as a significant part of New Zealand's documentary heritage, we were aware that the Mātauranga that it contained belonged to the wider Māori community. Providing unrestricted internet access to it, and the images of mokamokai and ancestral remains it contains, is not something that should be undertaken without consultation and could require modification of our current online delivery system.

Moko; or Maori Tattooing has already been partly digitised by Google Books. However, they only provide “limited preview” access to section of several modern editions (around 26 pages out of 216 in one case and around 40 pages out of 240 in another). The selection of pages to display appears random and certainly not driven by concern for cultural sensitivity over the content – one of the pages available through Google Books shows a line drawing of a mokamokai.


For consultation we wanted to discuss this project, and all the possibilities that surrounded its digitisation, with as many communities and in as broad a scope as possible. We consulted with potential user groups such as academics, librarians and the general public as well as source groups, Māori and Ta Moko artists. We wanted to know how they felt about digitising Moko, presenting the images of people and mokamokai as well as issues of access and restriction. We wanted to use the information gathered to develop a policy in how we would respond to requests from whānau related to the content. In so doing we wanted to set a convention, however tentative, for future projects that had similar sensitivity issues and to raise awareness of these issues that surround digitisation of textual taonga.

The digitisation options that we perceived were:

  • Present everything online.

  • Provide access to all content except photographs of mokamokai.

  • Provide access to all content except photos and line drawings of mokamokai.

  • Provide access to all content except all photos of people and line drawings of mokamokai.

  • Provide access to text only.

  • Suppress everything.


The response from the academics we contacted was generally very supportive of digitisation of the text and in favour of retaining the integrity of the book in the interests of scholarship by presenting all the content online.

Professor Ngahuia Te Awekotoku of the University of Waikato advocated making the entire work available online and Peter Adds, head of Te Kawa a Māui at Victoria University of Wellington, was also encouraging.

Librarians & Curators

We consulted with a number of groups within the library and museum sector to explore the issues that would be raised by digitising this text. Opinions expressed by individuals were diverse.

Within Te Komiti Māori, which advises the National Library of New Zealand on matters pertaining to Māori, there was a mixed response. While Paul Meredith, a member of the committee and also Pou Hautu (PVC (Māori) Office) at Victoria University, spoke in support of the project the majority of members urged caution. Serious concerns were expressed about both the public display of images of ancestral remains and the potential for the moko themselves to be copied and used in inappropriate ways when made globally accessible online. It was thought that the implementation of access controls and the provision of information to educate the potential user about the moral rights held over the content might mitigate some of these concerns about the misuse of material but would not resolve them entirely. It was felt preferable that a New Zealand group undertook the digitisation of Māori historical material rather than a global corporation such as Google but that in itself was not a justification for the project.

Te Papa provided us with useful information on the cultural sensitivities of Toi Moko and encouraged us to seek advice from as many Māori communities as possible.

A presentation about the project given at a hui held by Te Rōpū Whakahau (Māori in Libraries and Information Management) drew a range of responses but no definitive trend. These responses ranged from supporting the digitisation and presentation of the entire book by the NZETC to suggestions that only the whānau of those depicted in the text could give or deny permission for the project to proceed.

Several of the groups that we talked to expressed general concerns about digitisation and the potential for misuse of material should it be made more easily accessible online. However they did not go so far as to recommend that the Moko project not take place. In part this seemed to stem from a feeling that no group or individual was in a position to offer a definitive opinion about the digitisation of this text.


The responses we received when we canvassed both user and source communities were wide-ranging.

Ta Moko artist Rangi Kipa did not recommend digitisation as Māori should retain their rights to Mātauranga Māori and access by non-Māori should be limited. He (and presumably the members of Te Uhi) felt that widespread dissemination of moko designs would lead others to profit from it.

We contacted the Associate Minister for the Arts (Mahara Okeroa, Labour [Te Tai Tonga]) but received no reply.

We posted a description of the project and asked for feedback on two messageboards; panui on Maori.org.nz and Aocafe.com. The response from those who posted to Maori.org.nz was mixed but generally with a feeling that digitisation was a good thing if done sensitively. Suggestions were made that we should contact the whānau of those in the images to ask for permission to display them or to have a way of dealing with grievances and requests from family asking us to remove the images.

The general feeling at the messageboard on Aocafe.com was that digitising Moko was a possibility but it was essential that its content was protected from misuse.

We were able to create a poll on Aocafe.com but the options we provided were a limited list based on the options we were aware of at the time; there were more options to be considered in the final decision making process. 47 people out of 65 who voted in the poll (allowing for the possibility that this might not be an accurate reflection of the thoughts of the community) thought that Moko should be digitised in some form.

Do you think that Moko; or Maori Tattooing should be digitised?
Yes, all of it in its entirety. 43% [28]
Yes, but with restrictions on what images are displayed, especially those of mokamokai. 23% [15]
Yes, but with no images displayed. 6% [4]
No, this Mātauranga Māori should not be made available online. 27% [18]
Total Votes: 65

We attempted to conduct a focus group with students from the Māori Studies programmes here at Victoria University but there was not a sufficient level of interest to do so.


The range of response found through our consultations was to be expected; what has come from it is a number of suggestions on how, if digitisation were to go ahead, online presentation of Moko could be undertaken that would be respectful and minimise the chances of misuse and exploitation.

Digitisation Options

The options were:

  • Present everything online.

    Very few of those consulted felt that this was an option but we chose to include it as an option so that we would cover every eventuality thoroughly.

  • Provide access to all content except photographs of mokamokai.

    Photography is a powerful medium with which to record history and the results are frequently considered as special as the objects and people they record. By suppressing the photos of mokamokai we would be recognising that they are tapu.

  • Provide access to all content except photos and line drawings of mokamokai.

    This option would mean that all graphical representations of human remains would not be accessible online and therefore any misuse, especially debasement, of these would be avoided. The implication here was that those images representing mokamokai are of a more sensitive nature than those of then living people and the moko designs themselves, which may or may not be true.

  • Provide access to all content except all photos of people and line drawings of mokamokai.

    Suppressing all the photos would mean that there would be no opportunity for users to exploit them. It must be noted, however, that it is relatively easy to find photos of people with moko online as several images have been digitised by others already.

  • Provide access to text only.

    If we suppressed all of the images this would have had a significant effect on text in that the images could be seen to be intrinsic to the work and to remove them would affect the readability of Moko and also render the information it contains out of context.

  • Suppress everything.

    If we went with the recommendations of some of the professional groups we had the option to suppress the entire text and provide only the contextual material. This was not an ideal option, especially when the public response had been more positive.

Many of the options had implications for NZETC: if we suppressed images information would need to be provided on the reasons. If we don’t suppress images should some kind of warning about the nature of the content be presented to readers before they accessed the material?

Certain choices made with regard to this project could also have an impact on our existing collection. We currently have images that include moko design or moko-ed individuals as do other collections both here and overseas (e.g. Timeframe and the National Library of Australia digital collections). If we suppressed those in "Moko; or Maori Tattooing" then should we not also be suppressing comparable images in the rest of our collection? If we decided, based on the opinions expressed in the consultation process, to suppress some or all of the text this would have an even bigger impact on our online collections.


Based on consultation responses and our understanding of the issues involved we have decided to present the text with all associated images except those depicting mokamokai or human remains. The same approach will be taken to all other texts in the NZETC collection.

Although it was felt that there were good arguments for presenting “Moko; or Maori Tattooing”, in its entirety, namely to retain the integrity of the book in the interests of scholarship, it was also felt that by making the mokamokai depictions available without express permission of the descendent whānau of those tupuna whose remains appeared in those images would be disrespectful. In contrast we felt that presenting the images of moko-ed people and of the designs, were less likely to offend and more likely to inform. We will publish alongside the collected materials of this project information on the special nature of the content, the reason for suppression of some images, and the issues that users should be made aware of surrounding use and misuse of the text.

It is important to note that we are open to altering our decision. We will provide avenues by which people can place general feedback (via links to the messageboards) or contact us directly. If whānau want to discuss with us suppressing images of their tupuna then we are prepared to do so (with the inclusion of a statement as a placeholder within the text stating why the image is no longer displayed). Alternatively, if they had information that they would like placed with their tupuna's name, then we are open to adding it.

We also intend to grow the collection of contextual material as it becomes available to us. One text we intend to digitise in the near future is Robley’s memoirs (organised, annotated and typed by Fildes) which are also held in the J. C. Beaglehole Room (Fildes 1507).

We would like to thank all those who provided us with their opinions and advice which we greatly appreciated. This project has been instructive for us at the Centre and we hope that the material that we do make available online will be a valuable resource.