If your knowledge of Maori culture stops at the traditional haka before an All Blacks encounter, this collection of 500 exhibits on the life and times - some of it comtem-porary - of New Zealand's first colonisers is a must. It is the British Museum's first exhibition devoted to the history, culture and arts of the Maori people.
The newly-assembled objects range from wood carvings to war canoes, weapons to cloaks, domestic implements to ornaments. Many were collected - including intricately-carved shark-tooth knives (maripi) and a whalebone pendant - during Captain Cook's three voyages to Aotearoa (New Zealand's Maori name which means "The land of the long white cloud") between 1768 and 1779. Several items were donated to the museum in 1864 by an early New Zealand Governor-General, Sir George Grey; others come from l9th-century collections put together by travellers, as well as gifts presented to members of the British Royal Family and loaned to the museum.
New works presented with old artefacts make for an exciting mix: centuries-old pounamu (a form of jade) jewellery, some of them from Cook's time, sit next to contemporary pieces - such as a carved pendant in the shape of a bat - without a hiccup.
Domestic implements include seven detailed feeding funnels (korere). These were used to give broth and water to Maori undergoing painful facial tattooing (moko) with bone chisels. Both men and women were tattooed, men mostly between the waist and knees. But it was the face moko that was the mark of a distinguished warrior. Maori are still tattooed today using electric needles, although there is growing interest in the traditional chisels and the resulting ridged effect.
Some of the exhibits, such as delicate trinket boxes, are rather fragile; others, like the carved and painted hoe (war canoe paddles), astonishingly elegant. And among the practi-cal, the exhibition shows elaborate fish hooks decorated with paua (abelone).
A small-scale pataka (storehouse), made in l910 for a model Maori village in Sydney, came to the museum after it was shipped to London in 1911 for George V's coronation (and after a brief fling as an exhibit at Crystal Palace). The Royal Family acquired another model: this time a war canoe given to the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall and York during their visit to New Zealand in l901.
Most of the collection of plaited baskets date from the l9th century, but one exhibit was made by Wahine Mackey of Ruatoria (a small town on the North Island's eastern cape) to "mark her retirement from the Post Office in 1986".
And then there are the cloaks. Those made of dog skins were considered the most prestigious at the time of Europe's first contact with New Zealand; the exquisite feather cloaks, kahu huruhuru, appeared towards the end of the last century and are still the most sought after. Once again the museum has mixed the old with the new - 19th-century cloaks are displayed comfortably with a stunning recent model made by Niki Lawrence, using pheasant, fowl, duck, hawk and pukeko (swamp hen) feathers.
Finally, don't make the mistake I did and go in the museum's Montague Place entrance. Room 28 and the Maori exhibition are a route march around the new Great Court. Head for the front in Russell Street, thread your way through the young tourists scoffing on the steps, look for the bookshop, turn left and you're there.
British Museum, Russell Street, London WC1, tel: 0171 636 1555.The exhibition runs until November 1. The museum is running a Maori artists' programme with the exhibition. It includes basketry and pounamu carving in August, and weaving, basketry and graphic art in October. Check museum for times. On August 15 and 29 the Ngati Ranana Cultural Club performs Maori dance and songs every half-hour from 11am to 12.30pm. And on August 8 and 22, at 11am and again at 2pm, storytelling, music and dance workshops will be held for children and adults. Maori scholars have contributed to a special publication to accompany the exhibition. 'Maori' is edited by Dorota Starzecka and is available from the museum, Pounds 14.99.