The story behind the world's oldest surviving wharenui at Te Papa

An intricately carved whare that was stolen from a Gisborne iwi in the 1800s is the centrepiece of an exhibition that opened at Te Papa on Friday.

The wharenui belongs to Rongowhakaata - who are now deciding whether it should be taken home.

For many visitors to Te Papa it's an exhibit but for the Rongowhakaata iwi their wharenui is so much more.

Rongowhakaata spokesman David Jones says When the house was taken "it was like the umbilical cord was severed between our history and our people."

That connection is now being restored as the iwi takes guardianship of an exhibition at Te Papa, showcasing its taonga.

At the heart of it is the oldest surviving carved meeting house in the world, Te Hau ki Tūranga.

Mr Jones says "For us the exhibition is about reconnecting with our house, first and foremost, bringing our people back so the house feels warm again, and can feel the warmth of its people."

He acknowledged the whare's tumultuous history. Confiscated by the Crown in 1867, it's been dismantled and moved three times.

First it was taken to the Colonial Museum, then displayed at the Dominion Museum. Rongowhakaata helped guide it to Te Papa in 1996.

Te Papa Māori Co-Leader Arapata Hakiwai says "It's one of the greatest treasures we have."

But it's a treasure that officially belongs to Rongowhakaata, and the Crown acknowledged that as part of its Treaty of Waitangi settlement in 2012.

Te Papa will now work with the iwi to restore the whare and accepts that its rightful owners may want to take it home to the East Coast.

That's something the iwi is still deciding on. Iwi Kaumatua Hineiromia Whaanga says "Until we're ready, it is safe and happy where it is."

Friday is especially significant because it marks 144 years since the passing of Raharuhi Rukupo, the master carver who conceived of and helped to build the whare.

He made several petitions for its return after it was confiscated and Rongowhakaata says he would be proud to see it sitting at the centre of this exhibition today.