The Cook Islands Christian Churches of Rarotonga: Living conservation in cultural landscapes

Christianity Architecture Mana heritage buildings Churches Cook Islands
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The architecture of the Cook Islands’ coral churches has entangled indigenous and foreign beliefs, social practice and place-making since their instigation by the London Missionary Society in the 1840s. As well as examining the historical significance of their formation, this thesis explores Rarotonga’s churches, now under the Cook Islands Christian Church, as contemporary cultural landscapes.

The study examines how place meanings have been recontested, recontextualised and renewed through the churches’ continued use, and questions how architectural conservation practices may respond to their living heritage. Research methods included site investigation in Rarotonga in 2014 and an analysis of literature and images. Fieldwork involved: first, physical investigation of the island’s historical churches, focusing on the Matavera church as a case study, and second, interviews with local people. Adopting a qualitative approach enabled people’s complex emotional and cultural connections to church places to be explored in ways that directly shaped research findings.

The study supports earlier scholarship and local perspectives suggesting that churches were conceptualised and constructed as the island’s “new marae,” their presence physically restating tribal rights to land. This has bearing on their contemporary significance as places embedded in ancestral meaning and constellational understandings of time. Research findings indicate that it is churchscapes’ temporal and intangible aspects, rather than their physical form, that remain their most enduring heritage. Local agency directs modifications and use, highlighting the living reality of church places as not only indigenised but indigenous. These findings have implications for heritage conservation in a context where decisions are based on local consensus and collective process. Churchscapes, like marae, remain entwined with tribal mana, hierarchy and land. This may mean that they continue to have cultural value for increasingly diasporic Cook Islands communities. Responding holistically to their complex and sometimes contradictory strands of intangible and tangible significance may become increasingly important for their living sustainment.

Keywords: Cook Islands, coral church, place attachment, cultural landscape.

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