A trial review: Looking at Hawaiian collections in National Museums Scotland

Although we’ve only recently gone live with this site, the Pacific Collections Review project actually started at the beginning of April this year. Needless to say a lot more has happened over the past 5 months than I can fit into one blog post but I thought I would share a little about one aspect of the collections I have reviewed so far. The idea of the review is to give an overview of different groups of objects at each of the four partner museums and also to highlight some areas for further research. Following research of other collections review approaches e.g. UCL’s toolkit and that used for the Egyptology collection at Salford Museum and Art Gallery presented in the ‘What’s in Store? Collections review in the North West’ publication, I have formulated a review method to fit the aims and timescale of this project.

In order to ensure this methodology was suitable to be taken forward, it was decided to test it on the collection from the Hawaiian Islands held at National Museums Scotland (NMS). This collection numbers 98 objects, a third of which are status objects. Most of the material was collected in the late 18th and early 19th century. Among the items are eight objects believed to be collected on Captain Cook’s third voyage (1776-9), such as this figure carving, or akua ka’ai:
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Some of the most striking objects in the Hawaiian collection are the feather cloaks and capes (ahu’ula). Different types of feathers were collected from native birds to make ahu’ula. Those composed of red and yellow feathers were associated with the highest chiefs. Yellow signified political power and red was the colour associated with the sacred. These are two of the seven ahu’ula in the NMS collection:

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I was particularly struck by the barkcloth or tapa (kapa) as Hawaiian examples are very distinctive. There are 28 pieces of kapa at NMS. Earlier tapa tended to be thicker with bold, more free-hand patterns such as this example:

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At NMS there are examples of tapa collected on Cook’s third voyage as well as several pieces collected on Captain Beechey’s voyage on HMS Blossom which visited the Hawaiian Islands in 1825-6. One of the pieces from Beechey’s voyage is actually 4 pieces sewn together:
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It seems it was common in the 19th century for collectors (and possibly those working in museums?) to cut sections from a large sheet of tapa to be inserted into books, exchanged as samples and suchlike. There are several pieces from which samples have clearly been cut at some point such as this piece, also collected by Captain Beechey:

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Today, the thought of a collector or curator slicing up a textile in this way would strike fear in the heart of many working in museums, but it appears at one point it was perfectly acceptable. That part of the tapa’s history now becomes another part of the story it tells.

– Eve

Meet the Pacific Collections Review project team….

Chantal Knowles
Principal Curator, Oceania, Americas and Africa, National Museums Scotland

Chantal trained in Archaeology and Social Anthropology before undertaking a Masters in Museum Ethnography at the University of Oxford. She worked for five years as a research assistant at the Pitt Rivers Museum researching the material culture of the Arawe of West New Britain Province, Papua New Guinea. In 2001 she joined National Museums Scotland, looking after the collections from Africa, Americas and Oceania, but with a focus on Pacific collections. She is currently Chair of the Museum Ethnographers Group and an associate of the Centre of Pacific Studies at the University of St Andrews.
Chantalbiog

Neil Curtis
Head of Museums and Honorary Senior Lecturer in Anthropology, University of Aberdeen

Neil was formerly Senior Curator in the University of Aberdeen’s Marischal Museum, having previously studied Archaeology (Glasgow), Museum Studies (Leicester) and Education (Aberdeen). He is Convenor of University Museums in Scotland, Vice-president of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland and a member of the Scottish Archaeological Finds Allocation Panel.

Neil Curtis

Neil Curtis

Mark A Hall
History Officer, Perth Museum & Art Gallery

Mark is chiefly responsible for curating the archaeology collection (notable for its medieval excavation assemblages from Perth). His interest in medieval material culture principally focuses on the cult of saints, gaming and reception studies (especially cinematic portrayals of the medieval past), on which he has published in several journals and books. The other key areas of collections responsibility is the World Cultures collection, though Mark has not yet worked out how he can clone himself to do it justice. It receives many research enquires from around the globe, always a delight to deal with.

Mark Hall

Mark Hall

Patricia Allan
Curator of World Cultures, Glasgow Museums

Pat worked on archaeological sites as an ethno-botanist throughout the world for many years, principally on the Southern Coast of Ecuador where she was field director and environmentalist for a multinational, multidisciplinary research project and museum. She continues this work with her close involvement in the museums in Ecuador. She has also trained as a primary school teacher and worked as a microbiologist for Grampian Water Board.

Patricia Allan

Patricia Allan

Jilly Burns
Head of National and International Partnerships, National Museums Scotland

Jilly is responsible for the development and implementation of National Museums Scotland’s National Programme, which shares skills and collections via partnerships between museums across Scotland. She established NMS Knowledge Exchange Programme, a free advice and collections-based training programme. She is interested in strategies for improving sustainability of sector knowledge and skills. The Partnerships team also support the development of new relationships and projects as part of the museums International Programme. Jilly is currently directing ‘Museums as Agents of Change’, a Project with Museums of Malawi.

Jilly Burns

Jilly Burns

And me….

Eve Haddow
Assistant Curator – Pacific Collections Review, National Museums Scotland

I am the Assistant Curator working on the Pacific Collections Review. I studied Social Anthropology at the University of Edinburgh followed by an MA in Art Gallery & Museum Studies at University of Manchester. After completing my studies, I was employed as a Researcher for the Anglo Sikh Heritage Trail and volunteered in several collections roles. Prior to joining National Museums Scotland, I was Curatorial Assistant at National Mining Museum Scotland. I am currently the Events Officer for the Scottish Museums Federation and a member of the Museum Ethnographers Group.

This project is a fantastic opportunity for me to build upon existing curatorial skills while developing subject specific knowledge of Pacific material culture, an area of collections I am passionate about and have wanted to work in for many years.

Eve

Eve Haddow

Welcome to our blog

This blog will document the Pacific Collections Review project, an 18 month partnership project supported by the Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund which aims to reconnect dispersed Pacific collections held in museums across Scotland. The four core partner museums are National Museums Scotland, Aberdeen University Museums, Glasgow Life, and Perth Museum & Art Gallery. We aim to make the Pacific collections in Scotland more widely available in the UK, the Pacific, and worldwide. We hope to promote dialogue through regular updates from the project team, as well as guest posts. We welcome contribution and discussion.

You can find more details about the project on our website http://www.nms.ac.uk/collections__research/pacific_collections.aspx
The website will be progressively updated with research resources, descriptions of collections and information about different areas in the Pacific.