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

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