20 metres of Fijian barkcloth

Two weeks spent reviewing the collections in Aberdeen culminated with the unfolding of a 20 metre long piece of Fijian barkcloth, or masi in Fijian. This massive textile, made from the bark of the paper mulberry tree, is one of a number that it was claimed was ‘the worlds largest’ when it was made. The masi was presented to the Governor of Fiji, Sir William Allardyce, at Government house in Suva in 1902 to celebrate the coronation of King Edward VII and his new position as Tui biti – the supreme native chief of Fiji. At that time Fiji was a British Crown colony. The masi was laid on the ground and Allardyce with his staff walked in a procession along the length of it as part of the celebration.

Unfolding a large masi like this requires a lot of space and the team in Aberdeen decided the best place would be the Mitchell Hall in Marischal College. It seemed fitting to use Marischal College as a venue for the big reveal as it was Edward VII who opened the building in 1906.

The conservator at University of Aberdeen museums examining the folded 30ft Fijian masi

The conservator at University of Aberdeen museums examining the folded 30ft Fijian masi


We quickly realised there was only enough space in the Mitchell Hall to partially unfold the masi in a way that would not damage it.
Partially unfolded masi from Fiji in the Mitchell Hall, University of Aberdeen

Partially unfolded masi from Fiji in the Mitchell Hall, University of Aberdeen


This still allowed us to get a good sense of the style and pattern. Interestingly, the style was distinctly Samoan with the large hand painted spots on a red-brown rubbed ground.
Pattern on the 30ft long masi from Fiji

Pattern on the 30ft long masi from Fiji

Earlier in the day the team used the hall to unfold some of the smaller pieces of barkcloth from the Aberdeen University collection, two of which you can see below:

Piece of barkcloth collected in 19th century British New Guinea

Piece of barkcloth collected in 19th century British New Guinea

Late 19th century barkcloth from Fiji featuring rifle motif

Late 19th century barkcloth from Fiji featuring rifle motif

– Eve

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Exploring Papua New Guinea collections at University of Aberdeen

Today we began week 2 of our review at University of Aberdeen museums. A large part of the Pacific collection is from South East Papua New Guinea. This material came to the Museum from Sir William MacGregor (1846-1919). The son of a crofter from Aberdeenshire, MacGregor was one of 9 children who was to travel the world. He studied Medicine at Aberdeen University before working in Fiji as Chief Medical Officer. He was Administrator of British New Guinea for the British government from 1888-1894 before returning as Lieutenant-governor fro 1895-1898. Later, MacGregor became Governor of Lagos, Newfoundland, and Queensland.

The MacGregor collection includes several shields unique to the Trobriand Islands, situated off the eastern coast of New Guinea:
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A large part of MacGregor’s collection relates to the ‘kula’. This complex system of exchange, which has been a subject of great interest for anthropologists, involves trading of manufactured valuables between islands in the Massim area of South-East Papua New Guinea. The two most valued items were shell necklaces (soulava) and pairs of shell armbands (mwali).

University of Aberdeen were given a number of Mwali by MacGregor such as these two:
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We have been studying these armbands closely, which were adorned with other materials to increase their value. The adornments include seeds, glass trade beads, pink spondylus shell discs, and pandanus leaves:
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MacGregor’s collection at Aberdeen University was his personal one. However he left an even bigger collection, about 8000 objects, in trust with the Queensland Museum in Australia with the wish that they be repatriated to Papua New Guinea for the people there when a suitable museum was created. Much of the material has been repatriated and is housed at the PNG National Museum and Art Gallery in Port Moresby.

– Eve