Pacific Presences conference & workshop

All images courtesy of Chris McHugh, Artist and Researcher at University of Sunderland – With thanks

Chantal and I have just returned from a 2 day conference and workshop at Cambridge University as part of the Pacific Presences: Oceanic Art and European Museums research project. This five year project, funded by the European Research Council, involves research of Pacific collections in museums across Europe.

Corpus Christi College, University of Cambridge

Corpus Christi College, University of Cambridge


Following an opening conference dinner held in Corpus Christi College the first day of the conference included presentations from international speakers from Norway, Palau, New Zealand, Hawai’i and New Caledonia as well as papers from the project team and those affiliated with the project in the UK. The conference culminated in a panel discussion that looked at the role of cultural heritage in the Pacific, the dispersal of collections, and on-going work to facilitate community access to collections.
One of the conference Q&A sessions featuring Nicholas Thomas (Director of Museums of Archaeology and Anthropology ,University of Cambridge) and Jonathan Mane-Wheoki (Head of Arts and Visual Culture, Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa)

One of the conference Q&A sessions featuring Nicholas Thomas (Director of Museums of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge) and Jonathan Mane-Wheoki (Head of Arts and Visual Culture, Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa)


In the evening was a performance at Cambridge University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (MAA) by Michael Mel from the Western Highlands province of Papua New Guinea. Michael is a performance artist, teacher and writer and is currently an Associate Professor in Indigenous Art and Education at the University of Goroka. His performance involved Ali Clark of the Pacific Presences project and Anita Herle, Senior Curator for World Anthropology at MAA. It was a moving piece that took place in the world cultures gallery. It commented on the place of both people from Papua New Guinea and their cultural heritage in European museums. As well as reflecting on the complex and sometimes difficult history of the European relationship with Papua New Guinea, the performance revealed something of the issues facing the country today.
Michael Mel performing in the gallery at Cambridge University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology with Senior Curator Anita Herle

Michael Mel performing in the gallery at Cambridge University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology with Senior Curator Anita Herle


We had the opportunity afterwards to view ‘Tapa: Barkcloth paintings from the Pacific’, an exhibition of barkcloth including historical pieces from the Cook Islands, Solomon Islands, and Fiji. There were two contemporary works by women of the Omie community of Papua New Guinea, acquired in 2012 with the support of the Art Fund.

The workshop on the second day focused on recent collections research carried out on material in some of the museums involved in the Pacific Presences project. I was particularly interested in a paper by Elena Gover of Australia National University looking at tahi poniu neck ornaments of wood decorated with abrus seeds from the Marquesas Islands as there is one of these in the collection at National Museum Scotland. I also found a paper given by Maia Nuku of the Pacific Presences project focused on material from Nauru a small island in Micronesia fascinating. Maia opened her presentation with a video of Marshallese poet and writer Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner reading her moving poem ‘Tell them’. You can find that video here on Kathy’s blog: http://jkijiner.wordpress.com/video-poems/

This conference gave us an opportunity to find out more about the Pacific Presences project and ongoing international work with Pacific material. It also gave us a chance to consider the place of collections held in Scottish museums in the context of a much wider network of people, places and things.

You can find out more about the Pacific Presences project here: http://pacificpresences.org/

– Eve

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Fiji, Scotland and the Making of Empire: A special exhibition at Kings Museum, University of Aberdeen

Suspension hook carved as paired female figures, from Tonga/Fiji, late 18th/early 19th century- Aberdeen University Museums collection

Suspension hook carved as paired female figures, from Tonga/Fiji, late 18th/early 19th century- Aberdeen University Museums collection

Aberdeen University Museums, who are one of the core partners in the Pacific collections review project, currently have a fantastic exhibition Fiji, Scotland and the Making of Empire. The exhibition is at Kings Museum, situated on campus at University of Aberdeen, and runs until the 23rd of May and entry is FREE. http://www.abdn.ac.uk/museums/exhibitions/4504/

It is an unmissable opportunity to see the University museum’s stellar collection from Fiji. The exhibition is a collaborative endeavour of the University of Aberdeen Museums and the Fijian Art project. Fijian Art is a major research project funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council, and based at the Sainsbury Research Unit, University of East Anglia, and the University of Cambridge. It aims to promote public awareness and appreciation of Britain’s internationally significant collections of Fijian Art.

As part of the exhibition program, there have been three special posts on the University of Aberdeen Museums blog which you can read here:

http://uoamuseums.wordpress.com/2014/03/11/connections-fiji-and-scotland/

http://uoamuseums.wordpress.com/2014/03/14/meet-the-gordons/

http://uoamuseums.wordpress.com/2014/03/18/connections-past-and-present/

On Tuesday 8th April, 7.30 -9pm, there will be a free public lecture at Kings Museum entitled Collecting Fiji: Gordon, MacGregor and the Aberdeen connection delivered by Professor Steven Hooper of the University of East Anglia. Professor Hooper is the Director of the Sainsbury Research Unit, Principal Investigator for the Fijian Art Research Project and Co-curator of King’s Museum current exhibition. More details here http://www.abdn.ac.uk/museums/events/4834/

– Eve

A visit to the Stirling Smith Art Gallery and Museum

I recently visited the Stirling Smith Art Gallery and Museum to have a look at Pacific material in their collection. I spent the day in the museum store with Michael McGinnes, Collections Manager at the museum, and two of his student volunteers who kindly showed me around. I also met Oswald the museum cat who has his own YouTube channel! The Smith was founded in 1874, funded by a bequest from local artist Thomas Stuart Smith. It has a large art collection as well as local history, archaeology, natural sciences, and world cultures collections.

Historical photograph of the Stirling Smith Art Gallery and Museum, c.1900

Historical photograph of the Stirling Smith Art Gallery and Museum, c.1900


The Stirling Smith Art Gallery and Museum today

The Stirling Smith Art Gallery and Museum


The museum cares for around 200 artefacts from the Pacific, which came into the museum in the late 19th and early 20th century. Most of these objects are from Melanesia and the associated donors are connected with the Stirling area. There is material from the Solomon Islands, including a collection of twenty eight fish hooks made of turtle shell donated by Colonel J.S. Stirling in 1882. The Colonel was a local man interested in natural history who published extensively on the flora of Stirling area. From the Santa Cruz Islands, which are part of the Solomon Islands, is this bag made of banana fibres:
Woven bag from Santa Cruz islands made of banana fibre, probably late 19th century

Woven bag from Santa Cruz islands made of banana fibre, late 19th century


These finely made bags were woven on a backstrap loom. It would have been used to carry equipment for the process of chewing betel, a plant that acts as a mild stimulant.

The Smith also houses an interesting collection of around 70 objects from Vanuatu that came to the museum in 1930 and includes arrow, clubs, spears, combs and body ornaments. Over the course of the Pacific Collections Review project, we have found that the majority of artefacts from Vanuatu in Scottish museums we have visited were collected by missionaries. It seems likely this collection also has a missionary connection.

Woven girdle of pandanus leaf from Vanuatu. Aquired by the Stirling Smith in mid-20th century.

Woven girdle of pandanus leaf from Vanuatu. Aquired by the Stirling Smith in mid-20th century.


There are a number of clubs from Fiji and Tonga acquired from Sir Seton-Steuart in 1928, the year he sold the Touch House estate (situated outside of Stirling) and auctioned the contents of the house. Two of the clubs are intricately carved in the Tongan style and if you look closely you can see small depictions of frigate birds and people holding clubs or paddles.

Michael has worked at the museum for 34 (and a half) years so knows the collections very well. He told me his favourite object in the Smith collection from the Pacific is an ear ornament of Maori green stone. Maori greenstone, or pounamu, has ceremonial and special significance and this body ornament would have been a treasured object. It is recorded as being found on the North Island of New Zealand in a rifle pit after the battle of Gate Pā on April 29th 1864. Gate Pā, now more commonly known as Pukehinahina, was one of two key battles in the Tauranga area, and part of the New Zealand Wars fought between Maori and British government forces in the 1840s and 1860s. In this particular battle, 250 Ngāi Te Rangi Maori inflicted a heavy defeat on a much larger British force of 1700 men.
You can see a picture of the pendant here:
http://www.smithartgalleryandmuseum.co.uk/collections/world-cultures/australianew-zeland/maori

You can find out more information about the Stirling Smith and its collections here: http://www.smithartgalleryandmuseum.co.uk/

-Eve

Modelling culture: An outrigger canoe from Futuna

Guest post by Ross Irving, Assistant Curator, World Cultures, National Museums Scotland

As part of the Pacific Collections review Eve has been steadily working her way through our Pacific collections here at NMS. While studying material from Vanuatu, Eve started looking at the Reverend James Lawrie collection, which came to NMS in the 1890s from a Scottish Free Church missionary who was based on the island of Aneityum in the south of Vanuatu. The collection is quite large, numbering some 370 objects, including weapons, clothing and personal ornaments, objects of ceremonial and magical use and several models. Lawrie collected a number of ‘models’ to bring home with him, many of which survive in the NMS collection. They can tell us a great deal about the objects they represent and are a rich resource for researchers.

One model in particular came to our attention; a boat model from the island of Futuna around 50 miles from Aneityum. This island is not to be confused with the Polynesian island Futuna of Wallis and Futuna. The model represents a small outrigger canoe with dugout hull and sewn washstrakes, panels used to raise the height of the canoe. Models like this were popular souvenirs for European visitors, allowing them to take home examples of traditional craft in miniature (much easier to transport home than the real thing!).

Model of a Futuna outrigger canoe made of bread-fruit wood with paddles and baler (A.1895.413.2 + A-C)

Model of a Futuna outrigger canoe made of bread-fruit wood with paddles and baler (A.1895.413.2 + A-C)


Model of a Futuna outrigger canoe in the NMS collection (A.1895.413.2 + A-C )

Model of a Futuna outrigger canoe in the NMS collection (A.1895.413.2 + A-C )


‘Collection of Native Models Aneityum (now in Edinburgh Museum)’, courtesy of J.H. Lawrie. State Library of New South Wales

‘Collection of Native Models Aneityum (now in Edinburgh Museum)’, courtesy of J.H. Lawrie. State Library of New South Wales


The Futuna model can be seen at the front in the photograph above, interestingly with a fish hook tied over the stern carving which is still in the NMS collection. There is also a comparable model from Aneityum propped vertically at the back. Other models, also in the NMS collection, shown here include the model fish trap, shell adze and model house.

The Lawrie collection highlights the fact that models are extremely useful, along with other evidence like photographs, as records of traditional craft and constructions that would have been impractical for Europeans to bring home. Often constructed to scale (this model is estimates to be ¼ actual size) and using the same building materials and techniques as the full sized objects they represent, they can tell us much that other records cannot. Looking at this particular model, we can draw on Lawrie’s own published observations as well as his photography to learn more about it.

Having an interest in local culture, Lawrie wrote about and photographed different aspects including: appearance, dress and ornamentation, music and instruments, carving, weaponry, legends and traditional belief systems. Lawrie’s article entitled ‘New Hebrideans’ was published in The Scottish Geographical Magazine in 1892. On canoes, Lawrie observed that:

“The canoes on the southern islands are usually small and rude in construction; they are hollowed out of a single log with an outrigger attached, and are intended to carry from two to six adults”

Lawrie then goes on to discuss Futuna canoes in particular:

“On Futuna they have an ingenious method of heightening the sides of the canoes by building on extra pieces. They bore holes in the wood with a heated iron and sew the slabs to the body of the canoe with sennit, plugging up the holes afterwards with coco-nut fibre.”

This is also documented in one of Lawrie’s photographs:

Man with an outrigger canoe, Futuna, Vanuatu. Photo taken by Reverend J.H. Lawrie from 1891-94. Courtesy of J.H. Lawrie. State Library of New South Wales

Man with an outrigger canoe, Futuna, Vanuatu. Photo taken by Reverend J.H. Lawrie from 1891-94. Courtesy of J.H. Lawrie. State Library of New South Wales


The model collected by Lawrie shows this perfectly. Adding wash strakes to raise the height of the sides of the canoe would allow for travel in more open water. William Gunn, Lawrie’s predecessor who was based on Futuna, also commented on this element in his book The Gospel in Futuna (London, 1914):

“The sides are raised by a row of planks, sewn by sinnet, the holes being plugged with coconut fibre…These Futunese canoes, now used when catching flying fish, were their ‘ships’ in early days, for going to other islands. Then two rows of planks raised the height of the canoe and kept out the sea. The baler is a wooden scoop with the handle raised. The natives never go to sea without a bailer, as their canoes always leak, more or less.” P198

This contrasted with those made on Aneityum which Gunn stated were not built with wash strakes and were intended only for calmer waters. The Futuna model comes with miniature paddles and a baler. The model baler can be seen in 1st photo of this blog post. Gunn also mentions that the carved ornament on the stern is “supposed to resemble the tail of a fowl” (this can be seen on both the model, and in the photograph above).

It would appear that the Futuna model was made using the same techniques as described by Lawrie and Gunn. The washstrakes are sewn to the hull using coconut fibre cordage, with cane strips. There appears to be coconut fibre pushed into the joins, the spaces between the washstrake and the hull, a method of making craft watertight known as caulking.

Close up of the coconut fibre binding and caulking used in the construction of the model canoe.

Close up of the coconut fibre binding and caulking used in the construction of the model canoe.


The model appears to be a miniature version of the canoe both in form but also in construction. Although valuable as a record of larger objects, this focus often leads to other interesting aspects of models to be overlooked. A question that springs to mind is ‘why would a model need caulking?’ A master teaching an apprentice, or just a matter of authenticity?

Forming a part of most ethnographic museum in the UK, model boats are commonly displayed and interpreted simply as ‘boats’ rather than being discussed as models. Although they are definitely valuable as historical record of vessel types (which often are no longer made) their status as ‘model’ is rarely discussed. Early trade in these models between islanders and Europeans showed a mutual interest in watercraft and seafaring. Perfect as souvenirs these models were easily brought home as curios and so are widely represented. I feel the appeal and interest in the models from a European perspective is clear, but what needs further research is the history and process of model making from the Pacific islanders perspective. What role (if any) do models and model making have in local culture and craft? Were they made before European arrival and played some part in passing on knowledge about construction and craft, or are they simply a souvenir used to trade with Europeans? The fact that this model is constructed in the same way as the full sized version does suggest that time and care were taken to make them.

What we do know is that the models form part of Lawrie’s record of New Hebridean culture and allow us, without travelling to Vanuatu, to closely study many of these structures which would otherwise have been impossible.