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

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