A look at Vanuatu collections in National Museums Scotland

Last week I hosted a visit from Christian Kaufmann former Curator of the Oceania Department at the Museum der Kulturen in Basel. We spent two days in store at National Musuems Scotland mainly looking at collections from Vanuatu. The four project partner museums (National Museums Scotland, Perth Museum & Art Gallery, Glasgow Life and University of Aberdeen Museums) all have material culture from Vanuatu which we knew from the beginning of the review had connections to Scottish Presbyterian missionaries who lived on the islands, mainly in Southern Vanuatu, from the 1840s-1940s. During the course of the Pacific Collections Review we have found the missionary connection is much more significant than first believed, with many more artefacts than we originally thought being traced back to missionary collectors once you scratch the surface of the documentation.

Map of Vanuatu

Map of Vanuatu


At National Museums Scotland (NMS) there are around 550 artefacts from Vanuatu and 250 of those were brought to Scotland by Reverend James Hay Lawrie, a missionary who was based on the southernmost island in Vanuatu, Aneityum, from 1879-1896(also known as Anatom and marked as such on the above map). Lawrie brought back material from Aneityum, Aniwa, Futuna, Tanna, Malekula, Epi, Ambrim, Nguna, Efate and Tongoa. The descriptions Lawrie recorded of the artefacts he collected give an insight into the culture on the islands at that time. They show he had a real interest in the culture of the people of Vanuatu, as opposed to some missionary collectors who focussed on using material culture to over emphasise cultural differences and justify what they saw as a need for mission work.

The first Presbyterian church in Vanuatu was established on Aneityum in 1852 by Rev John Geddie. Geddie was born in Aberdeenshire in Scotland and his family emigrated to Nova Scotia in Canada when he was young. Geddie was on Aneityum from 1848 and was joined in 1852 by another missionary, a Reverend John Inglis from Scotland. The Vanuatu collections in Scotland that were collected by missionaries reflect their interests and work on the islands: there are artefacts such as sacred stones and items of dress that reflect the missionary desire to modify people’s behaviour and convert them to Christianity, there are objects that tell the story of local culture and everyday life at that time, and there are artefacts that reflect the cash economy that missionaries were helping to create such as samples of arrowroot (a plant people were encouraged to cultivate and process for trade). There are also some items in Scottish collections that may not automatically be thought of as being associated with Vanuatu including bibles that have been translated into the local language of an island and communion tokens. Tokens are particularly associated with practices of the Scottish Presbyterian church and I gave a paper on them at Pacific Arts Association Europe conference last month in Cologne. Communion tokens offer a starting point to think about the complex relationships that existed between missionaries, local communities and others in Vanuatu in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
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Both sides of a communion token from Aneityum, first used on the island c.1852. One of 2 communion tokens brought to Scotland by Rev JH Lawrie.

Both sides of a communion token from Aneityum, first used on the island c.1852. One of 2 communion tokens brought to Scotland by Rev JH Lawrie.


Rev. JH Lawrie’s collection includes a wide variety of material ranging from body adornments such as combs…
Comb from Erromango (A.1890.170)

Comb from Erromango (A.1890.170)


To clubs including this dance club carved at the end with a shark’s tail…
Club (nelup) of wood from Aneityum which was used in dancing. Donated to National Museums Scotland by Rev JH Lawrie in 1889 (A.1889.514)

Club (nelup) of wood from Aneityum which was used in dancing. Donated to National Museums Scotland by Rev JH Lawrie in 1889 (A.1889.514)


Detail of one end of club (nelup) from Aneityum which was used in dancing. Donated to National Museums Scotland by Rev JH Lawrie in 1889 (A.1889.514)

Detail of one end of club (nelup) from Aneityum which was used in dancing. Donated to National Museums Scotland by Rev JH Lawrie in 1889 (A.1889.514)


To two tree fern grade figures from Malakula which Lawrie sent to the museum in 1896.
two fern grade figures from Malakula collected by Reverend James H Lawrie and donated to National Museums Scotland by him in 1896 (L-R: A.1896.15 & A.1896.14). The suit of armour from the Scottish history collection gives an idea of scale!

two fern grade figures from Malakula collected by Reverend James H Lawrie and donated to National Museums Scotland by him in 1896 (L-R: A.1896.15 & A.1896.14). The suit of armour from the Scottish history collection gives an idea of scale!


These figures relate to grade taking ceremonies where a person rises in status. They are made of a tree with multiple aerial roots. The green pigment is special and is particular to one area of Malakula from which it was traded.
Reverend Lawrie took many photographs during his time in Vanuatu and also brought a photo collection back to Scotland. Sadly the collection has been lost but there are still copies of many of his photographs in the Mitchell Library in Australia. One of these images shows an older man with a caption reading ‘Numrang, sub-chief of N side of Aneityum – Bequeathed his beard when dying to his successor. The beard was intermixed with dried seaweed and worn by the man in the opposite photo. 1890’The photo of the younger man shows him wearing the neck ornament and after studying these photos and the artefacts in Scotland I’ve discovered that the neck ornament is now here in Edinburgh in National Museums Scotland:
Chiefly neck ornament from Aneityum, Vanuatu, made of seaweed and human hair on a twisted plant fibre cord. Pieces of pink coral still remain attached to some parts of the seaweed (A.1895.413.74)

Chiefly neck ornament from Aneityum, Vanuatu, made of seaweed and human hair on a twisted plant fibre cord. Pieces of pink coral still remain attached to some parts of the seaweed (A.1895.413.74)


In addition to Lawrie’s collection, there is other important material from Vanuatu here in NMS. Christian and I were particularly interested in some of the older ceremonial masks such as this one of Malakula. It was brought to Scotland in 1890 by Reverend William Watt of Edinburgh who was a missionary based on Tanna with his wife.
Ceremonial mask of wood overmodelled with clay from Malakula (A.1890.428)

Ceremonial mask of wood overmodelled with clay from Malakula (A.1890.428)


Side view of mask from Malakula

Side view of mask from Malakula


One of the earliest set of artefacts from Vanuatu in National Museums Scotland are three skirts from Ambrim which would’ve been worn in layers. Although we don’t have an exact date, we know the skirts came via the University of Edinburgh collection which dates them as pre-1854.
One of three skirts from Ambrim, Vanuatu (A.UC.579A)

One of three skirts from Ambrim, Vanuatu (A.UC.579A)


I have recently been awarded generous funding from the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland and the Strathmartine Trust to travel to Vanuatu to carry out more research relating to the missionary collections in Scotland. I’ll be on Aneityum for 2 weeks in July and am excited about being able to take photographs and information on the collections in Scotland back to Aneityum where there is work on-going on the island to establish a museum and archive. I’ll be there with archaeologists from Australia National University who are carrying out fieldwork on the site of the old church and missionary’s house from the 19th century. In preparation for going to Vanuatu I have been working through the missionary archives at National Library of Scotland and have recently found what is best described as a scrap book compiled by a friend of Rev. JH Lawrie in Edinburgh. It contains some photographs taken by Lawrie as well as letters from him and pressed plant samples. The photographs from the album have been digitised and you can view them here: http://digitallibrary.usc.edu/cdm/search/field/refere/searchterm/Acc.7548%252FF%252F19

– Eve