Exchanging Knowledge about Pacific material culture

In September I ran a Knowledge Exchange workshop as part of National Museums Scotland’s national programme. The workshop ‘An Introduction to Pacific Collections’ was aimed at other museum and heritage professionals in Scotland who care for Pacific collections. This event was one of the outcomes of our Pacific collections in Scottish Museums project. It was an opportunity to share the knowledge I have been developing since beginning the project in April 2013. The event was a one day workshop where attendees could learn about identifying, caring for, displaying and interpreting Pacific material culture.

We began the workshop with an overview of the project, followed by an introduction to the type of material and the cultural areas likely to be found represented in Scottish collections. This information was based on trends which became apparent in the course of reviewing the four project partner collections although of course there will always be surprising artefacts hidden in collections too. I then took everyone around the Facing the Sea Gallery at National Museums Scotland. For any readers who haven’t had a chance to visit the museum, this gallery provides an insight into Pacific culture through display of artefacts from across the region. I talked through different subjects ranging from the concept of mana, the reasons for making and collecting boat models, and changing ideas about how Kiribati coconut fibre armour was be worn.

Looking at the Kiribati coconut fibre armour on display at national Museums Scotland

Looking at the Kiribati coconut fibre armour on display at national Museums Scotland


I took the opportunity to pause at one of my favourite parts of the gallery – a display of fishhooks from all over the Pacific which is great for showing the types of materials used, the variety of distinct styles and the workmanship that went into them. I had also brought some handling materials along for everyone to study and think about styles and materials. We wrapped up the morning with a discussion about collections care, hazards, and considerations when working with secret or sacred material. We discussed cultural considerations in more depth through a case study in which I invited everyone to imagine they had a mask in their collections that was men’s business and that women could not look at or touch. I asked how everyone would approach such an item if it needed to be moved and only a female member of collections staff was available.

After lunch we got into groups to discuss some artefacts which I had invited everyone to bring with them. We had fun trying to figure out where some unprovenanced items in the collection from the Falconer Museum in Forres, near Aberdeen, were from (only one was Pacific!) This was an opportunity to explore what great collections other Scottish museums and archives have.

Discussing some of the mystery artefacts from the Falconer Museum in Forres

Discussing some of the mystery artefacts from the Falconer Museum in Forres


I had then planned an activity to get people thinking about tourist pieces, authenticity and the way items were made for trade. I wanted to show how you might differentiate artefacts as ‘authentic’ but also encourage everyone to think about the notion of authenticity. There are often interesting stories to be told about trade pieces or items that incorporate designs or materials from outside the local community. It can be easy to forget that trade items for a European market were being made right from the point of contact as communities, as you would expect, took the opportunity to engage in exchange transactions. I had taken three hei tiki pendants from the museum stores – one a beautifully carved early example from the late 18th century, another a well made but possibly for trade item from the early 20th century, and the third a plastic version bought in the 1990s. I had also brought along two flesh forks, often called cannibal forks, from Fiji. These were both rather oversized unused items – one late 19th century bought by Constance Gordon Cumming and the other a roughly made piece from the mid-20th century.
Workshop attendees discussing issues of authenticity of artefacts

Workshop attendees discussing issues of authenticity of artefacts

The final part of the day involved a presentation from Pat Allan, project partner and Curator of World Cultures at Glasgow Museums. I invited Pat to speak about working with communities and I ended the session with a film of Marshallese poet and writer Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner reading her moving poem ‘Tell them’. I have shared the link previously and you can find that video here on Kathy’s blog. I wanted to illustrate the contemporary stories which we can tell through our collections such as the massive impact of climate change. It can be easy for museums with 19th century collections to focus on the past but it is important to acknowledge the contemporary nature of every culture.

The knowledge exchange workshop has been developed into a resource entitled Introduction to Pacific collections. This is one of the core outcomes from the Pacific Collections in Scottish Museums project and will be available online from the 25th November 2014 at www.nms.ac.uk/pacific

– Eve

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Material culture and missionary history on Aneityum island

This is the 4th post in a series fosussing on research in the Pacific around Vanuatu collections, acquired by Scottish missionaries who lived on the islands from the 1850s-1940s.

Following my time working in Port Vila, I travelled to Aneityum the southernmost island of Vanuatu. It is located closer to the Loyalty Islands in New Caledonia than it is to many of the northern islands of the country. With a population of around 1000 people, it is relatively small with a close-knit community. The island is very green with no road network. The tourism industry there mainly comes from cruise ships who anchor in the bay on the south west coast, with the tourists travelling on small boats to Inyeug, or Mystery Island, a smaller island in the coral reef off Aneityum. It is on Mystery Island that our 12 seater plane landed before getting small boats over to the main village of Anelcauhaut.

Inyeug, also known as Mystery Island, off the south west coast of Aneityum

Inyeug, also known as Mystery Island, off the south west coast of Aneityum


Looking across to Anelcauhaut from Mystery island

Looking across to Anelcauhaut from Mystery island


Anelcauhaut is the location of the first Presbyterian church in Vanuatu, established in 1852. As I have detailed in previous posts, it was this connection with the history of Presbyterian missionaries that has led to Vanuatu material in Scottish museums. Both National Museums Scotland and Glasgowlife have material from Aneityum. These items came through Reverend James Hay Lawrie who was based on the island from 1879-96. Lawrie was at the mission station at Aname on the north of the island. I had taken photographs with me of the artefacts in Scotland and some copies of historical photos taken by Reverend Lawrie in the 1890s, most of which are in the Mitchell library in Sydney.
During my visit, I accompanied researchers from Australian National University who were running an archaeological fieldschool on the island. The team was led by Professor Matthew Spriggs and Dr Stuart Bedford who were working closely with Richard Shing an archaeologist from Aneityum. Fieldwork has been taking place on the island for several years. This year, the research sites included the old church and mission house at Anelcauhaut built by Reverend John Geddie. This Scottish born man was brought up in Nova Scotia, Canada, and he was responsible for setting up the first Presbyterian church. The excavations also centred around the area in which Geddie’s printing house was located, a burial site occupied by local and European 19th century graves, an area in which missionaries had buried old sacred or tabu stones, and an area of swamp.
The site of Reverend John Geddie’s house at Anelcauhaut

The site of Reverend John Geddie’s house at Anelcauhaut


Inside the site of Reverend John Geddie's house

Inside the site of Reverend John Geddie’s house


The research team involved in the Australian National University archaeological fieldschool on Aneityum

The research team involved in the Australian National University archaeological fieldschool on Aneityum


Following our arrival, my first task was to meet Nelly Nepea Tamalea who is the female field worker on the island. The Vanuatu Kaljoral Senta have an excellent system whereby volunteers from each of the islands in the country work as fieldworkers doing their own research with the community and also assisting visiting researchers. The two fieldworkers for Aneityum are Frank and his sister Nelly. I met Nelly in Anelcauhaut village where she and two of her sisters were rolling pandanus leaves in preparation for making baskets. Unsurprisingly, my attempts to roll pandanus took a lot longer! Meanwhile, the women were tending to an earth oven where food was being prepared for a welcoming ceremony we were all shortly to attend with the council of chiefs. After receiving garlands of inpa leaves, a kastom leaf in Aneityum, we were introduced and talk turned to the work we would be doing this year. All research is carried out in conjunction with the community and no research is carried out that is not supported by them. This was my first opportunity to share some of the photographs I had brought with me. Everyone was really excited and interested to see what I had been able to bring. It was decided that I should do a presentation one evening that week using a projector to display the images on the outer wall of the local primary school. This was an opportunity for anyone to see the photos that could make it there. In the end, around 100 people were able to attend. The historical photos show scenes from around the island but also feature some named individuals including Numrang who was an ancestor of the local teacher who helped me with the projector. National Museums Scotland also care for a beautiful neck ornament of seaweed which incorporates human hair from Numrang’s beard which I was able to show the community.
Showing images of the collection in Scotland and Reverend JH Lawrie’s historical photos of Aneityum to the council of chiefs on Aneityum

Showing images of the collection in Scotland and Reverend JH Lawrie’s historical photos of Aneityum to the council of chiefs on Aneityum


Delivering a presentation to the community in Anelcauhaut, Aneityum

Delivering a presentation to the community in Anelcauhaut, Aneityum


As there are no roads on Aneityum, everyone either travels by foot or by boat. I took a boat one day to the north of the island near Port Patrick. I wanted to go there not just to share the images with more people but also to see the mission station at Aname where Reverend John Inglis (from the Scottish borders) and subsequently Lawrie, had been based. As well as the missionary house there had been a church and teachers training college at Aname. Reverend Inglis arrived on Aneityum in 1852 representing the Scottish Presbyterian mission and he worked with Geddie. I found out that Inglis had originally built his house on top of the sacred meeting place, or nakamal , at Aname. This was a common practice for 19th century missionaries in Vanuatu as part of an infringement on local belief systems and their desire to exert influence over the local population. Still in situ where the entrance to the teachers training building would have been is a sacred stone which Inglis placed as a door step after it was given to him by some islanders who had converted to the new religion of Christianity. The stone is named Rangitafu and was apparently used to influence the sea and shipwrecks.
Rangitafu in situ at what would have been the entrance to the Teachers Training Institute

Rangitafu in situ at what would have been the entrance to the Teachers Training Institute in north Aneityum


Showing some of the artefacts in Scotland and Lawrie's historical photos to Pastor Isaac and his uncle at the site of Lawrie's mission house at Port Patrick (Aname), north Aneityum

Showing some of the artefacts in Scotland and Lawrie’s historical photos to Pastor Isaac and his uncle at the site of Lawrie’s mission house at Port Patrick (Aname), north Aneityum


I found that the 19th century photographs of the island were most recognisable to younger people on the island whereas because many of the artefacts are no longer made or used, they seemed more familiar to older people. For me, that made it feel even more important for the artefacts to be seen by the community and for them to have a record of some of the material held in museums elsewhere in the world. Jack Ketati who had been the first ni-Vanuatu curator at the cultural centre and who lives on the island was especially excited to see three dance clubs Reverend Lawrie donated to NMS in 1897. This includes one club in the form of a whale’s tail. He explained that the dances are still known and they are trying to revive the practice but that the knowledge of the style of the clubs has been lost. Having the photos of these 19th century clubs Jack told me that he would now be able to commission a carver on the island to work on the historical designs.