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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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

Traders, Travellers, Ships and Sugar

The McLean Museum in Greenock opened in the 1870s, funded by a wealthy local timber merchant from whom the museum takes its name. It was built adjacent to the James Watt Library which had been opened as a monument to the Greenock born engineer and inventor in the 1830s. With the formation of the local philosophical society in 1861, it became increasingly clear that a purpose built museum building was needed for a growing collection. At that time Greenock, which is on the west coast of Scotland along the Firth of Clyde from Glasgow, was a thriving port. It was a centre for trade and export with people using the port to travel in and out of Scotland, as well as being a significant industrial hub. The early collections at the McLean were largely built through associations with wealthy merchants and traders, particularly those born in the Greenock area who had left their home to travel the world but who always considered Greenock home. Knowing there were important collections at the McLean and keen to find out more about them, Chantal and I went to Greenock for the day to meet with Val Boa (Curator) and George Woods (Assistant Curator). George and Val were great hosts and shared their invaluable in-depth knowledge of the museum and it’s collections with us.

View of the World Cultures displays in the upper gallery at the McLean Museum, Greenock.

View of the World Cultures displays in the upper gallery at the McLean Museum, Greenock.


Of all the world cultures material at the McLean, the largest proportion is geographically from Oceania and much of this material is Melanesian. We were delighted to discover on our visit that the McLean have arguably the best collection of New Ireland material in Scotland. These artefacts were donated by Captain David Swan, a Greenock born man who served with the local shipping company Gulf Line for around 25 years in which time he made many journeys across the western Pacific. He was in command of the ship Gulf of Genoa in the 1890s and given that he donated the New Ireland material in 1894 it seems likely he collected it when he was voyaged to New Ireland in 1893/1893 on that ship. The collection includes Malangan decorated with coloured cotton cloth which would have been traded into the island, known as tradecloth, and feathers. Swan also collected body ornaments.
Malangan
Two examples of malagan from New Ireland donated by Captain Swan to the McLean Museum in 1894.

Two examples of malagan from New Ireland donated by Captain Swan to the McLean Museum in 1894.


Chantal Knowles and George Woods discussing some of the malagan pieces in the McLean Museum collection

Chantal Knowles and George Woods discussing some of the malagan pieces in the McLean Museum collection


We were interested to see a collection at the McLean from David M. Ballantine who was Treasurer and Controller of Customs in the British colonial administration in New Guinea. Ballantine, who was also born in Greenock, served under Sir William Macgregor who I introduced in a previous blog – MacGregor donated an important and extensive collection to University of Aberdeen Museums. Ballantine’s material was given to the McLean by his mother Jessie in 1911, two years after his death. It includes neck ornaments, stone headed clubs and other items from South East New Guinea.
One of two ornaments which would be worn held in the mouth when fighting, collected in British New Guinea in the 1890s by David Ballantine, and donated to the McLean by his mother Jessie in 1911. They are made of wood and decorated with abrus seeds, shells and boar tusks. This one has an attachment of barkcloth and red feathers.

One of two ornaments which would be worn held in the mouth when fighting, collected in British New Guinea in the 1890s by David Ballantine, and donated to the McLean by his mother Jessie in 1911. They are made of wood and decorated with abrus seeds, shells and boar tusks. This one has an attachment of barkcloth and red feathers.


The second of the mouth ornaments.

The second of the mouth ornaments.


The Mclean also has some material from Vanuatu from the late 19th and mid-20th centuries, and a small collection of objects from the Solomon Islands. There are several Fijian artefacts, donated by Thomas Steel, an industrial chemist and naturalist who worked at a sugar refinery at Nausori, Fiji. Greenock was a significant location for the sugar industry. Refining began there in in the 1760s. By the end of the 19th century, around 400 ships a year were transporting sugar from Caribbean holdings to Greenock for processing. The most famous company with an active refinery in the town was Tate & Lyle.

Before leaving the McLean we saw this impressive double hulled canoe model with pearl shell inlay and finely woven sails, donated to the 1870s.

Boat model with pearl shell inlay from Manihiki in the Cook Islands donated to the McLean Museum, Greenock in the 1870s.

Boat model with pearl shell inlay from Manihiki in the Cook Islands donated to the McLean Museum, Greenock in the 1870s.


It had been attributed to Polynesia and we were able to be more specific as there is a similar model at NMS which is on display in the Facing the Sea gallery. Details of this type of canoe are published in ‘Canoes of Oceania’ (Haddon & Hornell) and they are from Manihiki in the Cook Islands, Polynesia.

The museum still engages in contemporary collecting, the recent acquisition from the Pacific being material from Papua New Guinea. A large number of the Oceania collections at the McLean Museum are now available to search online and George told us that they are working towards getting the remaining objects digitised. You can access the online database here:
http://mcleanmuseum.pastperfect-online.com/36003cgi/mweb.exe?request=ks
– Eve