Skip to content
  • 9am–5pm
  • Free general admission
  • Shop

Matthew Spriggs, Kylie Moloney and Melanie Van Olffen, National Museum of Australia, 22 July 2009

JENNY NEWELL: Welcome everybody, to the National Museum of Australia. Thanks very much for coming this morning. Welcome to the second of our Vaka Moanaseminar series. I’d like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which we’re meeting today. I also want to thank Adam Blackshaw and Leanne Dempsey of the public programs section for helping me to co-convene this program. We’re continuing our series that draws out the themes of the exhibition next door which is called Voyages of the Pacific Ancestors: Vaka Moana. It’s an exhibition that is on loan from the Auckland Museum. It’s open until 18 October, and it’s free. I can highly recommend it to you if you have not already seen it.

It’s a particularly effective exhibition because it’s not only presenting the history of the last great human migration but also demonstrates, by including modern objects, modern images and the voices of contemporary islanders, that voyaging and living with the sea is an ongoing part of life in the Pacific.

Today’s session presents contemporary perspectives on Pacific Islander voyaging, and will particularly captivate those of you with an interest in using material culture as a way of uncovering histories. Matthew Spriggs will be drawing on an exciting range of archaeological evidence. Kylie Moloney and Melanie Van Olffen will be demonstrating some innovative and illuminating uses of museum collections.

Ancient connections across an island world by Matthew Spriggs

JENNY NEWELL: I’d like to introduce Matthew Spriggs from The Australian National University. Matthew is a professor of archaeology at the department of archaeology and anthropology. He’s recently been involved in the discovery and analysis of the earliest cemetery site in the Pacific in central Vanuatu, and the Republic of Vanuatu has recently awarded him for services to archaeology.

His research interests and publications fall within the fields of Pacific and South East Asian archaeology. He also works on linguistics, subsistence systems, the influence of humans on their environment, and also on the history of the Cornish language. He is the author of rather more books, chapters, articles, reports and even poetry than I can count but I can recommend his very well-known book Island Melanesians and also his works on Lapita pottery and taro.

Matthew is currently involved in two ARC [Australian Research Council] discovery grants; one on the very early archaeology of Vanuatu and another on using isotopes to track Pacific migrations as well as other migrations around the world. All of this makes him eminently suited to speak to us today on ancient connections across an island world. Please welcome Matthew Spriggs.

MATTHEW SPRIGGS: The English explorer James Cook and other members of his crew were impressed during a sojourn in Tahiti in 1769 by the wide knowledge held by the priest navigator Tupaia of other islands and island groups. Tupaia’s knowledge was distilled and inevitably filtered by Cook’s officers, into a notional chart of the Pacific, with the Islands marked on it. You can see that here [Image shown of Tupaia’s chart according to Cook].

Tupaia could list the names of 130 islands, and 74 of these were presented on the chart based on their directions from Raiatea in the Society Islands, and a notional distance based on how many days sail away they were located.

Cook also visited Tonga, and various people there between them gave him - or rather William Anderson - the names of 153 islands are in that neighbourhood. These include the islands of the Tongan chain, some islands in the Samoan and Fijian archipelagos, Wallis and Futuna, Rotuma, two or three islands in Kiribati, and Vaitupu in Tuvalu - the latter some 1600 kilometres to the north north-west of Tonga.

It is sometimes considered that this list is evidence that Tahiti was not known to the Tongans, as it wasn’t mentioned. But Cook makes it clear that these 153 islands are those claimed as being under Tongan control or influence, not the sum total of their geographical knowledge. The point to note though is that there is considerable overlap in geographical knowledge between these two traditions of East and West Polynesia - the Tahitian and the Tongan.

Exactly 240 years after Tupaia our knowledge of interactions between the islands of the Pacific can now be extended back considerably beyond this memory of oral traditions and voyaging practice recorded in the early years of European contact. The evidence is predominantly archaeological, backed up by linguistic and genetic data.

The first true Pacific islands to be reached by human beings were probably New Britain and New Ireland, just to the east of New Guinea. This was because 40,000 to 50, 000 years ago, as you can see on this map [image shown of the Pleistocene continents of Sunda and Sahul], New Guinea was part of the continent of Sahul and wasn’t an island at all. It was joined to Australia, the Aru Islands in eastern Indonesia and Tasmania. The Torres Strait between Australia and New Guinea did not exist at that time.

In fact, the ancient land connection of New Guinea and Australia was only severed some 8000 years ago. While the Indigenous people of New Guinea in the Indonesian province of Papua, in the independent nation of Papua New Guinea and the Australian Aboriginals have little obvious culture connection today, they were once a single people. Environments and boundaries change over time as we shall see again later in the talk.

The colonising move of early modern humans ultimately from Africa, as we all are, through south and South East Asia and on to the continent of Sahul and beyond to the Pacific islands of the time soon reached as far as the end of the main Solomon Islands chain - probably not long after 40,000 years ago, although our earliest dates for the Solomons at present only go back about 32,000 years.

Island hopping along the entire route between intervisible islands was possible at that time. The Solomon Islands too were different in appearance than they are today. Many of them joined in a very large island called by specialists in the time period ‘Greater Bougainville’ after what is today the largest remnant of this former island. Others of the Solomon chain were never joined to this landmass, but all the main islands would have been intervisible. Even during these Ice Ages, or the so-called Pleistocene time, people continued to travel between islands after they had first reached there.

[Image shown] Obsidian, a black glass-like stone used for knives, was exchanged from New Britain to New Ireland 20,000 years ago and, at least by 6000 years ago, as far south as Nissan, a raised atoll in sight of the main Solomons chain and currently part of the Autonomous Region of Bougainville. All of these islands were potentially visible from others along the route out from South East Asia, but there is one exception: the crossing to Manus or the Admiralty Islands either from New Ireland, New Britain, or what was then the northern coast of Sahul, today’s island of New Guinea [image showing map with Manus on it].

Manus was reached over 24,000 years ago, but it was not a one-off event, as we have evidence of the introduction later on of various animals, bandicoots and possums, from what is now New Guinea, and this occurred many thousands of years after Manus was first reached. The significance is that Manus is never visible from anywhere else. It is our first evidence in the world of a blind crossing. When people set off on that 200 to 300-kilometre journey, they could not see where they were heading to, and for about 60 to 90 kilometres in the middle of the journey they couldn’t see where they’d come from, and Manus had not yet come into view. To my mind, that Ice Age episode of human voyaging is of even greater significance than humans landing on the moon. We’ve always been able to see the moon, but these early voyagers were truly alone for those 60 to 90 kilometres or so.

Such ancient chains of interconnections are traced by archaeologists using ancient artefacts, animal bones and other evidence. Most recent interconnections, as we’ve seen, are remembered in oral tradition.

Although the Manus group was found more than 24,000 years ago, the next blind crossings in the South Pacific were not made until just over 3000 years ago by bearers of the Lapita culture, named after an archaeological site in New Caledonia. This shows the distribution of the Lapita culture [image shown]. The bearers of this culture colonised across some 4500 kilometres of the Pacific Ocean within only some eight to ten generations at the most. It’s now looking more like four or five to get from the Bismarcks just off New Guinea to Tonga, on the latest evidence.

Participants in the Lapita culture were the first to venture beyond the end of the main Solomons chain. Their advantage being an agricultural lifestyle and more advanced boat technology than had existed before, perhaps including the first use of sails in the region. They discovered the south-east Solomons, Vanuatu, New Caledonia, Fiji, Wallis and Futuna, Tonga and Samoa.

The Lapita colonists were the first in the South Pacific to break out into what specialists call ‘Near Oceania’ - what is now the island of New Guinea, the Bismarck Archipelago and the Solomons - the area that had been settled tens of thousands of years ago by those first Pacific Islanders. The rest of the Pacific, very largely pioneered for settlement by the Lapita people and their descendants, is often called Remote Oceania to mark the areas only reached by humans in the last 3000 years.

The Lapita homeland is often described as being in the Bismarck Archipelago, centred on New Britain, New Ireland and Manus, as this is where all of its cultural elements first came together and the earliest sites, by perhaps 200-300 years, are found. But its roots are a mixture of Near Oceanic cultural patterns, and those that came in with Neolithic voyagers from other islands in South East Asia, speaking Austronesian languages derived from Taiwan, and presumably originally from what is now southern China. All indigenous groups in Remote Oceania speak Austronesian languages, as do many communities along the route from Taiwan [image shown].

The other major language groups are those who speak non-Austronesian or Papuan languages, descended in a direct line from the languages of those first human settlers of New Guinea, the Bismarcks and the Solomons. As direct descendants of a very ancient migration or set of migrations, their languages have diverged so that the links between many of them can no longer be traced by linguistic studies.

It’s these two processes - long-lived cultural traditions in place and more recent movements of people spreading out across the vast Pacific Ocean - that make the region the most linguistically diverse in the world, with about a quarter of the world’s individual languages spoken there. All Polynesians, many Micronesians, the inhabitants of Fiji, Vanuatu and New Caledonia, and many of the coastal peoples of Near Oceania, all descend linguistically and to varying extents culturally from the Lapita people of 3000 years ago.

In the rest of the Pacific, all of the Indigenous populations derive from the initial mixing of Papuan and Austronesian cultures that occurred just over 3000 years ago in the Lapita homeland and areas further west along the north coast of New Guinea. There is thus very much a shared history of all Pacific Islanders that is not always appreciated.

Much of the painted rock art of the New Guinea Highlands, for instance, derives from Austronesian art styles that came into the area within the last 3000 years. Pigs, so important in the Highlands, are again almost certainly an Austronesian introduction.

On the other hand, many varieties of the crops enjoyed today by people all over the Pacific Islands, in fact now all over the world, were first domesticated by the Papuan speakers of the New Guinea area - taro, some of the yams, bananas, breadfruit and sugar cane, for example. All of these are thought to have been first cultivated in the New Guinea area. Some of the earliest physical evidence for agriculture anywhere in the world comes from the site of Kuk in the New Guinea Highlands just over 10,000 years ago.

So to reiterate, all Pacific Island cultures derive from two great population streams - and certainly many smaller, undocumented movements in between - from that of the Papuan speakers some 40,000 to 50,000 years ago, and from the spread into the area from South East Asia some 3400 or 3300 years ago of Austronesian speakers. In between, events such as the flooding of the Sunda and Sahul shelves would have led to further population movements.

Earlier I mentioned the exchange of the volcanic glass obsidian as showing that people in New Britain were in contact with people some hundreds of kilometres away in New Ireland about 20,000 years ago. Obsidian was equally valued by the Lapita people, who extended the distribution of New Britain and Manus obsidian as far south and east as Vanuatu, New Caledonia, Fiji and perhaps Tonga, and as far west back into island South East Asia as modern-day Sabah in Malaysian Borneo, and, on very much the latest evidence of a few months ago, to the island of Cebu in the Philippines.

This distribution, Borneo and the Philippines in the west, Fiji and probably Tonga in the east, is probably the longest distance exchange of a commodity in Neolithic societies anywhere in the world - a linear distance of some 6500 kilometres. And as far as through the Solomons to central Vanuatu at least, we are not talking of the initial settlers carrying this valued stone with them on their first voyage to discover new lands but of a continuing exchange network, bringing obsidian from the Bismarcks over a period of several generations at least.

The Lapita people were the South Pacific’s first potters, and their distinctively decorated pot designs were spread from New Guinea out as far as Tonga and Samoa. They [pottery], along with designs on more perishable media such as tattoos, bark cloth, et cetera form the basis for many of the traditional art styles found in the Pacific today.

I spoke of pot designs moving rather than pots, and one of the most remarkable aspects of the Lapita culture was that the vast majority of pottery that has been found was not moved from island to island, but was made on the island where it was found. That’s a selection of some of the Lapita pots recently found in Vanuatu [image shown]. The idea of the designs and what they meant moved from island to island, but in the majority of cases the pots did not.

We also have the evidence of the people themselves. In 2004, staff of the Vanuatu National Museum located what is to date the earliest cemetery site in the Pacific, dating from about 3000 years ago, and belonging to the first few generations of Lapita settlers of Vanuatu. This is the site of Teouma just outside Port Vila, the capital of Vanuatu [image shown]. Analysis of strontium isotopes and trace elements in the bones of this population have shown that at least four of the 18 skeletons tested so far had spent their childhood somewhere else and were first generation migrants to Vanuatu. Just a few shots of the burials found there in past years [image shown] and this is from this year, in fact last month.

It would seem that 3000 years ago people from the New Guinea islands out as far as Tonga and Samoa were more interconnected that at any time until the age of mass transportation, beginning about two centuries ago. People were moving between islands, a few pots were moving along with them, obsidian was being exchanged, and art styles that developed in one area could spread across many thousands of kilometres almost instantaneously.

The Lapita culture is part of the cultural heritage of almost all Pacific Islanders today, and could provide a powerful message of shared values and connections. [Image shown] I have put up this slide of Micronesia simply to remind us that Micronesia too is part of the story, but a complex part. There’s no time to go into that now as we must speed on to the east - to eastern Polynesia.

Western Polynesia was settled by the Lapita people, as I mentioned. But there was then a pause of over 1500 years before people moved further out beyond Tonga, Samoa and Wallis and Futuna to settle eastern Polynesia. Starting some 1500 years ago, some would claim only 1000 years ago, there was another explosive spread of people who settled all of eastern Polynesia, except New Zealand, within about 200-500 years at the most - the most amazing feat of trans-oceanic settlement anywhere and at any time - reaching Hawaii to the north-east and Easter Island to the south-east [image shown].

They must have also reached South America as they brought back with them the sweet potato, found as 1000-year-old charred remains on a site in the Cook Islands and widespread in eastern Polynesia at European contact. In exchange, they gave the South Americans the chicken, recently established as being present in Chile in pre-Colombian times and of a Polynesian type. These descendants of the Lapita voyagers had now visited almost every island in the Pacific Ocean and stayed to settle permanently on most of them.

The settlement of eastern Polynesia occurred recently enough within the last 1200 to 700 years that oral traditions are still recounted relating to the initial settlement of many island groups such as Hawaii, Easter Island and New Zealand, and they named some of the heroic voyagers involved.

Some of those oral traditions also relate to subsequent long distance interactions between island groups in the Polynesian region and beyond. Tupaia’s map shows us that voyages continued between islands, sometimes long after they were first settled, and were ongoing, or of relatively recent memory, even in the late 1760s.

For eastern Polynesia, low-grade obsidian rock does occur there but was not exchanged as widely as that from the Bismarck Archipelago and was usually only moved, if at all, between islands of the same archipelago. By the time eastern Polynesia was settled, pottery-making had either died out or was in decline in western Polynesia. Apart from the few pieces from the Cook Islands, and more surprisingly from the Marquesas, pottery did not find its way out to these more scattered and remote archipelagos.

So our two main markers of ancient interaction, pottery and obsidian, are either not present or not informative for central and eastern Polynesia. But we do have some hard evidence in the form of basaltic stone adzes that were exchanged between archipelagos quite extensively. These included transport of adzes from several sources in the Samoan Islands of western Polynesia to Mangaia in the Cook Islands in eastern Polynesia, some 1600 kilometres away.

Cultural differences between west and east Polynesia are often explained as being caused by isolation after initial settlement of the east. But the adze evidence shows that interaction probably continued throughout the pre-contact period. There are also Society Island adzes in Cook Island sites showing continuing links to the east.

But even more spectacular in some ways are the results of a recent adze sourcing studying by Kenneth Collerson and Marshall Weisler at University of Queensland, published in Science in 2007. They analysed 19 stone adzes, collected by Kenneth Emory in the Tuamotu Archipalego between 1929 and 1934, and never have I seen a better justification for work on old museum collections. Being coral atolls, the Tuamotus had no suitable stone themselves, so any adzes found there would have had to been imported from somewhere else.

The 19 adzes between them came from Pitcairn, way to the south-east; the Marquesas to the north-east; Rurutu and the Australs to the south-west; seven came from the Society Islands in the east; and one adze came from the island of Kaho’olawe in the Hawaiian chain some 4040 kilometres north of where it was found on Napuka Atoll. As the authors note, near this last adze source is the western tip of Kaho’olawe Island, Lae o Kealaikahiki meaning ‘the headland on the way to Tahiti’, long associated with traditional voyaging stories. Experimental voyages have suggested that the likely route from Hawaii to Tahiti would have been via the Tuamotus.

It’s often thought that Polynesia, Micronesia and Melanesia formed distinct cultural areas with perhaps distinct histories. It’s often claimed that these terms demarcate separate races. Indeed, such views have become internalised to various degrees among Pacific Islanders themselves. But the early history of the Pacific that I’ve sketched very briefly that has been revealed by archaeologists, shows that these divisions are colonial creations and have no clear basis in ancient history.

Wider knowledge of an ancient shared history between the peoples of the Pacific Islands can only be to the good: to redirect the frame of our experience away from just seeing small islands in a big sea to seeing the Pacific Ocean as a sea of islands, as ‘Epeli Hau’ofa once said. This shifts the cultural focus from smallness and isolation to wider visions of cooperation and interaction. It also helps break down the lingering insidiousness of views of racial hierarchy within the Pacific still held by outsiders and internalised by some Pacific Islanders themselves to the detriment of all. Thank you. [applause]

JENNY NEWELL: Thank you for taking us on that wonderful journey. Can I open the floor for questions?

QUESTION: The current aboriginals in Taiwan, are they linguistically related to the Polynesians?

MATTHEW SPRIGGS: Yes, they are, and to many people in Melanesia as well. There are ten major groups of the Austronesian languages. Nine of them are in Taiwan and the other one is all the rest. So this suggests to linguists where the Austronesian languages derived. They developed in Taiwan for probably a couple of thousand years before people spread out into the Philippines, Indonesia, along the north coast of New Guinea, and then out into the Pacific, and ultimately to Polynesia. So yes, they are related.

I’ve been to Taiwan and I was served in a restaurant by a girl who looked exactly like the late Princess Kaiulani, one of the last members of the Hawaiian royal family who died at the end of the nineteenth century. I have a photograph of Princess Kaiulani, and I wish I’d taken a photograph of this girl serving in the restaurant because it could have been her sister - given the time difference.

QUESTION: Matthew, I’m Michael Gunn from the National Gallery of Australia. It was so interesting. You were talking about getting to Manus across that open ocean, and of course we always think then of getting to New Zealand, how that was done. I went to a really interesting conference a few years ago in Bedford, Massachusetts, at one of the whaling museums. A guy there spoke about the whaling migration route from Tonga, where there is a breeding ground, along the Kermadec Trench to New Zealand. He put forward the proposition that maybe New Zealand was first found by people following the whales. Is there any evidence whatsoever in the archaeological record for this?

MATTHEW SPRIGGS: The archaeological evidence that we have now is that New Zealand was first reached probably from the Cook Islands, so I don’t know whether the whales migrate from there. Whales are important in many mythologies in the Pacific, and certainly people used various signs that they saw in the sky or in the sea itself to detect islands at a great distance. Bird migrations have often been said to be why people would know that there were other islands around because they would see birds which could migrate many thousands of kilometres from north to south, and that this may have directed them. I don’t think there’s any evidence of a direct connection between Tonga and New Zealand. The connection is from further in the east, from the Cooks, as far as we know, on linguistic and other grounds, but it’s a very interesting idea.

QUESTION: by Chris Chevalier. I’ve just come back from Makira or San Cristobal, which is in the Solomon Island chain and wouldn’t have been reached, would have been the last place that was reached in the first migrations. There’s oral history of an original race that was there and is still there - they call the kakamura. And that same tradition is in Rennell as well. Is there any archaeological evidence of aboriginal people who were displaced by the Lapita people or the Austronesians?

MATTHEW SPRIGGS: There are Lapita sites in the Solomons. Not a lot of archaeology has actually been done on the main chain. There’s a bit of an argument among archaeologists as to whether the Lapita people bypassed most of the Solomons or whether we just haven’t found the sites. I’m firmly of the idea that we just haven’t found the sites in many places. There were certainly people on the Solomons for close to 40,000 years. In most of the Solomons people today speak Austronesian languages. There are a few Papuan languages, which are probably remnants of the languages that would have been spoken before 3000 years ago. So there’s clearly been a mixture of people there. If the people say of Makira - or some of them at least - represent these people who were there before 3000 years, the one thing that has happened is that they’ve changed their language. They all speak Austronesian languages today.

But some people must have switched from Papuan languages or languages related to the Papuan languages to Austronesian. So that certainly has occurred, and that might be disguising the fact that the people themselves in that area may well be largely the descendants of the first sort of wave of migrants. It’s not outside the bounds of possibility and it could be studied. But virtually no archaeology has been done on Makira, for instance, and certainly none since 1969, I think was the last one. But they [the archaeologists] may even be there right now actually. There is an archaeological team that was going to investigate down at the southern end of Makira this year sometime. I haven’t heard what they have found, so they might still be there or about to go.

QUESTION: My name is Robin Hodson. I loved your talk. Thank you very much. I was absolutely fascinated by the drawings you displayed of the Vanuatuan Lapita pottery, particularly the pots with the little birds on top and the designs underneath them. They are being made today in the Markham Valley of Papua New Guinea in the village of Zumin.

MATTHEW SPRIGGS: I’m very interested to hear that. I didn’t have time to talk about it, but pottery was introduced to the Markham probably some time in the last 2000 years. Ultimately it’s the pottery that derives from the Lapita culture, adopted by people speaking Papuan languages up the Markham. The Markham is the most inland part of the island of New Guinea where pottery is still being made and has been made for a long period of time. But ultimately my contention would be that the pottery itself came into New Guinea with the Austronesian speakers and then diffused into the area where there are other cultural groups.

QUESTION: That’s what I found so fascinating. I was so fascinated that it is such an ancient form. Marvellous, thank you.

MATTHEW SPRIGGS: The drawing of the pottery is done by a brilliant Ni-Vanuatu artist Fidel Yoringmael who works with us. We haven’t had a chance to publish most of them yet. But we’re now able to reconstruct, in terms of being able to draw them, the sizes, shapes and full designs of some 63 Lapita pots, which is 60 more than anybody’s been able to do before. So that site, when we get around to finishing the publications on it, will be a major boost to our knowledge of the ancient history of Pacific art. These are some of the oldest art objects in the Pacific and, like you say, you can see that the designs being made 3000 years ago have carried on in various areas in New Guinea and also out into Polynesia for that entire period of time. Thank you.

JENNY NEWELL: Thank you, Matthew, for that excellent paper. [applause]

A Maori Waka in Scotland: combining tradition craft with modern expertise by Kylie Moloney

JENNY NEWELL: I’d like to introduce Kylie Moloney. Kylie is the archivist for the Pacific Manuscripts Bureau at the Australian National University. This is a role she took up in November 2008. Prior to this she was an assistant curator in the Department of World Cultures at the National Museums Scotland in Edinburgh, where she worked on Pacific collections and non-Western musical instruments. And that’s where I met her actually. I’m very glad we have both come back to Canberra about the same time and are sort of on the same life trajectories. She has worked as a librarian, a curator and an archivist in a variety of cultural institutions for the past ten years in Australia, the Pacific and Europe. She spent a year in Vanuatu helping to establish a library in Port Vila and maintains strong connections there. She’s very handy also for learning very cool Bislama expressions.

Kylie has a background in music, librarianship, education and museum studies, with professional interests in Pacific archives and material culture. She’s just submitted a masters in museum studies here at the ANU, investigating non-Western music collections. I’m very much looking forward to her paper today on ‘A Maori waka in Scotland: combining traditional craft with modern expertise’. Please welcome Kylie Moloney. [applause]

KYLIE MOLONEY: Thank you for inviting me to speak today, Jenny. Today I will be speaking about an exciting new project at the National Museums Scotland which involves a Maori waka canoe. Before I begin, I would like to gratefully acknowledge the assistance I have received in preparing this presentation from my former colleagues at the National Museums Scotland.

Firstly, a few points about the National Museums Scotland. It was established in 1854 in Edinburgh, and today it includes two adjoining buildings located on Chambers Street in Edinburgh. There is the Museum of Scotland, built in 1999, which is a contemporary museum showcasing the land, people and culture of Scotland. Adjoining this museum is the grand Victorian building known as the Royal Museum, which was built in 1866. The Royal Museum showcases collections of nature, art, culture and science. Each year the National Museums Scotland attracts around 850,000 patrons, and there around 420 staff at the museum.

The museum has five collection departments: archaeology, natural sciences, science and technology, Scotland and Europe, and world cultures. Although the museum has always collected ethnographic objects, there was no dedicated Department of World Cultures until 2005. Prior to this, ethnographic collections were cared for and curated by staff in the Department of History and Applied Art. Today the Department of World Cultures cares for and collects important ethnographic and artistic objects from cultures throughout the world.

There are approximately 8000 objects in the Pacific collections. Many of these date from the nineteenth century. The Pacific objects have been collected by a variety of people, including Scottish administrators, missionaries, entrepreneurs and explorers. Today the collection continues to be developed through acquiring gifts, purchases and commissions.

In 2006, a major £46 million project, funded primarily by the Heritage Lottery Fund, began to transform and revitalise the iconic Royal Museum into a modern twenty-first century museum.

The aims of this new museum are: to create dramatic and accessible new displays; to develop an education centre; to provide more accessible public facilities; to increase the number and diversity of visitors; and to create a must-see world class visitor destination. There will be a total of 16 new galleries in the Royal Museum, focusing on world cultures and the natural world. Six of these are dedicated to the Department of World Cultures and one of these galleries is called ‘Facing the Sea’. This gallery will showcase the Museum’s Pacific collections and explore life, culture and islands in the Pacific.

It’s a balcony gallery divided into four thematic areas: firstly, introducing the Pacific, which outlines the geography and the environments of the Pacific; then the Pacific as a resource, showcasing how similar objects are made from a variety of materials across the Pacific, showing the skill and resources of Pacific craftspeople. Third, the Pacific as a frontier highlights Pacific Islander exploration of the Pacific alongside European impact, including the Scots who participated in early settlement, exploration and trade. The final area is Pacific world views. This area will showcase powerful and beautiful objects that highlight the sea, ancestors and spirits which are central to the different belief systems of Pacific Islanders.

In the central atria (or the sea area) of the gallery will hang the centrepiece of this display: a pre-1850s Maori waka. The waka has, up until recently, presented a mystery to the staff at the National Museums Scotland. Extensive areas of the waka have been modified, both on its purchase and acquisition from the Maori and by museum conservators. Having arrived in the University Museum in 1827, very little was documented about how it came to the museum or its life before or after. Part of the process of getting the waka ready for display has been researching the canoe.

Just last week the first reference to the canoe was found in the University Museum archive and it noted: ‘On the first of December 1827, the arrival of a Maori canoe from Kelso.’ Kelso is a small Scottish town in the Scottish borders, but also the home of Sir Thomas Brisbane, who was a major donor to the museum in the area of natural history specimens. Further research into these family and local history archives is going to be undertaken later this year.

At only 20 feet in length, this is a composite canoe. The hull is probably from a small river boat or fishing boat which has remodelled by flattening the keel. The side strakes are taken from a full size canoe and recycled for this one. The prow is also of the style used on a full-length war canoe, but it’s been cut and made to measure for this smaller size canoe. The prow is highly carved with eyes inlaid with mother-of-pearl shell and lashed to the boat with strong cord. [image shown] As you can see, there is no sternpost and it seems unlikely that there was ever one made or that it existed. Therefore, it’s an amalgamation of carvings made at different times and for different purposes brought together to create an artwork or a large model in the style of a war canoe.

Curators, conservators and a Maori artist George Nuku are continuing the tradition of adding to this canoe. They’re collaborating to restore and create a new waka for displaying in the ‘Facing the Sea’ gallery. It’s an exciting and daunting undertaking transforming an existing object, marrying old with new, which is a very innovative step for the museum.

The waka has been overlooked as an object for many years due to its confused and composite nature. In the past, it was seen as not being authentic and it couldn’t be categorised. The artist George Nuku is working with museum staff and allowing them to think differently about the object and that each component part is the work of a master carver. He has encouraged museum staff to acknowledge the integral value of the war canoe as a whole and not just component pieces. He is guiding staff in acknowledging the canoe’s new presence when conserved. As the conservators peel back the layers of each generation of work, they’re discovering more information about how the waka was put together, who made it and for what purpose.

Understandably this project is raising ethical questions about the role of the curator and the artist in creating a new artefact. I might add that the National Museums Scotland is looking for critical feedback on this project, not least because it’s been a major departure in the way they are working.

The project involves integrating new artistic components by George Nuku sympathetically into the boat. Each step in restoring the waka involves careful consideration and discussion so that the team ensures there’s a balance between conservation ethics and a new work of art which tells the story of this intriguing vessel. The team is documenting everything they do to the waka through reports, photography, drawings and film. All of the intervention undertaken on the object is reversible.

The aim of the project is to finish the original intent of creating a war canoe. Nuku is guiding this by adding his own additions and realigning the existing component pieces, conforming to a more traditional way of bringing together the separate components that make up a waka. As the work progresses, the team of people working on the project hope that they will eventually find out when and where the waka was collected, how it came to be made, and who brought it to Scotland more than 150 years ago.

This picture is of the team of people involved in the project. It includes the artist, two conservators and the curator [Photo shown].

Before I continue, I’d like to give a little bit more information about Maori wakas. War canoes are probably the finest specimen of all Maori canoes. They are large in size, sometimes manned by up to 80 paddlers, and up to 40 metres or 130 feet in length. They are elaborately ornamented with top strakes and a highly-carved prow and stern piece.

The main purpose of a waka taua or war canoe was to transport warriors to and from battle. But they could also be used for social visits, trading or fishing once the carved tauihu or the prow and the taurapa, the stern, were removed and stored.

Early European visitors and immigrants to New Zealand recorded their impressions of the waka taua in their journals and letters home. In 1769, Sir Joseph Banks said the following about the Maori waka in his journal:

They are built of very thin planks sewn together; their sides rounding up like ours, but very narrow for their length. Some are immensely long. All … were more or less ornamented by carving … The larger sort, which seem to be intended for war, were really magnificently adorned. The head was formed by a plank projecting about three feet before the canoe, and on the stern stood another, proportioned to the size of the canoe, from ten to eighteen feet high. Both these were richly carved with open-work and covered with loose fringes of black feathers that had a most graceful effect. The gunnel-boards were also often carved in grotesque taste, and ornamented with white feathers in bunches placed upon a black background at certain intervals.

Waka taua embody the power of the community and the relationship that they have with their ancestors and the forces of nature. Many people worked on the construction of a waka taua, uniting a community. Sometimes it could take two or more years to complete. Expert canoe builders and carvers, sometimes contracted from other tribes, were called upon to help with the construction. Priests were also called upon to offer prayers at appropriate times in construction. Elaborate carvings on the waka taua appeal to the Gods to bless the vessel, making it a sacred object which was intended to help its crew take human life.

The waka taua is carved from a log found in the forest. The tree would be felled and a priest would demonstrate their thanks by placing offerings, often ferns or cooked food, on the stump. They then stepped aside to let the workmen begin hollowing out the trunk. Sometimes fire was used to assist with the hollowing out. A variety of adzes, some large and some small, were used for hollowing out the hull and the finer work of shaping the outside, along with preparing the topstrakes.

The waka was then hauled through the forest with ropes and timber skids. Many men were required as part of the work crew to haul the waka through the forest. Sometimes chants or waka-hauling songs were used to help the men work through this tough terrain.

The hull was then lowered into a trench, a river or the sea, where it would be left for several months to season. It was then taken out of the water and the hull was worked on further. Once the outside of the hull was finished, the next step was to fix the haumi kokomo, an addition to the hull at either end of the waka with a mortice and tenon joint. The next step was to lash the top strakes into position. A taki gum was used to fill any gaps left in lashing holes. The flooring was added.

Hulls were universally painted red, and the tauihu or the prow and the sternpiece were then lashed into place. The waka was later embellished with abalone, coral and feathers, which brings the realms of birds, plants, fish and people together, bringing it alive.

Early European visitors often recorded their impressions of fleets of waka taua in their journals. The following account is by Major RA Cruise of the 84th Regiment Foot from his Journal of ten months’ residence in New Zealand. He describes a fleet returning to the Bay of Islands in 1820 after a successful raid:

The fleet was composed of about fifty canoes, many of them seventy or eighty feet long, and a few less than sixty. Their prows, sides and sternposts were handsomely ornamented with a profusion of feathers ... They were filled with warriors who stood up and shouted as they passed our boat, and held up several human heads as trophies of their success. The largest canoe we saw was eighty-four feet long, six feet wide, and five feet deep ... It was made of a single kauri tree hollowed out, and raised about two feet with planks firmly tied together and to the main trunk with pieces of the flax plant … The crevices were filled with reeds to make the canoe watertight. A post fifteen feet high rose from the stern, which together with the sides was carved in openwork, painted red, and fringed with a profusion of black feathers. The chief sat at the stern, and steered the canoe, which was impelled by the united force of ninety naked men, who were painted and ornamented with feathers. Three others, standing upon the thwart-sticks, regulated the strokes of the paddles by repeating, with violent gestures, a song, in which they were joined by every one in the vessel. The canoe moved with astonishing rapidity, causing the water to foam on either side ...

Now back to the National Museums Scotland waka. The work that has been completed so far on this waka includes the furniture and wooden artefacts conservator removing the repairs and carved elements, the side strakes, which they discovered were laced too far down the sides of the hull, and the prow. Removing any part of an artefact is contrary to the normal approach of a conservator whose job it is to preserve as much of the original as possible. But George Nuku, the artist, enabled the conservators to understand how the waka was used and how it should have been constructed and looked.

Samples were taken of the binding twine, which later revealed that they were not original, and on comparison with other early university collection canoes from elsewhere, it was part of the museum workshop materials commonly used in specimen repairs. They removed the previously repaired stern relatively easily as it was screwed onto the hull. Bindings were cut to release the sides of the waka. The prow was removed. Although neatly laced in place, it needed to be repositioned in the future reconstruction of the waka to ensure the side strakes could be replaced in the correct position.

In numerous places, large nails and screws had been used to repair splits and loose fragments to the canoe. So the bow was gently pried away from the hull. One of the benefits of the wooden elements being removed from the waka is that it will be possible to repair the splits and replace losses in order to ensure they are stable and sound when they are rebound to the hull.

I will now move on to talk about George Nuku, and his involvement as an artist in the project. George is a Maori artist, based in Auckland and London, who is helping to restore the waka. He has been commissioned by the National Museums Scotland to create the losses the waka has sustained in clear perspex, which will create a challenging interaction between the original wood and the new material. He’ll carve a new sternpost from transparent acrylic, which is missing from the existing waka. As George says, ‘The beauty of transparent acrylic is that it doesn’t overpower what’s there ... It almost embodies the spirit of what you’re making and doesn’t detract from the artefact.’ George’s work on the project has included making a full-length paper model of the canoe to work out the dimensions and the scale of the stern. He carved a prototype for the stern in polystyrene and traced the wash strakes in order to gain the pattern for the haliotis inlay.

George’s work was first seen in the Cambridge University Museum of Archeology and Anthropology when his house entrance was displayed as part of the Pasifika Styles exhibition in 2005. More recently he has completed a commission for the British Museum.

This project is a departure because, while he’s been used to displaying his work alongside traditional Maori collections, this time he’s not only adding to an existing piece but reconfiguring it and creating a new art work, the culmination of several artists’ work spanning over 150 years.

Here are some pictures of George working on the construction of the sternpost, first in polystyrene and then in perspex [image shown]. There’s a real concern about the longevity of the material that George is using, and on 20 August this year the entire waka and all its component pieces, including George’s work, was scanned in 3D. This allows the museum to have a record of every tool mark on the hull but also provides enough information to cast a new sternpost should the cast sternpost ever deteriorate to that extent.

The elaborately carved sternpost or taurapa is the pinnacle of the carver’s art. They were prized possessions that were carefully stored when not in use and, whenever possible, passed from one generation to the next. The taurapa is a highly carved panel reinforced by a pair of strong curved ribs. The ribs gradually taper as they sweep up the sternpiece.

There are at least two recorded accounts that explain the meaning of the rib design. The first claims that the ribs represented the dual life principles of the Maori, the gods and mankind, and the second suggests they are a representation of the bill of the kotuku or the white heron.

A striking feature of many taurapa was the feather ornamentation that was draped over them. These decorations usually consisted of two streamers of pigeon or kakatail feathers trailing behind the waka and a line of feathers across the top of the taurapa which extended right down its forward edge as well.

On arrival, before George began work on the canoe at the National Museums Scotland, he performed a blessing ceremony which involved addressing the canoe and the work of his ancestors. He asked the conservators, curators and exhibition designers to attend, and they also greeted the canoe. George has given the name Tu Tuhono to the canoe, which means ‘to join.’ As part of the conservation of the waka, museum staff are learning about maintenance of Maori canoes in customary ways. It’s also hoped that at the launch of the waka in the museum members of the Ngati Ranana, or the London Maori Society, will visit Edinburgh to perform a ceremony and bless the canoe with prayers and songs.

The prow or tauihu is a beautifully designed and carved example of Maori art. The most common design style was the pitau, which is commonly recognised by the full-bodied carved figure to the front, its tongue out in defiance and its arms stretched backwards. The carved prow is in proportion with the smaller size of canoe. However, its feet had been lost. The artist and conservator are producing new feet, and the challenge was to integrate these new parts successfully.

During important ceremonial occasions or when venturing on raids, waka taua were often decorated with a pair of ihiihi which were made from slim rods. Each rod had a circular hoop tied to its forward extremity, which was known as a karu atau or ‘eye of god’ and bunches of albatross or gannett feathers completed its decoration.

[Image shown] This picture is of another canoe, but it demonstrates the style of how the Maori waka at the National Museums Scotland will be suspended in the balcony gallery. The new ‘Facing the sea’ gallery will be open for all to see in 2011. Thank you. [applause] JENNY NEWELL: Fantastic. Thank you, Kylie. An excellent introduction to an exciting project.

QUESTION: by Michael Gunn. I’ve got a rather silly question. Do you know where the tallest sternpost is located? They seemed to be much taller in the eighteenth century than they were in the nineteenth century where most of those that we know were created.

KYLIE MOLONEY: No, Mike, I’m not sure where the tallest one is. There are some in New York and also some in the British Museum, but I’m not sure of the tallest one. Some of those are some 15 or 18 feet high.

QUESTION: There’s a big one in Florence, but I didn’t measure it of course. I was only there for ten seconds.

QUESTION: by Jenny Newell. Let me introduce myself properly as I forgot to at the beginning. I’m Jenny Newell and I’m a fellow here at the Centre for Historical Research.

Kylie, do you have any sense from George and from members of Ngati Ranana what the general response within other communities in New Zealand might be to George’s work? The British Museum works that George has done have had an interesting response actually from some Maori back from New Zealand who visited the museum, because they have said, ‘That would never happen in New Zealand. You wouldn’t be able to have contemporary being married to historic like that.’ Have you had any comments like that here in the Scottish contact?

KYLIE MOLONEY: I don’t think there’s been a lot of contact with Maori who are living in New Zealand. There’s been a lot of contact with those who are living in London, and that community is quite excited about the project. But I expect in 2011 when it opens and travelling New Zealand people come and see it, I think the museum is expecting some controversy and those sort of comments, ‘We wouldn’t do that to an ancient vessel and look at what you’re doing.’ However, George the artist is guiding the project with the curator. He feels that it’s always been an artistic object that’s been contributed to by different carvers over the years and he’s been very supportive of the project. We’ll have to wait and see.

QUESTION: My name is Jim Specht. You mentioned the analysis of the fibres. Has there been an analysis of every piece of the wood to determine whether in fact it all originated from New Zealand?

KYLIE MOLONEY: They’re still undergoing some of that conservation analysis, Jim. Some of the wood is from New Zealand, but they haven’t identified which type it is. Before I was talking about some of the kauri and the other type of wood, but those results haven’t come out as yet. I am expecting that they will find that some of the wood is from Scotland as well. If you look up close on some of those pictures, it’s quite an amalgamation of different types of wood. Just the fact that the conservators had used the binding that they were using on other boats suggests that they had also used nails and wood which was in their workshop at the time - conservators wouldn’t work like that these days, as we know.

JENNY NEWELL: Thank you very much, Kylie. Please join me in thanking Kylie for an excellent presentation. [applause]

Connecting pathways: navigating the Australian Museum’s Pacific collections by Melanie van Olffen

JENNY NEWELL: I’d now like to welcome Melanie van Olffen. We’re very fortunate to have Melanie here today from the Australian Museum in Sydney. Melanie has been working in the anthropology collections at the Australian Museum for the last three years. She has had an interesting career leading up to this. She became hooked on the Pacific while studying cultural anthropology at the University of Amsterdam. It was reading the works of the great anthropologists who did their field work in the Pacific that got her excited and inspired to work on the Pacific. She then worked with the Oceanic collections in the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam. After a year at the University of Pittsburgh and cataloging part of the Oceanic collection in the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, she took up the Australian Museum job.

Currently one of her main projects is managing the content development of the virtual museum of the Pacific, an ARC project that will allow virtual access to the museum’s extensive collections. I’m very happy she could speak to us today on ‘Connecting Pathways: navigating the Australian Museum’s Pacific collections’. Please welcome Melanie. [applause]

MELANIE VAN OLFFEN: First of all, I’d like to pay my respects to the traditional owners of this land. Thank you for inviting me to give you this presentation, especially being in the company of many world-renowned specialists, not just the other speakers but also some people here in the audience.

The common belief is that museum collections are often considered to be a collection of dead objects, but in fact the objects that many museums hold are a way of connecting peoples together and a way of connecting objects with peoples through time and through those objects. Many collections are a result and a legacy of those connections and crossings of peoples through the Pacific and other areas. In the case of the Pacific collections at the Australian Museum, it’s often the pathways of early explorers, traders, missionaries and also anthropologists. The collections are, in a way, a proof of the interactions between the peoples.

The history of the Australian Museum goes back to 1827. At that time the first scientists were mostly really after assembling natural history collections. It was later in the nineteenth century when they started collecting other ethnographic and archaeological material as well.

The ethnographic collections at the Australian Museum comprise 110,000 objects, which includes the Pacific and also Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island collections and our ‘triple A’ collections from America, Asia and Africa.

In the 1880s there was a big exhibition of a lot of the ethnographic materials in the so-called Garden Palace exhibit, at the Botanic Gardens in Sydney. But unfortunately there was a big fire in 1882 and, as you can see in the photo on the right [image shown], many of the objects that were on display were lost. After that there was a more concerted effort and a more strategic idea to start collecting more ethnographic materials. This was also in conjunction with the establishment of the academic discipline of anthropology.

Going to our Pacific collections, we house 60,000 objects. Most of them are on site in our museum in central Sydney. The collection is all divided up over three floors. As I was just saying before, in some instances it’s been a legacy of a concerted effort to collect certain types of objects, but in many cases it was a haphazard assemblage of those interactions.

Today I would like to talk about the stories that some objects tell. I’ll start off with one of the really large canoes that we hold in our collection. It’s a Solomon Islands war canoe [image shown]. I haven’t been able to come across a full photo of the whole canoe. There might be one somewhere but I wasn’t able to find it before this presentation. This canoe was donated in 1916 by a gentleman called Mr Wickham who was a planter in Roviana in the Solomon Islands. He had commissioned people in Roviana to make the traditional canoe. There was a race held at that time. He then transported it to Sydney as part of the Australia Day Red Cross Fund, and they tried to get monies together for the Australia Day Red Cross event. It was temporarily on display at the Australian Museum, but unfortunately - and it’s also what is being said in one of the articles - the reactions were fairly poor and there was not a lot of interest. They also wanted to put it up for auction but they were really trying to motivate people to put more money towards it because they were afraid it would otherwise leave the country. But then afterwards they negotiated with Mr Wickham to have it donated to the museum - or have it purchased by the museum, I’m not too sure.

The traditional canoe itself is about 14 metres long. Here you can see how large it is and what storage problems it may cause to house a canoe like this. It would be great if we could have it on permanent display, but it’s fairly fragile as well. [Images shown] On the left was one of the first photos taken when it just arrived in Sydney. It was 14 metres long and the prow here is about three metres high.

In an article in the Australian Museum Magazine in 1923, WW Thorpe, who was one of the curators of the anthropology collections and who apparently started off as a watchman, described the manufacturing of the canoe and especially about the inlay of shells at the stern [as you could see in the previous photo] and also the little canoe ornament that you may see here at the front. In this article he talks about the inlaying of this canoe:

The process of inlaying is a wearying task. Each fragment has to be either rubbed or filed into shape and placed into putty whilst that is still workable. The workmen who do this shaping are not necessarily skilled, but the chief goals among them and his dependents to supply these pieces and about 1000 or 2000 of each village are being manufactured for this. And then later on an artist actually fashions the designs into the canoe. … Both the prow and the stern are gracefully curved, the former arising to an elevation of nine feet and six inches, while the stern is about 18 inches higher. The effect of these is to produce what seems to be an elongated crescent. They are purposely high to protect the crew against arrows and other missiles when advancing or retreating. Diminutive carvings representing human figures and feathered plumes surmount the prow and stern. While attached to the cutwater is the grotesque figure of a titular deity whose special function is to watch for reefs and shoals and to give future warning of approach of the enemy.

This type of Nguzunguzu or canoe ornaments that sit at the front of the canoe can be seen in many collections around the world. We have 25 to 30 of them in our collection - I’m not too sure.

This one was actually donated by the New South Wales Government to the Australian Museum in 1885 and is part of what we call our Cook and Banks collection. People with some idea of what islands Cook had visited during his voyages will probably think, ‘Well, he never really visited the Solomon Islands so how did this specific object come into that earlier collection that we now consider the Cook and Banks Collection?’ That’s a bit obscure. At the time some of the objects had gone from one person to the next, and by the time the New South Wales Government purchased it from John Calvert, it was quite dubious where some of the objects actually originated from, whether they were actually collected by either Cook or Banks or they came into Banks’ collection at a much later stage.

This Nguzunguzu, guardian or protector figure, is supposed to protect the people in the canoe and the canoe itself from either sea creatures – there is a variety of stories - or to protect them from enemies that are attacking.

Going from our large war canoe of some 14 metres to one of the smallest canoe models we have from the Solomon Islands - most of the canoe models that I’ll be showing you today are between 60 cm and one metre in length – which is 89 cm by 32 cm, so it’s quite scaled down [image shown]. This one was not from the University of Sydney [there was a mistake in the slide] but was donated by Mr Waterhouse, a shipping agent, in 1928.

That shows how it was not just the navigators and the early voyaging that happened in the Pacific of the Indigenous peoples of the Pacific, but also later on the voyaging, trading and comings and goings of European travellers. Mr Waterhouse was a shipping agent who chartered cargoes across the Pacific. He was a big collector of Pacific material and later his son actually became the president of our museum trust.

This is an example of one of our oldest canoe models that we have in our collection [image shown]. It was donated in 1890 by this Mr Wolfe. This was a one-off donation so we don’t have a lot of information on how this object came into Mr Wolfe’s possession. It’s a refined, beautifully assembled model canoe from the Cook Islands.

Another old example of a model canoe in our collection is this war canoe [image shown]. It was really interesting to hear about the project that Kylie had been working on. As you can see, this also has the red paint. In a way, it’s much more crudely done than a full canoe but it does show you a lot of the details. This object was registered in 1911 but the donor wasn’t known. It was registered as our old collection and some of the old collection referred to perhaps some of the material that came in our collection before the Garden Palace fire destroyed most of the collection. It’s too bad that sometimes the objects can’t speak for themselves because for some of the objects we will probably never know much more about them.

We’ll go full force ahead with this little outrigger from Samoa [image shown]. This photo is actually in the Vaka Moana exhibition catalogue. The caption for the photo in the catalogue says it was taken by a tourist in 1938. A lot of the canoe models, of course, were produced for tourist trade but also early collectors did collect many model canoes because they were fascinated by the techniques of assembling the full sized ones. It was a common interest that they shared. And often model canoes were also used as teaching aids for young kids and canoe builders.

This is one of my little favourites [image shown]. It’s a drua from Fiji. This one has come through the University of Sydney’s National Ethnographic Collection that was donated to us in 1989. In the area between Fiji, Samoa and Tonga there was a lot of overlap because of very close connections, as Matthew showed earlier as well. There were a lot of trading routes happening between the islands and the drua is in a way a new innovation of some of the Tongan canoes.

I’ll have to rush because I was going to talk about the Hiri voyages as well. I’ll tell you the reason why I want to talk a bit about the Hiri voyages. We have a number of lakatoi canoe models in our collection. We don’t really know where this one came from [image shown] but the inside of the canoe is mostly accurate. I’ve seen some historical photos which is almost similar inside. There’s even an anchor that’s almost identical to the actual full-sized one.

Laka is similar to waka or canoe and toi is a Mutu form of three. So lakatoi is the ‘three-hulled canoe’. The Mutu-speaking people from Central Province of Papua New Guinea have an annual voyaging trading route. One of the last Hiri voyages took place in the 1960s, if I’m correct. The regular voyages continued to take place up until the First World War. It was an annual event. It was mainly aimed at the trade between the Mutu people and the people in the Gulf area, the Elema-speaking people, to trade pots for sago and some other canoe hulls that they would use in the next year.

They would go up the Gulf when the south-west trade winds would come in and would come back three or four months later when the monsoons were coming back into the Motu and Port Moresby area. There is a legend of how the trade actually started. I’ll keep it very short. This one Mutu guy whose name was Edi Siabo was visited by a spirit, and in his revelation he was told how to assemble a lakatoi and also some social and food taboos that were prescribed in conjunction with it. That’s how they trace back the origins of the Hiri voyaging. The manufacture of the canoe and also of the pots that they were going to trade with the people in the Gulf took a lot of preparation.

In some of the Hiri fleets there were up to 20 or 25 actual lakatoi. In 1885 it was observed that there was a fleet going up the Gulf coast with an average crew on each lakatoi was 29 and the average amount of pots per lakatoi was over 1500. You can imagine how much work was going into that. It was mostly the women making the pots while the men were preparing the lakatoi and getting everything ready. An initiator would be the one who would really be in control of the stern and another one that was in control of the prow and of the vessel. Both of them had unmarried relatives that were helpers. I’ll come back to that a little bit later.

But then not long ago I went through the stores and I came across this [image shown] - what was put down as either a sleeping bag or a mosquito net, and it was actually located in the Sepik area. It did have a PUN [Pacific unregistered] number, which means that we didn’t know really where it came from. So there was no indication of when it was collected or by whom. By unfolding this and looking at it a bit more closely we fairly easily noticed that this definitely was not a sleeping bag. It was definitely a crab claw sail like they would use at the lakatoi festivals.

Let me show you a few of the detail shots. Except for the one shot that I took myself with a little camera in the store, even our photographers didn’t really want to photograph the whole thing because it is in fairly poor condition. One of the photographers did take some detail shots in the studio, which show you how some parts of the pandanus mats were sewn together, and also some of the flags which are probably clan banners or flags that were also described in some of the accounts of people that saw some of the later voyages still happening in the late 1800s.

Finally, going to one of the last donations that was done last year. Two of our researchers, Robin Torrence and Erna Lilje, they went up to Central Province for some of their research and they met with this man called Dairie. He had some of his grandfather’s material still in his possession and he really wanted to donate it to the museum so we could look after it. In his possession was this unassuming little object [image shown]. It’s actually a counter for the unmarried helper, one of the two people that are initiating the voyage. He would be the counter and sitting up in the mast and counting the nights from when they were leaving their village up into the Elema area. Like I said, it doesn’t look like much: it’s only a bunch of little pieces of cane but it’s really interesting to get this into our possession and connecting those little stories with some of the objects that we have in our collection.

I probably leave it at that. Thank you. [applause]

JENNY NEWELL: Thanks very much Melanie for giving us that privileged view into the voyaging collections at the Australian Museum. We’ve got time for one question, if anyone in the audience has one.

QUESTION: by Margaret Jolly. This is really a comment that might relate to all the speakers rather than a direct question. I heard a paper last week about outriggers in the Trobriand Islands which was absolutely fascinating, focusing not just on the role of the canoe in long distance voyaging but also looking at the exchange relationships that were created between people within archipelagos. I can’t possibly go into the detail of this paper, but basically, it demonstrated that the components coming into any outrigger were different woods from different parts of the group around the Massim, different fibres coming from different regions. And in fact the distinctive hull design was completely artefactually created with a particular tree that grew on the edges of gardens and was struggling to find the light and thus had this distinctive curve. One of the other things that were really interesting about this presentation was the incredible overlay of spiritual values and ancestral designs linking gardens and canoes.

I realise this exhibition is very much focusing on the sea, but does anybody have any sense of a similar kind of division of labour in other regions of Oceania but also these very interesting connections between models of place in land and models of voyaging on the ocean?

JENNY NEWELL: I will just quickly say the British Museum has had a similar discovery of a Tahitian sail and probably a Hawaiian sail, again folded up and not really registered properly and all that sort of thing. That’s been very interesting to have that conserved and published. There’s a great deal of interest from across Polynesia in these sails, because they’re the only ones to have survived from the eighteenth century, and people who are involved in contemporary reconstructions of voyaging canoes have never had a model of an actual sail to work from before; they’ve only had engravings. So this is a really important document. I know that the Australian Museum has lots of people coming in to visit the collection from the Solomons and from elsewhere. Have you had any comments from visitors?


JENNY NEWELL: On any of the canoes or canoe models, or the sails yet?

MELANIE VAN OLFFEN: No, because the discovery of this sail - I only came across it a few months ago. I’d love to get some input from people here. I know that there are some people here that might be able to help me out a bit more. It’s really in the early stages of doing a bit more research on it and seeing if there are more people that can add to the story. That’s also what the museum collections are about - drawing people together based on our collections. I hope that’s something that we can work on in the very near future.

JENNY NEWELL: Thank you very much and please join me in thanking Melanie van Olffen. [applause]

Disclaimer and copyright notice
This is an edited transcript typed from an audio recording.

The National Museum of Australia cannot guarantee its complete accuracy. Some older pages on the Museum website contain images and terms now considered outdated and inappropriate. They are a reflection of the time when the material was created and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Museum.

© National Museum of Australia 2007–23. This transcript is copyright and is intended for your general use and information. You may download, display, print and reproduce it in unaltered form only for your personal, non-commercial use or for use within your organisation. Apart from any use as permitted under the Copyright Act 1968 (Cth) all other rights are reserved.

Date published: 01 January 2018

Return to Top