Te Papa’s international textiles – Nigeria to New Zealand

East & West Missionary Exhibition

A survey of the costume and textiles Te Papa’s International History collections now underway has shown that many of our collections from Africa and Asia retain links with an exhibition held almost 90 years ago.  In most instances, they have not been exhibited since then.  I’ve become fascinated by these objects and the connections they reveal between New Zealand and the rest of the world.

Cloth band with East & West Missionary Exhibition label attached, Nigeria, maker unknown. Gift of New Zealand Anglican Board of Missions, 1966. Te Papa (FE004643)


Handbook of the East West Missionary Exhibition, 1926

On Monday August 23rd, 1926 at 7:40, the New Zealand Christian Missionary Society opened the East & West Missionary Exhibition in Auckland’s Town Hall to promote its activities overseas. The Auckland Star recorded the proceedings:  “the curtain parted and revealed a gathering of national costumes under the glare of powerful floodlights.  For a moment there was silence, then a burst of applause”.  The hall featured a section for each of the geographic regions in which the NZCMS was then active: Melanesia, Polynesia, Africa, China, Japan, India and Palestine (see programme details here).  There was also a display showing the history of the missionaries among the Māori in New Zealand, beginning with the arrival of Samuel Marsden.

The curios

The “curios” were a highlight for visitors, “Tapestries of the East, and patterns which spoke of the imaginative Oriental mind, were prominent” remarked the Auckland Star reporter. At the center of the exhibition space was a sale stall, where visitors could purchase items contributed by missionaries posted overseas that would serve, according to the exhibition guide, as objects of “permanent Missionary interest in the home”.  The sales were also intended to raise funds for the exhibition and general operations.  At the time of the exhibition, New Zealanders were occupied in aid work in missionary hospitals, orphanages and schools.  I was interested to learn that in the first decade from 1893, when New Zealand sent missionaries out under the auspices of the NZCMS (rather than under its UK parent group, the CMS), half were women, providing the adventurous-minded with a socially acceptable alternative to the typical options at that time.

The riga, or Hausa chief’s robe

Robe, Hausa, before 1901, Nigeria, maker unknown. Gift of E W Bergin, 1966. Te Papa (FE004454)

Robe, Hausa, before 1901, Nigeria, maker unknown. Gift of E W Bergin, 1966. Te Papa (FE004454)

An African garment in our collection can be traced back farther than the exhibition, to the turn of the century.  When I took the garment out of its storage box, I was immediately drawn to its bright magenta color, and I recognized that it was made out of joined strips of woven silk.  There was no information in our records about who would have made or worn it, or the meaning of the elaborate embroidered symbols over the chest and back.  I had never come across anything like it, and wanted to find out more about its history and significance.  I soon discovered that museums like the National Museums of Scotland (NMS) and the British Museum have similar examples, and was generously assisted by Dr. Sarah Worden at NMS, whose doctoral research focused on textiles like this.

The garment is called a riga and was worn by men of high status in what is now northern Nigeria.   The Te Papa robe is made of woven widths measuring about 60 mm wide.  The strips are made using waste silk originating from textile mills in the Mediterranean region, obtained through trade with Tunisia. The magenta colour was produced using madder root (or its synthetic counterpart, alizarin), and there are also some indigo-dyed yarns incorporated.  Embroidered symbols, worked in cotton and concentrated over the wearer’s heart, are meant to afford special protection from evil, and often the number of repeating symbols is significant for example the eight triangular “knives” around the neck and the “triple barb” sideways “V” shapes at lower right.  The circle with inset square at left (as viewed, not as worn) is known as a king’s drum and is repeated on architecture and weaponry across the Sahara¹.

The New Zealand connection

Reverend John Robert Burgin (1869-1920) with his family. Burgin’s daughter Mona became a leader in the Girl Guides movement. Image used with kind permission from Kenneth Jacob.

Why is this robe here, and what does it tell us about New Zealand’s history?  Because of the tag and the missionary connection it suggested, I consulted with Judith Bright, the helpful and fabulous librarian at the John Kinder Theological Library, were the NZCMS archives are held.  Te Papa’s records show that the garment was given to the museum by Eric Bergin [sic] tthe son of John Robert Burgin, who served as a lay missionary in what was then known as Hausaland between 1899 and 1901.  He later served as the vicar of St. Peter’s Church in Onehunga.  More than a decade after returning from Africa, Reverend Burgin presented fundraising lectures around New Zealand wearing this robe (or perhaps one very like it), regaling crowds with tales of his Nigerian adventures.  At some venues the presentation included a display of African “curios”.   The robe and likely many of the curios were included in the East West Missionary Exhibition 20 years later and were subsequently donated to Te Papa.

The survey I am carrying out will record details of the garment’s materials, construction, condition and the links that make it a significant and unusual item in our collection.  Despite the odd bit of what looks to be chewing gum that is serving as a fastening at the neckline, the colours remain exceptionally bright, and the silk has not been damaged by pests–wonderful benefits of being stored away in obscurity for so long.

References & more info

¹Prussin,  L., 1986. Hatumere: Islamic design in West Africa .  Berkeley and London: University of California Press.

Gardi, Bernhard (ed). 2009. Woven beauty – The art of West African textiles. Basel Museum der Kulturen.

Spring, C. and Hudson, J. , 2002. Silk in Africa.  London: British Museum Press.

Worden, S., 2010. Clothing and identity: how can museum collections of Hausa textiles contribute to understanding the notion of Hausa identity? in Being and Becoming Hausa: Interdisciplinary Perspectives (African Social Studies Series, vol. 23).  A. Haour and B. Rossi, eds.  Leiden: Brill.

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