The material culture of Fiji: (re)discovering the collections

The material culture of Fiji: (re)discovering the collections

Last week we were privileged to have Rod and Bev Ewins visit the Pacific Cultures Collections. Te Papa is on a list of New Zealand and Australian museums the couple are visiting as they research collections for a new book on the material culture of Fiji.

Rod is a scholar and artist who has spent most of his life studying the arts and material culture of the Pacific. Rod was born in Fiji into the fourth generation of a family of settlers who arrived in 1875. He is now retired in Australia after working as Associate Professor and Head of the Tasmanian School of Art, at the University of Tasmania.

Rod’s book Fijian Artefacts (1982) has for 30 years been one of two valuable references for museums with cultural artefacts from Fiji. Rod’s new book will greatly expand on Fijian Artefacts which only drew upon the collections of the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery.

Over three half-day sessions with Rod and Bev, the Pacific Cultures team viewed all the items in the Fiji collection. It was an important opportunity to expand our knowledge base. We were able to update catalogue descriptions, measurements and in some cases identify objects. For all of us it was the first time we had looked closely at the Fijian collections since they were moved on site in the late 1990s. Rod identified Fijian terms for many of the objects and described natural materials used in their manufacture. He also highlighted how certain objects were at the centre of historical cultural connections between Fiji, and the neighbouring islands of Tonga and Samoa. This discussion of interisland exchange and connection through objects was an important reminder of how porous the lines are that we often draw around islands.

Rod’s favourite Fijian treasure he saw during the three days was a small matakau (ancestral figure) OL000364 that is part of the Oldman Collection.

Matakau (ancestral figure), OL000364. Oldman Collection. Gift of the New Zealand Government, 1992

Of the figure Rod says, “I think any Fijian human figure, even just heads on forks or walking sticks, deserves attention because there are relatively few anthropomorphic images, 2D or 3D, from Fiji compared with other parts of the Pacific. An earlier observer named Larsson attempted to document them all (though obviously he couldn’t find every one in existence), and could only find a few dozen all told. Many of the figures that do exist are rather stolid and static, whereas the little figure Te Papa has is a jaunty little guy I think, very winsome.”

I was most interested in Rod’s discussion of the many Fijian weapons in Te Papa’s collections, from throwing clubs through to bludgeons. Here are a few images:

Totokia (Club) OL000609, Oldman Collection. Gift of the New Zealand Government, 1992
iUla (throwing club) OL000614/3 Oldman Collection. Gift of the New Zealand Government, 1992
Vunikau (club) OL000131.S/5 Oldman Collection. Gift of the New Zealand Government, 1992

One of the benefits of visits from researchers such as Rod and Bev, is that they help us build knowledge around the collections and allow us to contribute in a small way to research projects outside Te Papa. Rod and Bev’s research adds to the efforts of others who have worked on Te Papa’s Fiji collections in recent years. We have been fortunate to have Fijians Tarisi Vunidilo and Susan Elliott work in collection management. Community advisor Sai Lealea, helped us acquire new artefacts in the 1990s.

We look forward to more visits from researchers and the Fiji community and of course to the publication of Rod’s new book.

Vinaka vakalevu Rod!

You can discover more about Rod Ewins and hisFiji related research on this link:

You can view Susan Elliott talking about tabua (whale tooth artefacts) here:


  1. I have recently inherited a sali and a totokia which were gifted to an ancestor many moons ago. I am very interested in them and would like to see if I could find out more. would you be able to email me or put me in contact with someone who would be keen to help?

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