Mapping the Sāmoa Collections Project: Collaborations and connections

Mapping the Sāmoa Collections Project: Collaborations and connections

Our Mapping the Sāmoa Collections project is a collaboration between Te Papa and the Bishop Museum in Hawai‘i and aims to enhance museum catalogue records and develop digital maps to contextualise taonga; enhancing their visibility and improving associated biographies, which then allows communities to utilise and share these resources, as well as support museum collections and knowledge. In 1930, Māori academic Te Rangi Hiroa (Sir Peter Buck) published the ethnological book Samoan Material Culture, whilst working for the Bishop Museum based on his collections and fieldwork in Sāmoa in the 1920s. This connection and sustained collaboration is an opportunity to better understand the scope of the collections, oral histories, and indigenous knowledge systems which feature in this work. Research Assistant Alexander Gordon reflects on his first forays into the project.

‘ie sina (costume mat), Sāmoa, maker unknown. Purchased 1911. CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Te Papa (FE000119)

There are more than 4000 items from Sāmoa in our collection. They include measina or treasures that include tools, textiles, archives, photographs, and specimens from the islands.

The oldest of these measina were purchased by the Dominion Museum – Te Papa’s predecessor – in 1911. An ‘ie sina (catalogued as a “rough mat”) and a fue (“fly whisk”) arrived with other objects from the Pacific Islands bought from the Sydney curiosity dealers, mother and daughter Jane Tost and Ada Rohu.

The Foreign Ethnology Collection, as it was then known, included objects from all over the world, from Egypt to Japan. In 1911, “foreign” meant “not British”. They were assembled as part of the project of ethnology – to create comparative collections of cultures.

By contrast, one of our most recent acquisitions was the personal collection of a soldier who served in Sāmoa. These objects were intentionally collected to add to our understanding of the occupation of Sāmoa in this period and to support future exhibitions about colonisation, war and the experiences of New Zealanders, Sāmoans and other Pacific Islanders during World War I.

A short wooden stick with a long tassel of woven threads coming off one end of it.
Fue from the collection of a soldier serving in Sāmoa. Gift of Evan McCalman, 2021. Photo by Alex Gordon. Te Papa (TMP039323)

During the past 111 years, the way we think about our collections and the stories they tell has changed. In 1911, these taonga would have been displayed as exotic items, representing a culture or place from a specific perspective. Today, we try and provide a broader context around these objects and their changing roles through time.

Our changing collection

Changing attitudes over time are visible in the ways that information has been recorded. The original entry in the register for the ‘ie sina reads simply “Rough Mat – Purchased from Tost & Rohu, Sydney – Samoa”. There’s no hint of how it was used, or by whom.

In fact, despite the ‘mat’ label, ‘ie sina are clothing! Te Rangi Hiroa writes that ‘ie sina were “worn around the waist as skirts [and] denote rank and status”.

The scrawling handwriting in the register for 1911. Ethnology register, Sep-1908 to Dec-1961. Te Papa

Our collection also holds an ‘ie fuipani – a black version of the ‘ie sina – made by Kim Keil in 2010 in response to a story told by her grandmother. When attempting to weave the garment, she discovered that the fibre sources recorded by Te Rangi Hiroa did not work. Working with an elder in Sāmoa she succeeded in producing the ‘ie fuipani with an alternative fibre, challenging the anthropological record with local knowledge.

Record-keeping systems have changed over time too. When the original entry for the ‘ie sina was transferred to a different register in 1927, it became “Dancing dress – Samoa – Purch. Tost & Robin Rohu”.

Our Mapping the Sāmoa Collections project aims to improve these catalogue records. Using accurate and appropriate Sāmoan terminology and in partnership with Sāmoan communities, we can learn more about the contexts in which these objects were produced, used, and collected.

In turn, this information will be made accessible online, allowing communities to utilise the resources to access, share and support museum collections and knowledge.

Further reading

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