As the Horniman Museum opens its new World Gallery, Deputy Keeper of Anthropology, Sarah Byrne, who specialises in Oceanic material culture, chooses three favourite objects on display
The Horniman has one of the finest collections of Pacific barkcloth in the UK; we have examples from Samoa, Tonga, Tahiti, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Fiji. Many were collected in the 19th century, but the Horniman also continued to collect barkcloth right through the 20th century.
Barkcloth is a very versatile material. To make it, two strips of the inner bark of the paper mulberry tree are soaked in water and then beaten with wooden mallets into large sheets.
Barkcloth can be made to any size – it can be as long as 60 metres – often used for processional pathways for important chiefs and honoured guests. Barkcloth is used for funeral shrouds, room dividers and, of course, clothing – this whole act of wrapping the body is a really important part of many western Polynesian cultures.
For example, in the past, Fijian chiefs were often wrapped in copious amounts of barkcloth. This wrapping helped protect their mana. Mana is a term that’s often misrepresented, it is a complex idea but is strongly linked to the efficacy and the effectiveness of a leader or a person with high status. People with more mana are enabled to be more successful members in their community.
This act of wrapping important people in bark cloth in places like Fiji and other areas of Western Polynesian continues to be an important cultural expression today.
In the World Gallery we have three beautiful examples of Fijian barkcloth from the Cakaudrove and Lau provinces and we have two exquisite dresses made by Fijian designer Vuya Raratabu.
Vuya makes dresses for the Fijian market, particularly for weddings and birthday. On display is a 1st birthday and a dress worn by Marie Kasari on the occasion of her a 21st birthday.
As Marie told us:
It meant so much to me that my parents bought this dress for me to wear on my 21st birthday because I wanted to be rooted in my culture. And I was definitely rooted wearing a barkcloth dress. They also gave me a large wooden key that represents the key to life and a whale’s tooth, which is the highest form of a gift someone can give to another in my culture.
As an anthropology curator, I was really drawn to acquiring and displaying a dress recently worn by someone rather than buying a more couture ‘off-the-peg’ piece. We were delighted to be able to acquire Marie’s dress and I know she was very proud of the idea that it would be put on display, here at the Horniman.
The whale’s tooth Marie speaks about here is called a tabua – one of the most treasured objects in Fijian society. You will often see a politician or chief when speaking holding a tabua in their hand. Holding these objects is a link to the ancestors, but it also reinforces the speaker’s mana and overall sense of ceremony. Today tabua continue to circulate and be exchanged at special occasions.
Marie’s dress is complimented by a garland called salusalu. As Marie no longer had her garland, one was collected in Fiji in 2017 by Sainimili Kata, an anthropology student and then volunteer at the Horniman Museum. This garland originally belonged to Sainimilli’s grandfather.
Barkcloth is far from being a material of the past- Pacific fashion designers continue to innovate and integrate it into their designs.
Year on year Pacific fashion is gaining more prominence on the international stage. Indeed here in London, do look out for the London Pacific Fashion Week (LPFW), which takes places each September as part of London Fashion week.
Indeed, on September 13 this year, we look forward to hosting a Fashion Workshop Collaboration at the Horniman, welcoming designers from across the Pacific to the museum.
Kiribati Eco Warrior’s Helmet
This is a piece called Te Tia Kawakin meaning the Guardian/Protector. It’s a sculpture by New Zealand-based artist Chris Charteris. Chris is an internationally renowned artist, originally trained as a carver, and his jewellery and sculptures are held in museums and galleries worldwide.
Chris is of Fijian and I-Kiribati heritage and has been working in recent years, reconnecting with his I-Kiribati heritage and his work often carries a strong ecological and environmental message.
Kiribati comprises of 32 coral atolls and reef islands in Micronesia. Many areas of Kiribati are under increasing threat due to rising sea levels and also salt water inundation that has significant impact on availability of clean drinking water. The Kiribati government are working hard to try and find solutions to such threats and to make sure Kiribati will still be habitable in 50 years’ time.
I was first introduced to Chris’ work as a result of his project and publication Tungaru-the Kiribati Project in collaboration with Jeff Smith at Auckland Museum. There Chris created Te Ma, a monumental installation of heart-shaped fish traps made of 8,000 ringed venus shells, emulating the traditional coral fish traps built in lagoons by communities in Kiribati.
I began talking to Chris about the new Horniman World Gallery over two years ago and our plans to have a case that showcased a range of shell valuables from across the Pacific and we commissioned him to come up with an idea for an artwork for the case. By happy co-incidence Chris and weavers Kaetaeta Watson, Lizzy Leckie were visiting the UK in 2017 as part of a project with Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, in which they weaved a new suit of Kiribati armour, the first to be made in 45 years.
Kiribati armour is found throughout UK museums, a lot of it collected in the late 19th century. Typical armour includes tightly knotted and woven coir protective overalls, a curiass (upper body armour), body belts made of ray skin and a helmet made of puffer-fish skin. Such armours were worn by I-Kiribati warriors for close at hand combat using swords made of shark’s teeth. Ethnographic accounts tell us that such fighting was often just between two individuals but sometimes involved larger groups and most likely was linked to competition over land resources.
When Chris visited the Horniman Museum in 2017, he spent time examining the pufferfish helmet in our collection and soon after proposed Te Tia Kawakin or Kiribati Eco Warrior Helmet. Chris explains how:
“I made this helmet as a symbol to fight for what is right for our environment.
“I love and am inspired by how Kiribati creatively utilise the limited range of materials available to them on their small coral atolls and the vast ocean that surrounds them. In that way I gathered these shells from our local beach and the helmet from the recycling.”
In the new World Gallery the dramatic artwork sits in the centre of a rising wave of shell and whalebone valuables and ornaments from our main collection – objects from across the Pacific, from the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, Hawaii, Aotearoa (New Zealand), Tahiti and Samoa.
The environmental message in this display is also expressed though a video installation filmed both by Island Reach and Pacific Climate Warriors showing the building of a canoe in Futuna, Vanuatu called Ta Reo (Voice of Vanuatu). Ta Reo was shipped to Australia and took part in wider Pacific protest against coal extraction.
I am particularly interested in the emerging Pacific activism around climate change and how local material culture, such as canoes, can act as powerful political and protest symbols. More broadly I am interested in wider relationship between art and activism and I feel museums should play a more central role in highlighting pressing issues such as climate change.
Perhaps in some small way, encountering such narratives away from newspapers, smart phones and tablets – reflecting on them in a museum setting such as the Horniman World Gallery surrounded by captivating objects from many times and places, might encourage some visitors rethink the impacts of our actions on the world we all share.
Net Bag (ésa), Bedamuni, Papua New Guinea
When you visit the Horniman World Gallery you may quickly realise that this is not a Gallery that lauds or centralises the idea of the ‘star object’. Indeed, the most intriguing, most revealing and captivating collections are often the most unassuming.
One of my favourite objects in the Gallery is a small net bag or ésa made by a little Bedamuni girl called Marome, aged 6, marking her first attempt in net-bag making. It was collected by anthropologist Gosewijn Van Beek in the late 1970s, whilst researching amongst the Bedamuni in the Western province of Papua New Guinea.
Van Beek’s meticulous notetaking means we know many of the names of the people who made and used the objects on display, a lamentable rarity in many other anthropological collections of the past.
How might and can such a simple, unassuming thing speak to then and there and here and now?
“It took 60-80 hours to roll enough string to manufacture one bag and looping took another 100-160 hours”
Esa’s were invariably made by women. The rope is made from the bark of the gopéa tree (gnetum gnemon). The fibre comes from beating the bark which is intertwined and twisted by women on their thighs using crumbled white chalk to roughen the fibre. Different net bags were used for different purposes, some carrying garden produce, others carrying babies and other personal possessions.
Studies of netbags elsewhere in the Papua New Guinea highlands such as Maureen MacKenzie’s book Androgynous Objects: String Bags and Gender in Central New Guinea (1991) highlight how labour intensive making full sized versions of these bags really was. MacKenzie estimated it took 60-80 hours to roll enough string to manufacture one bag and looping took another 100-160 hours.
Many of these studies also alert us to the fact that these bags are much more than mere holdalls- they often hold deep ceremonial and cosmological significance for the different communities who made them. From being associated with fertility and the womb, being important for bride wealth or thought to have the ability to mediate between the spirit world and the living. These bags constantly create social relations and ties between and within families and other social groups.
So when I look at and think about this little bag made by Marome (who would be about my own age now) sitting in a case in Southeast London, I am not only impressed by its skill (doubting my five year would be able to produce anything so lovely) but I also feel acutely aware of the relationship between the past and the present. We are all anxious about our futures, but we also need to remember we all have important things to pass on.
Sarah Byrne was speaking to Richard Moss
The Horniman’s World Gallery is now open. Admission is free.
Horniman Museum and Gardens
London, Greater London
The Horniman has a unique range of exhibitions, events and activities which illustrate the cultural and natural world. Our collections of anthropology, natural history and musical instruments provide the inspiration for our programme of permanent and temporary exhibitions and events and activities. A full range of events and activities take…