Monday, May 19, 2008
Fijian artifacts in other countries?
This picture is from the Fiji Times May 19 at the special Museum Day in Suva. The Fiji Museum is in Thurston Gardens and it houses many interesting items but it is extremely crowded.
This week museums celebrated a special Museum promotion so I was thinking about what has happened to Fijian art/artifacts/cultural items that were taken overseas into foreign museums, institutions and private homes. For example: the U.S. Exploring Expedition's collection of ethnographic and archaeological artifacts amassed during the four-year voyage was compiled in the 1840s by two members of the scientific corps, Titian Ramsay Peale and Charles Pickering. The original catalogue lists 2,487 artifacts for a total of 2,516 ethnological specimens including items from New Zealand, Hawaii, Samoa, Tonga and Fiji and numerous other Pacific island groups. The collection was exhibited in the Great Hall of the Patent Office until 1857 when it was transferred by order of the United States Congress to the Smithsonian Institution. One result of this transfer was the establishment of the United States National Museum.
I remember reading somewhere - though I've lost the link now - that there is a Fijian body - perhaps a warrior - in a Washington Museum.
Should some of these items be repatriated to Fiji? Who should possess cultural items? There is talk about England giving back the Elgin marbles which were part of the Parthenon so truly belong to Greece. Australian Aboriginal remains have been collected and exhbited in European museums and some have been sent back to Australia for proper burial. Missionaries, adventurers, colonials often collected significant items. I remember one time someone in a church office in Melbourne gave us some Fijian war clubs etc. to give back to Suva.
The argument for not repatriating cultural items is that they can be displayed elsewhere to educate the public, or to safely look after items that may not be cared for elsewhere, etc. Whether the cultural items were removed and taken away by trade, looting, of as gifts, the matter of returning cultural items that are significant to one country is up for debate.
Items from Fiji taken by the Wilkes expedition are listed in this website.
The official collections contain 120 Fijian skirts or broad belts woven from grasses, swamp sedge, hibiscus fibers, and strips of pandanus leaves (Clunie 1986:156), in addition to more than 150 examples of bark cloth used as clothing, covers, room dividers and, in its most finely beaten varieties, as turbans to protect the natives’ carefully coifed hair. The expedition managed to acquire rare carved wooden idols, large wooden kava bowls for the ritual drink of the same name, and a provision safe--a large wooden hook covered by a flat disk used for suspending food out of the reach of rodents. Fijians made highly individualistic glazed pottery in a large variety of unusual shapes, including drinking vessels that appear to represent outrigger canoes. The Ex. Ex. collected a large assortment of ornaments and jewelry made mostly of shell, although several necklaces are composed of individually strung human teeth. A huge drum (or slit gong) carved from a hollowed-out tree trunk was carried back to the United States on the Palestine, along with other musical instruments, including bamboo nose flutes.
Fijians took great care with their hair, and expedition members made a point of collecting combs, hair picks (some as long as 18 inches), feathered headbands, and even wigs. Titian Peale noted that when relatives died, Fijian mourners were required to cut off their hair, and at the end of mourning, theey wore wigs until the hair grew back. There are also two, rare, ceremonial masks, with faces made of coconut bast and tightly curled human hair. They collected woven palm-leaf mats, sun shades that look like oversized fans, and actual fans, along with about 45 flat, woven, wallet-like baskets used to carry tobacco leaves.
The previously listed items account for approximately two-thirds of the Expedition’s Fijian collection. The remaining third consists of some 450 weapons, many of which they presumably collected during several deadly battles with Fijian warriors. These include more than a hundred large, often intricately carved, war clubs, some of which may have been insignias of office or rank. In addition to those weapons captured in battle, Fijians presented some of the larger clubs to the Expedition’s officers as a initial gesture of friendship following the performance of a club dance in Vanua Levu (Kaeppler 1985:123-125). Peale lists an impressively large variety of more than two hundred iulas or throwing clubs; these weapons were called “handy billies” by Ex Ex crew members. Fijians used them in battle to stun their victims, moving in later for the kill with the larger, heavier war clubs. One musket was also collected at Mololo, where Charles Wilkes’s nephew, Wilkes Henry, and Lt. Joseph Underwood were killed; the musket’s stock is covered with the same intricate carving the clubs display. Sixty war spears, some as long as 18 feet, and about 130 bows and arrows fill out the impressive inventory of Fijian armaments. One of the final items listed in Titian Peale’s catalogue is a headdress that was presented to the expedition by the king of Somo Somo, a Fiji island state, in 1840.