british museum culture art oceanien

Oceanic art : my private cultural orgy at the british Museum

Over the years, I have seen many of the British Museum’s oceanic masterpieces in exhibitions around the worlds and they are all reproduced in different books and catalogs. Not to mention, the numerous times which I have written about some of these pieces. That being said, having five of my favourite pieces all for myself, was truly one of the greatest thrills of my life.

The British Museum’s Department of Africa, Oceania and the Americas are currently in the stores (reserve) of the British Museum in East London. In May 2020 they will be on display in their new home at the World Conservation and Exhibitions Centre at Bloomsbury. My friend, Dr. Julie Adams, curator, of Oceania Department of Africa, Oceania and the Americas of The British Museum, most kindly invited me to a private viewing of my favorite South Pacific artefacts in the East London stores. The British Museum was founded in 1753. Thanks to the last will and testament of Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753) this was the first national museum ever to open. Sir Hans Sloane was a physician, naturalist and a very big collector. He was born in Ulster, studied in London and France. At the age of 25 he was elected to the Royal Society and at 27 he was elected to the Royal College of Physicians. His marriage to Elizabeth Rose, a wealthy widow certainly helped him during his lifetime to amass his gigantic collection of more than 71,000 objects. His dream was to preserve his entire collection intact after his death.

british museum joseph banks cook

He bequeathed his entire collection to King George II for the nation, in return his heirs received a payment of TWENTY THOUSAND POUNDS. In todays currency that would be roughly FOUR MILLION POUNDS (approx. 5,2 USD millions). Sloane’s gift was accepted and on June 7, 1753, an Act of Parliament established The British Museum.The original collections consisted of books, manuscripts and natural specimens with some antiques (including coins, medals, prints and drawings) in addition to which ethnographic material. Then in 1757, king George II donated the ‘Old Royal Library’ of the sovereigns of England and with it the privilege of copyright receipt. The British Museum was first housed in a seventeenthcentury mansion, Montagu House, which first opened its doors to the public on January 15, 1759. Giving free entry to ‘all studious and curious persons.’

From the time of Samuel Wallis’ voyage (1766) to the Pacific, “collections acquired by the Admiralty on missions launched under The Royal Navy were regarded as belonging to the nation.” That being said, the reality was quite different. The two biggest collectors on Captain James Cook's first voyage were Captain James Cook and Joseph Banks, the wealthy young English Botanist who gave TEN THOUSAND POUNDS (TWO MILLION POUNDS in today's money) to accompany Cook on his first Voyage to the South Pacific. Upon his return to London, Banks sent his newly acquired collections to his new home which was “in effect an early Museum of the South Seas.” Banks never sold anything from his collection, nor profited from the pieces in any way. In 1778 Joseph Banks was elected the President of the Royal Society and instantly became a trustee of the British Museum. He was mostly interested in his herbarium and his library.  Banks gave his ethnographic collections, en masse to the British Museum.

Oceanic Art at the British Museum : the Chief Mourner's costume

Society Islands, Tahiti, 214 cm

This Chief Mourner’s Costume was most probably collected by Captain James Cook on his second voyage (1772-1775). After a Chief’s death or someone else of great importance, the family of the deceased would hire a chief mourner to frighten away the evil spirits. This mask was made of pearl shells and tropical bird feathers, the cap was made up of plaited vegetable fibers, the head cape was made up of bark cloth, dyed red with red ochre, yellow with turmeric and black with charcoal. The breastplate was made of wood, pearl shell and feathers. The cloak was made up of feathers attached to coconut fiber cords. The sash was made up of bark cloth and the belt was made of twisted bark cloth. The underneath poncho was made up of bark cloth with faded stripes and the top poncho was made up of bark cloth with vivid stripes. In those days, each large pearl shell cost the equivalent of a pig. This costume was displayed in the British Museum’s Polynesian section of it’s “ethnological gallery.” In 1966, the museum conservators decided to rearrange this section. Most delicately the headpiece was disassembled. Upon removing the bark cloth hood, never before seen, to everyone’s astonishment, the solid support inside was in fact a traditional well carved wooden Tahitian Ti’i. To this day nobody knows how or when this Ti’i arrived there. This Chief Mourner’s costume is only one of ten known Chief Mourner’s costumes.

A'a : Austral Islands

Austral Islands Rurutu, sandalwood, created before 1821, 117 cm.

In August 1821, as proof of their conversion to Christianity, A’a was given by a group of Rurutuans to representatives of the London Missionary Society stationed in Raiatea. In 1822, A’a was sent to the London Missionary Society Museum in London. In 1890, the London Missionary Society Museum lent many pieces (including A’a) to the British Museum. The cost of maintaining the London Missionary Society Museum put a great strain on their finances. In 1911, A’a was sold to the British Museum, where it has remained ever since.

Tahitian Art : double headed wooden figure (ti’i)

Tahiti Height: 59 cm ; Width: 43 cm ; Depth: 20 cm

This double headed wooden figure from Tahiti is truly unique, there are no other known wooden two headed figures with both heads looking forward. In 1995, The British Museum acquired this piece in Ireland. It is believed that this piece was collected in the Society Islands by Captain Sampson Jervois, R N, while serving as a First Lieutenant on the HMS Dauntless on the East Indies Station from 1818 to 1823. It is almost certain that this figure was obtained sometime between January 10th and January 19th in Matavai Bay, Tahiti. Some people believe this figure could have been used by sorcerers, who had the power of calling the spirit to inhabit the figure. Then through BLACK MAGIC using nail cuttings, food remnants or other matter closely connected with the victim, the sorcerer could bring about a quick and painful death.

 

Head of Staff God and Tahitian God House

Cook Islands, Rarotonga, casuarina wood Late 18th / early 19th centuries

This magnificent Staff God Head measures 111.0 cm. Comparing the size of the head and eight small figures of this Staff God to other known Staff Gods, this Staff God must have measured over six meters before the Missionaries broke off the bottom part for easier transportation. The four small figures in profile are undoubtedly male and the figures looking forward are females with their legs spread open. Most of the Staff Gods which were not burned in the Missionaries barn fires, were `chopped up, with the top ends guarded as religious trophies or curios.

 

Wood and sennit Length: 87cm ; Height: 31.5cm ; Width: 96.4cm.

This exceptional Tahitian God House is sculpted in the form of a pig, with four human-like legs and feet. Most probably it was used as a portable shrine for the war God Oro, hidden and only brought out for important events, such as wars or a new chief. On October 1, 1823, at the market in Papara, Tahiti, this God House was purchased by George Bennet, a Missionary. Bennet noted that in 1815 after the “overthrow of idolatry this God House was kept in a cave on the mountains, before being brought to market and sold, not for its value, but as a curiosity.”

Fishermen's God or "Oramatua"

Cook Islands, Rarotonga, Wood and black paint late 18th - early 19th Century Height: 33 cm ; Width: 15 cm ; Depth: 14 cm

Acquired in 1876 from the London dealer William Wareham, this is one of only eight known examples of a Rarotongan ‘Fisherman’s God.’ All eight are similarly sculpted but appear to be sculpted by different hands at different times. Of the eight this is one of the two known examples with designs painted on the body. Most probably before going out to sea, these Fisherman’s Gods were placed on the prow of a fishing boat and showered with gifts in the hope of a good catch. With the introduction of Christianity to the Cook Islands in the early nineteenth century, the production of these Fishermen’s Gods declined.

Source : Reva Tahiti Magazine

Text : Laurance Alexander Rudzinoff

Photos : PJRTravel, Ian Dagnall, Shaun Daley, Malcolm Park Editorial, Ukartpics / Alamy Stock Photo