The Pacific Collection consists of about 13,000 items from the many island groups of this vast ocean - ranging from the Federated States of Micronesia and Papua New Guinea in the west to Rapanui (Easter Island) in the east and from Hawai'i in the north-east to New Caledonia in the south-west. Material from Indonesia, the Philippines, and Australia is not included, although an exception is made for the Torres Strait Islands, part of Australia but culturally more aligned to Papua New Guinea. Both historical and contemporary items form part of the collection: the earliest pieces are about 3000 years old; the most recent have been made in the twenty-first century. The work of Pacific people living in New Zealand is now an important focus.
The collection has been shaped by changing curatorial priorities and influenced also by the history of New Zealand as a Pacific nation. For more than a hundred years, New Zealanders have played many different roles in the Pacific - as colonial administrators, entrepreneurs, teachers, volunteers, tourists, or missionaries. Many were stationed there as soldiers during World War II. The migration of people from the Pacific in the late twentieth century has also helped to shape this country as a Pacific nation.
For most of the Museum’s history, Pacific items have been part, albeit the major part, of what was known as the 'foreign ethnology' collection. In 1991, a separate Pacific Collection was established, as part of the development of Te Papa from the National Museum and the National Art Gallery. What had begun as a comparative collection of ethnographic ‘specimens’ now broadened to include contemporary works by known artists, blurring the boundaries between Pacific, Māori, history, and art and visual culture. Planning for Te Papa involved extensive consultation with Pacific communities in New Zealand.
The basis of the collection was a small group of items acquired by the Colonial Museum in the nineteenth century. These included significant gifts to British administrators in the Pacific, such as the Torres Strait mask given to the Marquess of Normanby and the splendid cloak presented to ‘the Dominion of New Zealand’ by the Rarotongan chief Te Aia Mataiapo.
More active collection development began with the appointment of Augustus Hamilton as director of the Colonial Museum in 1903. Hamilton placed his own ethnographic material on deposit and encouraged his friend and neighbour Alexander Turnbull to donate his. These collections were not limited to the Pacific, but included Māori and other ethnographic items. Hamilton bought items for the Museum from Cook Islanders at the Christchurch International Exhibition, from administrators, and from dealers and others. After Hamilton’s death, the Museum pursued an active policy of purchasing Pacific material through to the 1920s.
For much of the twentieth century, however, the Museum’s focus was on natural history and Māori culture. The Pacific Collection grew largely through donations, supplemented by a small number of purchases and exchanges. Many gifts came from New Zealanders who had travelled or worked in the Pacific, or from their descendants. Until recently, curators preferred what they considered to be ‘authentic’ or ‘traditional’ ethnographic specimens; items such as dance costumes incorporating new synthetic materials were accepted, perhaps reluctantly, but often were not fully registered or adequately documented.
Among the acquisitions of the twentieth century, two important components stand out. The first is a series of four separate gifts of Māori, Pacific, and Native American items associated with James Cook’s voyages of exploration in the late eighteenth century. In 1912, Lord St Oswald, an Englishman, unexpectedly presented his family collection to the Dominion of New Zealand. Not all the St Oswald Collection derives from Cook’s voyages, but it includes such treasures as the cloak and helmet given to Cook by the Hawaiian chief Kalani‘ōpu‘u. In 1955, the Imperial Institute in London (now the Royal Commonwealth Institute) gave a significant collection of items associated with Cook; this had been in the possession of Queen Victoria and had been presented to the Institute by Edward VII. Cook himself may have given these to George III after his second voyage. Two smaller gifts in 1948 and 1962 are of items traceable to Cook’s wife.
The second major acquisition of the twentieth century was the New Zealand government’s purchase in 1948 of the Māori and Pacific collection of the London dealer W O Oldman. This was divided on indefinite loan among the four large metropolitan museums, with parts also going to smaller public museums with adequate fireproof buildings. The Dominion Museum received most of the Māori, Marquesan, New Caledonian, and Admiralty Island material, together with some items from other island groups. Because these items had passed through various sale rooms in Britain, they often lacked detailed provenance or historical context, but their quality is outstanding.
The Pacific Collection at Te Papa reflects a new approach to the representation of Pacific Islanders. Pacific peoples have become well established in New Zealand: they are no longer foreigners, guest workers, or exotic peoples on remote islands, but neighbours, colleagues, and fellow citizens. Their objects and art works are no longer simply comparative specimens of material culture; they are the possessions and creations of known people. A decade ago, there were fewer than ten items in the collection with identified makers. Today, that has changed dramatically.
The collection still documents a diverse island-based cultural heritage. But since the early 1990s, collection development has increasingly aimed to represent the visual culture and history of Pacific peoples in New Zealand. The scope is broad and ranges from contemporary high art and fashion through to new forms of weaving, tīvavevae, and tapa that migrants have brought with them to New Zealand.
Complicating this changing curatorial focus is the fact that many island-based communities have become more transnational in nature, as a result of air travel and developments in print media and telecommunications (including email). Migrant communities throughout the world can now remain connected across distance and beyond national boundaries. This is reflected in material objects - for example, a mat or quilt made by Tongan women in Los Angeles may be sent to Tonga as a gift and later brought to New Zealand to celebrate an important family event. As Te Papa develops its understanding of the global connections Pacific peoples are making with each other and with the wider world, its collections will continue to grow in ways that record these stories.