Sean Mallon, Rachel Yates and Grace Hutton guided Friends members attending Behind the Scenes tours into the storerooms to experience the large Pacific Cultures Collection. These allow for multiple points of view and angles to be examined, and this tour focused beyond the actual use of weaponry to encompass both war and peace in the region, and the personal stories attached to items and how they have come to be in Te Papa.

As Sean Mallon (Senior Curator Pacific Histories and Cultures) explained, militarisation has been experienced in different ways at different times within this region, and we were able to see taonga from the early 1800s to now. We started the tour at what Sean calls the Million Dollar Wall where most items have a monetary value of around US$70-80,000 on the tribal market, but whose value to the museum is in their formal qualities – the carving and designs, also found on tattoos, for example. Most of these were in the UK but fortunately the NZ Government were able to purchase an extensive collection for the museum c1948. This would not be possible now.

Like the range of heritage within our speakers – Samoan, Cook Island, Irish, British and Welsh – the taonga laid out for us showcased the ‘many mixes in this region’. We saw a German flag captured in 1914 in Samoa by NZ troops; in the same cabinet Rachel Yates (Curator Pacific Histories and Cultures) showed us fine mats, ‘ie toga, used for conflict resolution in customary peace rituals where people sit underneath waiting to be released after giving formal apologies. Grace Hutton (Collection Manager Pacific Cultures) told us how a woven jacket with epaulettes, fringed back waist and a shell medal which came into the museum in 1914 from the collection of Captain Hannah was based upon military uniforms of colonial soldiers.

Grace and Sean showed us garments worn as armour, such as a porcupine fish hat and a helmet fashioned from coconut fibre interwoven with human hair lozenges from Kiribas, and stingray skin belt. There were small models which showed the armour as it would have been used. More recently, the Phantom shield made in Papua New Guinea c1970-80s, based upon the famous comics, printed there in pidgin, and which warriors hoped ‘would capture some his symbolic power and incite fear amongst their opponents’.

Sean amused us with a photo of how Fijian war clubs that we saw displayed were used in the first Star Wars movie by the Sand People, and told us the gruesome tale of how these heavy bird beak shaped objects were used as finishing off clubs in battle. It was a very engaging tour with so many more tales shared by Grace, Rachel and Sean, and much discussion as we went. We certainly got a snippet of the full range of histories and stories embedded within the Pacific Cultures Collection! We look forward to seeing and hearing more.

Sharon Taylor-Offord