Small Museum Uncovers Maori And Polynesian Culture In London

By Kate Smith | 06 March 2006
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photo shows a mantle

A pre-1840s mantle. Courtesy of the Cuming Museum

The Cuming is a museum in a single room above a library near Elephant and Castle. Its tiny display space means that only a fraction of its eclectic collections can be seen at any one time. Although much has been lent out to other museums, there are still many rare objects that remain in store.

So in planning their new exhibition, Mana, curators rediscovered objects that had not been seen for decades.

This 1760s mat, made of pandana leaf had not been previously displayed since it was donated to the Cuming over 80 years ago.

photo shows folded light brown mat made of leaf fibre

Pandana Leaf Mat. Courtesy of the Cuming Museum.

Much of the material in the exhibition was collected in the 19th century by Richard Cuming. Never leaving Europe himself, he acquired objects from the voyages of Captain Cook and other adventurers in London auctions. The result is a group of objects that could never be collected today.

'Mana' looks at objects from both Polynesia and New Zealand. The word means 'power' - with overtones of both social and spiritual status. Many of the objects in this exhibition would confer all these connotations of power on the wearer. The artists who created some of these objects did so in carefully controlled conditions, and only certain people would be allowed to own or even touch them.

photo shows coil of hair

A headdress of hair. Courtesy of the Cuming Museum.

This head-dress from before 1840 is created from about 700 feet of carefully woven human hair. The wearing of hair as an ornament was one of the things imparting "mana" in South Pacific society.

Some of the most curious objects in the exhibition are three Maori flutes. Two are 'nose flutes', played by inserting the top up one nostril. We are told they make a haunting and lamenting sound. This flute is carved from the tooth of a whale, with a "Tiki" figure carved on one side of it. Another is a flute made of bone, which may possibly be human.

The exhibition also looked at tattooing, an art that originated in the South Pacific. Again the complex pattern of tattoos indicates age, sex and status. Tattooing sessions could last from one or two days to several weeks for very elaborate (and painful) tattoos.

photo shows carved tooth of whale

A 'nose' flute carved from the tooth of a whale

The New Zealand performing arts group Manaia have twice performed in events around the exhibition. Entirely owned and operated by Maoris living in London, their singing both addressed the people present, and greeted the objects in the exhibition, so far away from the places that they were first made.

The exhibition runs until July, after which the Cuming will be closing for a couple of months to move next door and downstairs. Whilst the Cuming's display space won't be any larger, it will allow the museum to give access to disabled visitors for the first time.

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