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Heritage artist admires Samoan artifacts in the United Kingdom

18 April - 5 May 2024

A heritage artist from Samoa retuned this week from a tour of museums and galleries in the United Kingdom where there are many Samoan artifacts collected by British and Scots visitors to the archipelago in the late 18th to the early 19th centuries. Galumalemana Steven Percival of the Tiapapata Art Centre was invited by Dr. Tony Crook of the University of St Andrews to participate in a project titled “Exploring digital spaces for Samoan indigenous cultural heritage.” Funded under the Scottish Funding Council International Science Partnerships Fund, the proposal aims to contribute to building cultural capacities, and promote economic development and social and environmental welfare by taking forward initiatives which focus on deepening indigenous knowledge and sharing cultural heritage as a basis for livelihood and resilience in Samoa.

This opportunity to tour museums and galleries in the United Kingdom was made in connection with efforts of the Tiapapata Art Centre to revive knowledge on the making and use of stone tools and siapo, a project titled “Rock-Paper-Scissors.” Supported under the ACP-EU Programme Enhancing capacity for the sustainability of the cultural and creative industries in the Pacific. The ACP-EU Programme (Pacific) is funded by the European Union and the Secretariat of the Organisation of African, Caribbean and Pacific States (OACPS), and is implemented by the Pacific Community (SPC) in partnership with the Queensland University of Technology.

The visit to the UK afforded Galumalemana with an opportunity to see, touch and marvel at the excellent craftsmanship of Samoan artisans who created their works without the use of modern machinery: the products of a rich intangible cultural heritage.

The tour began with a visit to the British Museum where there are many hundreds of items from Samoa. The agenda for this visit included a discussion on the endangered material knowledge associated with Samoa’s iconic architecture – maota ma laoa o Samoa: the faletele and the faleafolau. Samoan architecture increasingly uses foreign building materials and techniques and tufuga fau fale, the guild of traditional house builders, is a steadily diminishing group.

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At the British Museum. L-R: Orly Orbach – Project Curator: Endangered Material Knowledge Programme, Alice Christophe, Curator for Oceania, Galumalemana Steve Percival, Dr. Tony Crook.

Leaving London, Galumalemana headed north to Scotland where he spent the rest of his time visiting a number of universities, museums, and galleries. It was at the University of St Andrews that he was introduced to how museums can be presented in a digital world of virtual reality.

The McLean Gallery and Museum in Greenock is where there is a large piece of siapo recorded as having been obtained by a Mr. Mackay in December 1899 from the den of Robert Louis Stevenson’s home in Vailima. Measuring 2.7m x 1.8m, the siapo was expertly made with a dense array of intricate patterns.

Chris Wilson of the Greenock Gallery and Museum, Watt Institute, shows Galumalemana the siapo from Robert Louis Stevenson's home in Samoa, collected in May 1899. 

Jacquie Aitken: Digital & Heritage Curator at Timespan. 

Aberdeen University offers an interesting extramural course titled Digital Museum Practice. The course aims to build digital confidence and experience in this important aspect of contemporary professional museum practice. In light of COVID-19, many museums around the world have increased the quality rate at which they provide digital resources, online collections, and 360-degree and virtual reality tours.

The Perth Museum has a collection of many Samoan wooden objects and several large pieces of siapo featuring bold designs. One of the wooden objects collected in Tutuila was identified as a club but looked more like an orator’s staff. This highlights the issue of mis-identification, a problem that can be averted if a good dialogue is established between museums overseas and institutions in Samoa such as the Museum of Samoa and the Centre for Samoan Studies at the National University of Samoa.

The largest collection brought out on display was at the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow. The collection was originally made by the Reverend George Turner, an English missionary active in Samoa and elsewhere in the South Pacific in the 18th century. Rev. Turner is the author of Nineteen Years in Polynesia: Missionary Life, Travels, and Researches in the Islands of the Pacific, 1861; and of Samoa, A Hundred Years Ago and Long Before, 1884. Among the many objects, two masterpieces stood out: an upeti and an ‘iesina.

The patterns featured in Samoan siapo are transferred to the bark cloth by rubbing colourants and pigments over printing blocks known as upeti. Commonly carved from wood, the rare upeti at the Hunterian was collected in 1867 and was made with fibres intricately arranged into geometric patterns and stitched onto strips of the bast of a tree, possibly fau or beach hibiscus.

The other item is an ‘iesina, often referred to as the shaggy mat for it has the appearance of wool. This kind of fine mat is extremely rare and is used at important occasions by people of high status in society and members of the royal families of Samoa.

Timespan is a museum Located in Helmsdale, a village in the very north east of the Scottish Highlands. In addition to the exhibits of ancient to modern artifacts, visitors can step into the past with the use of Virtual Reality technologies. Timespan is a cultural organisation with local and global ambitions to weaponize culture for social change. An interesting concept. Among the weapons they have developed with the local community are the virtual tours from the prehistory of the area to the recent past, when Helmsdale became a leader in the fishing industry of Scotland.

Dr. Mark Hall of the Perth  Museum shows a boldly printed siapo to Galumalemana.

Dr. Tony Crook, Director of the Centre for Pacific Studies at the University of St Andrews, getting a close-up look at a small adze collected in the 1860s and held at the Hunterian Museum. The large adze was made by Galumalemana Steve Percival.

Left: Andrew Mills at the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow inspects the finely crafted siapo printing block known as upeti. Above: a composite trolling lure. 

The last stop in Scotland was a visit to the University of Glasgow where a project titled Museums in the Metaverse (MiM) is being implemented. The £5.6 million project aims to develop a virtual reality museum platform that will allow both professionals and amateurs to become “virtual curators”, building virtual and mixed-reality environments which can include 3D-scanned objects from collections. The platform will empower diverse visitors to explore cultural assets in new and engaging ways; enable cultural heritage professionals and non-specialist users to create new content; and explore models of use to support sustainable economic and cultural growth.

On his return to Samoa, Galumalemana made a brief visit to Tāmaki Paenga Hira, the War Memorial Museum in Auckland. This museum houses hundreds of artifacts from Samoa, including many adzes and hafted stone adzes.

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