World Cultures

Inuit polar bear carving

polar_bear_carvingThis is a walrus ivory tooth / tusk carved in the shape of a polar bear.

It is a simple elegantly carved piece which skilfully exploits the curvature of the tooth/tusk. This shows a polar bear standing to its full height when reared on its back legs. The mouth is marked in red and one ear is missing.

The carving is probably a 19th century piece made for the tourist market. There is a long tradition of Inuit polar bear carvings, mainly associated with Inuit shamans. Bears were often the most important helping spirit for a shaman.

Inuit tobacco pipe

innuit_tobacco_pipeThis is an Inuit made smoking pipe richly carved with a hunting scene showing hunters in pursuit of seals, walrus and polar bears. It is thought to date to the eighteenth century – its Russian inscription includes the date 1714. It was clearly made as an item of gift exchange or trade.

The pipe was acquired by local Perth collector Melville-Gray who donated it to Perth Museum in 1946, with the information that it had been presented to a Russian Cossack officer in 1714.

Salish blanket

salish_blanketThis is a classic example of a now very rare type of Salish blanket. The Salish are a Northwest American Coast people (present parts of Washington State and British Columbia). They are highly accomplished weavers in a range of materials.

Blankets of this type were the prized possessions of high ranking males and females. Theses blankets represented readily transportable wealth within a seasonally mobile coastal hunting and fishing society.

The materials used in its weaving include nettle, bark, mountain-goat wool and wooldog hair. The wooldog or woolly-dog was a particular breed of dog kept by the Coast Salish specifically for their hair, to use in weaving blankets. Dog-hair weaving disappeared quickly after the introduction of machine-made blankets by British and American trading companies in the early 19th century. Woolly-dogs became extinct before 1875.

This particular blanket was collected along the Fraser River, Gulf of Georgia. It is amongst a number of objects collected by Colin Robertson, a native of Perth (born 1783). Robertson emigrated to British Columbia, Canada, where he worked in the fur trade. He donated his collection in 1833, to the Perth Literary & Antiquarian Society. For a portrait of Colin Robertson see the University of Aberdeen website (Opens in a new window) and the Canadian Archives and Library website.

The objects collected by Colin Robertson have been used by Aberdeen University in the research for their project: “Material Histories: Scots and Aboriginal Peoples in the Canadian Fur Trade”, which you can access at Aberdeen University’s Material History page.

Maori feather cloak

maori_feather_cloak_1This Maori cape or ‘kahu kakapo’ belongs to the class of feather cloaks or ‘kahu huruhuru’. It is named after the kakapo, a flightless green ground parrot, now a very rare bird of the South Island of New Zealand. This is the only such cloak known to survive anywhere in the world. A cloak in New Zealand includes some kakapo feathers along with those of other birds, mostly kiwi. See an example in the collections of Te Papa (Museum of New Zealand). Such cloaks were highly prized and were generally worn by high ranking Maori, specifically chiefs. Oral history and archaeology suggest that kakapo were hunted mainly for their meat and then the feathers were subsequently fashioned into prestigious garments such as cloaks. The South Island prevalence of the kakapo is shown by the Maori North island proverb, often observed of those complaining of the cold weather: “Shall you be covered in a parrot-feathered cloak from the south”.

This cape was amongst a number of objects collected by David Ramsay, a Perth born doctor who sailed to Australia as a ship’s surgeon and settled there. He donated his collection to the Perth Literary and Antiquarian Society in 1842.

Tahitian mourners costume

tahitian_mourners_costumeThis is an example of the costume or ‘heva’ worn by the chief mourner following the funeral of an important Tahitian person. For the duration of the mourning the mourner was allowed to kill or maim anyone who came within his or her striking distance.

This example comprises a fan of tropical bird feathers secured to a pearl shell above a turtle shell plaque. Below this a flat crescentic breastplate of wood supports five pearl shells tied on with sennit cord. Fragments of an original apron of finely cut sections of pearl shell hang from the lower edge of the wood. A replacement apron comprises woven fibre matting surmounted by brown backcloth and ten rows of cut discs of coconut shell, three shaped as stylised turtles. Only half of the mask survives, made of cut pearl shell, of hemispherical form, perforated at the edges for the attachment of a cord of fibre wrapped with sennit.

There are no more than five such complete costumes surviving in the world.

This costume was amongst a number of objects collected by David Ramsay, a Perth-born doctor who sailed to Australia as a ship’s surgeon and settled there. He donated his collection to the Perth Literary and Antiquarian Society in 1842.

Toi Moko

Repatriation of sacred remains

Toi moko is the name given to human remains of Maori origin. Most specifically they refer to the heads of Maori warriors killed in battle. Such remains are considered sacred by the Maori to whom their appropriation by other cultures is a source of distress.

In the early 1820s, David Ramsay, a ship’s surgeon who was born in Perth (Scotland) and had settled in Australia by 1822, sent home the gift of two toi moko to the Literary & Antiquarian Society of Perth.

Ramsay acquired objects from ship’s captains and from Australian auction houses. Unfortunately associated data, so crucial in the understanding, interpretation and identification of objects, often became lost in the process. The identity of the Perth toi moko was never known.

With the change in tolerance and understanding during the 20th century, the sensitivity of the toi moko was recognised in Perth and they were not displayed.

In 2005, following a request by Te Papa Tongarewa (The Museum of New Zealand) Perth & Kinross Council agreed that the Perth toi moko be repatriated to their native country.

The toi moko were accorded full reverence as they were transferred from the care of the Museum and Art Gallery to the care of Te Papa.

Since their repatriation the toi moko are deposited in Te Papa?s Wâhi Tapu (consecrated repository), along with all kôiwi tangata (Maori and Moriori human remains) and associated funerary objects such as waka kôiwi (carved burial chests).

The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa does not consider kôiwi tangata to be collection items. Te Papa holds kaitîakitanga (guardianship) rights over these ancestral remains. They are treated like ancient and sacred relics with the utmost respect.

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