Polynesian Resource Center

Dedicated to the preservation and promotion of Polynesian Art and Culture

Polynesian Collections - The Canterbury Museum

Polynesian Resource Center
Polynesian Resource Center

Grade; Ethiographic Museum
Collections Available online; No.

The Canterbury Museum is housed in a Cecil Mundford building from the 1860's, a pleasing aesthetic building from the outside and inside a mess. Upon entry the visitor is immediately assaulted by the sight of the biggest pile of tourist crud outside of Hawaii. However by veering sharply to the right one can flee this visual abomination and come face to face with the skeleton of a Giant Moa which is to say the least impressive if somewhat unrealistically mounted. From there leads to the dioramas of early Maori life which if dated are at least are very well done. In fact the museum in my opinions fires all its best shots in the first two minutes for it is the early Polynesian Art that arrests the visitor with the sheer wonder and quality of Archaic Southern Maori Art. Right here we might as well deal with three items which plunge the visitor into the history of Te Wai Pounamu, the Maori name for the South Island which means Waters of Green Jade.

Firstly against the back wall are two objects which would justify a thirty hour flight from Europe for any Polynesian enthusiast. The first is the more obvious though it is very small; it is a small amulet in the shape of a Polynesian dog or kuri. Made from the scrub hard wood Manuka the same material the Maori made their famous weapon the Taiaha, this little carving rates as one of the masterpieces of Polynesian Art (See: Masterpieces of Polynesian Art; The Archaic Kuri ). To me it reminds me of Austral Island Art; the same stylised and simplified zoomorphic form, pared down and reduced to absolute essentials. To some my suggestion that this is a Masterwork will seem an exaggeration, but this is tribal art, stone age art, not High Renaisance Italian. The whole birth of modernism in the 20th century was inspired by art such as this in reaction to 500 years of ever more complex and baroque European Christian Art. Right here we are seeing art reduced of all the bells and whistles. It is a concept that takes some getting used to, but this is how human beings have been creating art for 30,000 years before the Greeks, before Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo.

Just below it is another item that most visitors could be forgiven for failing to notice. It is a hair comb but a very special type of hair comb. Again we are faced by the common problem of Polynesian and other Tribal Arts we look at these objects stripped of their decoration and thereby removed from all context and meaning. To understand the aesthetic power of this object requires imagination. Firstly look at it as a piece of sculpture, imagine the teeth of the comb removed and then imagine this object standing twenty feet tall. Imagine it in other words a massive free standing bronze. That I suggest would be something most people could comprehend as impressive. Now, mentally shrink it back to the object in front of your eyes, imagine it in the hair of a Polynesian beauty but with the elements that are now missing; the tail feathers of the Takaha, red feathers from the under wing area of the mountain parrot, the Kea, all bound to the comb with fine silky muka or flax fibre. Now, we begin to gain some idea of the Art of the Maori, the sculptural form and the decorative, social, erotic and ceremonial function of their art. And yet step back and look again and you might see what you saw at the beginning something almost insignificant, so deceptively simple yet not simple at all.



Polynesian Resource Center

Our third object is only four feet away to the left. Now again we see simplicity yet most require no great imagination to comprehend the power of this object. It is a stone club, massively heavy, designed to crush a human skull with a minimum downward blow of the strong arm of a Maori warrior. Surely no man could survive such a blow. And yet look at the design, the little lugs on the staft that increased the man power required to grind down the object by possibly five times. From an object that in the hands of a brilliant stone knapper would have taken two hundred hours increased to over a thousand hours. Six months work though probably spread over eighteen months, an hour in the morning then a fishing trip out in the canoe if the tide was right. Then after the meal was consumed another hour or so sitting in the sun by the estuary. Then at night by the light of the fire another hour ending the day with just a little progress to show for ones efforts, but enough to satisfy an artist. For this is the Art of Stone Age Man and the Maori were at the sharp end of its evolution; the highest point man achieved before metal work swept it all away.

There are still many fine things to see in the Canterbury Museum and much to enjoy but I will now spoil it for you and tell you there a many great works of Art not on display. They are buried in cardboard boxes in storage. What sort of objects; the greatest drum in all of Polynesia for one. There are two Hawaiian drums that survive in the world carved with human figures. One is in Scotland and is ordinary, the one hiding in the Canterbury Museum storerooms is one of the greatest Masterpieces of Hawaiian Art, ex Oldman Collection of course, why is it not on display? I have no idea except to say that if I was a native Hawaiian its non display would rate as a cultural crime. Ask them when you visit the museum, I would be interested to know the answer, and if they say it is because of the earthquake ask how many years before the earthquake was it last out of storage. I can only say that last time I saw it I was seven years of age.

But visit the Canterbury Museum, it is worth it if only you saw the three objects I describe. Perhaps after the new city arises on the rubble of the old city they will build an Art Museum worthy of the superb Polynesian Art they have to put inside it.


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