Polynesian Resource Center

Dedicated to the preservation and promotion of Polynesian Art and Culture

Polynesian Collections - The Otago Museum

Polynesian Resource Center

Collections Available online; No

The Otago Museum is in the southern city of Dunedin, on the east coast of the South Island of New Zealand. The museum has a fine collection of mainly Eastern Polynesian Art as well as one would expect, this being New Zealand, a superb Maori Collection containing some of the finest examples of Archaic Southern Maori Art; Waitaha, Kati Mamoe and Kai Tahu. The collection is ethnographically displayed, but is a well lit and cleanly arranged example of this dated type of collection presentation. The museum was one of the four main New Zealand museums to share the Oldman Collection and unlike its sister city Christchurch the Otago Museum displays all the best examples of Eastern and Western Polynesian Art contained in the Oldman Collection.

Polynesian Resource Center

The building itself is a fine old piece of architecture in a city containing many fine Victorian buildings. Though since the Christchurch Earthquakes of 2010/2011 the wisdom of storing priceless and rare art collections in old buildings is very much overdue for a review in New Zealand, with only the National Museum; Te Papa of modern construction and that too may prove suspect as it is built on reclaimed land formally part of the harbour. The Polynesian Collections are housed in three different sections of the first and second floors, and care must be taken not to miss some of the gems in the section called Southern People which is more of an historical overview of the history of Otago people of all races. Highlights of this section are three green stone adzes of very early type which are lugged and beautifully polished examples of the last great gasp of the evolution of stone tool making, reached probably in the sixteenth or seventeenth century. All three are fine but one is an especially breathtakingly beautiful creation; a perfect combination of superbly coloured nephrite jade and craftsmanship of the highest type.

Of the Polynesian section the Oldman connection guarantees many superb items with only the problem of ethnographic presentation of fine art objects being exposed. In an Art Museum such an rare and interesting object would be displayed to full advantage in an artistically lit upright glass case, the visitor could approach to within inches of the object from all four sides. How can the public acquire appreciation of the fine quality of Polynesian Art when held five feet back from an object that is only five inches tall.

However in the Maori section of the Otago Museum the treasures are much better displayed and what treasures they are. The North Island tribal carvings are very fine, with many contact period and later pieces that would fetch million Euros bids if they appeared on the auction floor of Christie's or Sotheby's. There is an especially fine group carving of Papatuanuku, the Earth Mother and Ranganui the Sky Father that surprises in its tenderness, one grows so accustomed to fierceness in Maori carving.

But it is the Archaic South Island pieces that are the rarest and to me are the most profound. These are some of the scarcest and oldest of Polynesian Art surviving in the World. Visitors to this country and in fact most New Zealanders themselves rarely comprehend the enormous odds these objects faced to survive for us to view today. The history of Maori art is broken down into three periods which presented in reverse order and order of commonality would be 19th century, Classical and Archaic. In terms of numbers this is like a ginormous funnel with many 19th century objects, a liberal sprinkling of Classical Period Art objects and a tiny surviving sample of Archaic relics. Further appreciation can be gained if we think of these periods in terms of Time. The nineteenth century was plainly a hundred years however from an Art period that might include some objects created into the early years of the Twentieth Century and the Classical Period might spill over into the first twenty years of the 19th century and start an indeterminable period perhaps fifty or sixty years prior to the arrival of Captain Cook in 1773. The Archaic Period is from the discovery of New Zealand to 1500AD, so there is a period marked in the Classical Period prior to the 18th century that is really an intermediate period with surviving pieces scarce. If this sounds confusing it is, but that is the just the reality of Art History. Even more controversial is the the supposed Discovery Date usually recorded as 1250AD but that is merely a academic guess.

So, in amongst all this supposition we are better to look at the art itself and there we can find something very concrete and remarkable. When viewed in terms of survivability it is not hard to come to the conclusion that this period must have been not only artistically rich in imagination and imagery, but that the quality of the carving must have been consistently very high. The country was settled from the Society, Austral and Cook Islands Groups with the oral tradition stating the source of the migration as Hawaiki, which is almost definitely Ra'itea in the Society Islands for which Hawaiki was its former name.

But genetics and logic suggest that settlement was incremental over probably two or three hundred years and probably included migration from as far away as the Marquesas. The South Island or Te Wai Pounamu was probably a favoured place of initial settlement despite the colder southern climate, warmer at this period by what is termed the Medieval Temperate period. Initially Eastern Polynesian art styles would have been the norm strongly figurative and not especially decorative, certainly not the busy decorative styles of later Maori carving. The Polynesian people of the South call these people the Waitaha and regard them as their ancestors, which they are, although we can be sure they did not volunteer to submit to the invasions by Kati Mamoe and Kai Tahu from the east coast of the North Island in the 17th and 18th centuries respectively.

Polynesian Resource Center

If I was to pick just two pieces to represent this period I would choose the Okia Flat Godstick and a chevroned whale tooth. The Okia Flat Godstick is I believe very early, and damaged by the loss to both arms and legs. It is not actually a godstick, but represents the war god Rimaroa and is even more interesting for students of Polynesian Art because it probably has much to tell us about Eastern Polynesian art styles in the 13th or 14th century. Unfortunately and bizarrely for a piece that is one of the most important Archaic carvings ever found in New Zealand it is not well displayed nor lit being jammed onto a column. However the viewer can view it from three sides and more importantly can get very close if not with comfort.

Polynesian Resource Center

Of the chevroned whale tooth amulet let me say this is a superb example of what once must have been a common type. The beaches of the eastern coast of Te Wai Pounamu probably saw many carcasses of Sperm whales cast up upon their shores. No doubt these huge mammals which were beyond the means of early Maori to kill were consumed gladly and with great enthusiasm, an enthusiasm increased by the addition gift of many gleaming whale teeth from which to carve superb amulets which must have possessed for the people tremendous totemic power representing as they did creatures of unfathomable power, size and mystery. This example was most likely one of a pair worn on the chest facing each other which poses a problem in so far as we do not know how practical wearing these objects day to day would have been. Archaeological evidence from burial sites suggest these early people led robust lives with many bodies displaying injuries and old bone breaks. More likely they were keep in carved Waka Huia containers and only wore on ceremonial occasions. This particular example being intact suggests to my mind that the design is zoomorphic and is based on the shrimp.

The point I would most wish the viewer to observe is a phenomenon observed again and again in Archaic Period Maori Art which is the carver's desire to remove everything that is superfluous. The temptation to retain material to make the object more sturdy is ignored. The carver continues to reduce to the point of his aesthetic satisfaction. This is the difference between a craftsman and an artist and truly the creator of this amulet was a great artist.

Enjoy the Otago Museum, it is a gem of a collection and essential viewing for all who are fascinated by that remarkable race of people; The Polynesian


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