Known by many different names throughout the nations of the Pacific, lei are universally recognised for the intricacy of their construction and the significance they hold as not just adornments and gifts, but as vessels of intergenerational knowledge too. To mark this year's Pasifika Festival, Ruby Satele (Collection Manager, Pacific) details the delicate work that goes in to caring for these objects to ensure they, and the stories they tell, survive the test of time.

In 2019, a vibrant and multi-coloured collection of contemporary lei (garlands or neck ornaments) was acquired by the Pacific Collections team at Auckland War Memorial Museum. As Collection Manager Pacific, it was my job to care for each piece. When carefully retrieving each lei out of the packaging, a past memory from my adolescent years came to mind: my mother returning home from work and beginning to thread together miniature plastic beads of two or three colours to form a dazzling and elegant three-dimensional beaded lei. I would later see the completed lei adorn the wall-hung family photo frames, almost as if it was gifted with a lei.


This vau lei features natural plant material. Plant or leaf strips are woven into a small spherical form and a further flower-like piece made up of multiple incurvations of thinner strips of material. These are then alternately threaded into a single-strand lei. Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira. 2019.31.46.

More information ›

This lei collection was a private one amassed by Louis Le Vaillant, former Curator of Applied Arts and Design at Auckland Museum. He gifted it to the Director of Objectspace Trust, Philip Clarke, prior to Le Vaillant’s move to Australia. After many years in his care, Clarke, now Chair of the Blumhardt Foundation, donated the collection to Auckland Museum. The first piece in this lei collection was purchased at an exhibition at Massey Homestead in Mangere, Auckland in the 1980s. Over the next twenty years, Le Vaillant expanded the collection and purchased directly from the lei makers at the Pasifika Festival stalls in Auckland. Aside from the knowledge that the purchases were made at Niuean village stalls at Auckland’s Pasifika Festival, very little provenance is known. By sharing images of the lei through different platforms online, it may be possible to identify makers.


Niuean weavers enjoy speeches and singing in a ceremony to mark the closure of the Celebration of Niue exhibition at the Massey Homestead in Mangere East, July 1993. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections. Footprints 03587. Courtesy of Stuff Limited.

More information ›

Vau lei. Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira. 2019.31.46.

Pasifika is Auckland’s annual festival celebration of culture, lifestyle and food of the Pacific Island peoples of the city. Inaugurated in 1993, the festival is held annually in March, primarily at Western Springs Park in Central Auckland. This mass gathering brings the melting pot of the Pacific in Auckland into sharp focus as it is animated by vibrant entertainment, an array of irresistible Pasifika food, and impressive displays of hand-made goods. Assorted lei were often found suspended in stalls selling crafts and goods, as well as a many festival participants and attendees graced by colourful lei.


Pacific weaving and handicrafts in village stall during the 2014 Pasifika Festival held at Western Springs, Auckland. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections. PASF-D-2014-027. Photograph by Adana Dobranis.

Lei are recognisably Pacific garlands used to ornament and beautify people, objects and spaces. It is customary to receive lei as a gift, but they can also be purchased. Wearers of lei signify, assert and celebrate identity, manifesting the power of adornment. Although the term lei is Hawaiian, it is widely understood and used in reference to garlands across many parts of the Pacific where the making of lei has long been a customary practice. In the Cook Islands it is called ‘ei, in Fiji salusalu, and in Niue and Tonga kahoa, just to name a few. They are formed by threading together small objects and fastening the ends into a closed loop. Flowers, leaves, seeds and seashells were materials used customarily.


View of a Cook Islands dance performance at the 2016 ASB Polyfest. Performers are wearing traditional skirts and lei. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections POLY-D-2016-179. Photograph by Smita Biswas.

More information ›

In Aotearoa, where natural materials and flowers are not so readily available, lei making has adapted to take advantage of more available materials such as using plastic, ribbons, banknotes, chocolates and lollies. The materials, techniques, arrangement and designs vary, but they are still based on the mastery of traditional methods and knowledge that are shared, broadened and passed on. The intergenerational sharing of knowledge is a time-honoured attribute of the Pacific.


In this example, red and white plastic beads are methodically threaded by nylon fishing line into a fine lei. Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira. 2019.31.33.

More information ›

Lei. Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira. 2019.31.33.

This lei collection is made up of 27 lei, each distinct and recognisable despite being identified always with the same identical name: lei.


This lei repurposes synthetic red and white flowers, ribbons in green, yellow, pink and purple colors and strips of elongated honeycomb pieces. These are threaded in an arrangement, resulting in this striking piece. Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira. 2019.31.36.

More information ›

With little access to traditional materials for lei-making, contemporary materials were used in their stead. Means of obtaining materials shifted as new materials were repurposed or bought commercially: synthetic flowers taken from flower lei made in China and sold at “$2 shops”, ribbons purchased from supermarkets and elongated honeycomb pieces cut from Duette blinds. The above lei made of natural plant material offers a different vantage point, where perhaps it was made with a non-traditional plant material sourced locally, or brought from overseas just prior to or at the beginning of biosecurity reform. While traditional lei-making remains fundamental, the use of contemporary materials brings another dimension to the art practice and is what constitutes it as a contemporary collection. The adaptations of diasporic Pasifika communities are reflected across the collection by way of these new materials and innovations.

The delicate materials used in these lei have led my colleagues and I to rethink museum storage practices for these high-risk items. An innovative storage system was devised: we nest each lei in an individual acid-free box (already a Museum standard practice), seal the complete unit in an impenetrable-barrier film bag with an oxygen absorber, and finally store them in a cold room. The elimination of oxygen in a cold-temperature room extends the otherwise short life span of the plastic composites used in many modern lei. The Le Vaillant lei collection is the first to undergo this high-level treatment and benefit from this advanced storage system. Our intention is that in time, all other present and future high-risk items will be upgraded to the same storage system.


Collection Manager Ruby Satele prepares a lei for cold anoxic storage.

Working closely with these lei has evoked various memories associated with them as objects, like the memories of my mother threading a beaded lei. The collection also speaks to the many homes of Pacific peoples whose family photos are adorned with an array of lei, and the many celebrations and special occasions where both people and spaces are decked out in all sorts of lei. When deep in these thoughts, there have been times when I have found it peculiar that I am carrying these acquired lei through an unconventional practice of packing and storing away, rather than their traditional purpose of being gifted and worn. I am delighted, however, that this collection is in the Museum, as it highlights the story of diasporic communities and the adaptations they have devised to continue traditional art practices. With the collection in great care, we can expect it to be around for a very long time to continue telling these stories.

Lei. Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira. 2019.31.36.