In 2016, the small community of French Polynesia was contacted by the Auckland Museum, to study and share information about some 300 artefacts, to better embed their records in their cultural contexts and languages as part of the Pacific Collection Access Project (PCAP).

From the beginning, the first step was to create a small group of knowledge holders - despite the small size of the community - to start the ball rolling and share narratives and stories encased in those objects. 

Along with other members, arrangements were made to invite the Ma’ohi Nui (French Polynesia) community to a first encounter with the collection of objects ranging from small sinkers and adzes to ceremonial paddles as well as traditional performance costumes and numerous shell leis.

As guided by tradition, we prayed for good and favourable support for this amazing enterprise. Small groups of performers were invited and one could see the enthusiasm among those who were involved and willing to lend a hand for the success of this project. 

Community members look over their ancestral tao'a.

Small beginnings

Needless to say challenges arose in our quest due to a lack of available knowledge to address the many questions about the origin of those objects, their names, their purpose, the material used and their historical context.

For a person whose cultural knowledge is well above average, my expectations were that if need be, I could rely on other knowledge holders to plug the gaps in my own understanding when necessary. This wasn’t always easy and I found myself carrying out information seeking and organising the Pacific Collection Access Project with some additional volunteers to increase our knowledge base.

Thankfully several Pacific communities - namely Fiji and the Cook Islands – had worked with the Museum to enrich their collections, so we could tap into the bank of knowledge and experience from these island communities. It helped tremendously to be able to extract some information from those Island Collections especially by relying on linguistic similarities.   

The other moving experience was being able to reconnect and rediscover some of our ancestors’ artefacts that had been kept for so long in the Museum and had yet to be displayed on the gallery floor. It became the focus of the community and mine to reveal, through the objects recorded, the different cultures that existed in indigenous Ma’ohi Nui. It is a region as vast as Europe peppered with five archipelagos each with their own specificity: the Society Islands epitomised by their magnificent wakas; the Austral islands with their finely carved ceremonial hoe; the Tuamotus with their envious pupu (shells); Mangareva with its unique tao (javelin) with a stingray ragged tail at their tips; and the Marquesas with their unmistakable ’u’u (club).

Connecting the pieces

The tao’a (treasures) that I had the privilege to handle always carried the unique print of their creators and they were a tangible communication with our ancestors. The most telling artefacts that epitomized the impact of the western world on our traditional community, were the ‘ie (beaters) and the tapa (traditional cloth) but one could add the ceremonial hoe (paddles) and the beautiful pupu hei (leis). I was moved by the impact of technology and the changes that it had on our traditional society and how our ancestors had foretold the coming of a new age that will alter our way of living forever. All of those artefacts were my favourites.

The impact of PCAP has been to bring together disperse members of my community and it has also given a platform to reunite the diaspora and start conversations regarding exchanges of artefacts between Ma’ohi Nui and Tamaki Paenga Hira .

It would be fantastic to see artefacts from Ma’ohi Nui being displayed as a temporary exhibition at the Auckland Museum to give visitors a small view into the French speaking side of East Polynesia. The Ma’ohi Nui community is hoping that this PCAP will be a stepping stone for more conversations and collaborations between Aotearoa and Ma’ohi Nui, maintaining and strengthening the ties between the east and the west of te Moana a Hiva.

Ena Manuireva
French Polynesian Knowledge Holder

My favourite taonga: the i'e