As part of Niue Language Week, Paulina Bentley (Tautai Intern, Pacific Collection) writes about the stroke of luck that saw her discover a family connection within the Pacific Collection of taoga Niue.

As a child, I visited Auckland War Memorial Museum multiple times. From performances to school trips, each visit offered both peers and myself childish possibilities or what-ifs.

“What if we lived in a place this big?”

“What if there was a volcano eruption right now?”

“What if we still used this stuff?”

We asked each other a lot of questions. We laughed at these questions and built them into inside jokes. Sometimes, we admittedly resigned ourselves to the unspoken answers. And instead quietly observed past taoga inside their cases.

Now working here as a Tautai intern with the Pacific Collection team, these old emotions are still present. In the Pacific Lifeways section, each nation is separated by glass cases. The clear divide allows for an easy digest of each island's taoga and the transferable knowledges between them.

Yet entering this area, I have always felt a bit disordered and even flustered. Flustered that I don’t know anything about certain taoga and frustrated that this makes me feel more disconnected from my culture. What I have seen in the Museum’s Pacific Collection has almost felt otherworldly. Not from the world I was brought up in or the one that I know of.

The material culture my Samoan and Niuean families have grown up with mirrors our diasporic connections. A potato sack used in homage to the materiality of an ‘ie toga; titi made out of ti leaf plants found at certain Island family’s homes, and a wide range of plastic materials that have been appropriated to substitute for different forms of taoga.

From left to right: Malo Tulisi, Molie Eva Huka and Eseta Patii.

At the beginning of my internship, I was introduced by Ruby Satele (Collections Manager, Pacific) to the Clarke Collection which was made up of lei and pulou. The Clarke Collection was originally a private assemblage by Louis Le Vaillant, former Applied Arts and Design Curator at the Auckland Museum. Before moving to Australia, Le Vaillant gave this collection to Philip Clarke, Chair of the Blumhardt Foundation. These lei and pulou were amassed over a period of twenty years before Clarke donated them in 2019. Precise provenance information was unknown, except that most were bought from the Niue Village at the Pasifika Festival over the years.

I think it was a stroke of luck that Ruby introduced me to the Clarke Collection, as both my great nanas used to sell their weavings at the Niue Village. Having this familial link allowed me to ask family members what they may know about this collection, and amplify it to more of the Niuean community through social media. But it also allowed me to reflect on the individual lives my family members have outside of their relations to me.


When I think of my great nanas, I think of their homes in central Auckland. I think of Summer. A crowded home with everyone celebrating and an uncle dressed-up as Santa who won’t give you your present unless you dance in front of everyone. I didn’t think of their lives beforehand. Their personal journeys, or the breadth of their work as mothers and weavers.

One day I was working in the small library attached to our department. Tucked in a crammed file inside an even more crowded cabinet, I found a photograph inside the very walls of the museum. Pictured were my great nanas, Malo Tulisi and Eseta Patii, and in between them their friend, Molie Eva Huka. They are all grinning with pride, their material genius encompasses the entirety of the photograph.

Hat made by Molie Eva Huka. AWMM 2019.31.11, 837.

Malo Tulisi was from the village of Liku, Tamahaleleka and Eseta Patii is from Mutalau, Ululauta Matahefonua. They both immigrated in the early 50s, laying their foundations for their children and their future grandchildren here in New Zealand.

All three women were a part of the group Tufuga Mataponiu a Niue. It was the very first Niuean weaving group here in Auckland and was also started by Eseta’s sister, Matafetu Smith. In an interview, Malo recalled how she met Matafetu at a birthday party saying,

Malo: “You know my son is married to Seta’s daughter?”

Matafetu: “Come on, let’s weave the basket!”

Malo: “No Mata, I come to the birthday, I don’t come to be doing something!”.[1]

Tufuga Mataponiu a Niue would become the catalyst for future Niuean weaving groups. Their success as both a collective and as individuals would see them working with the likes of Niuean artist John Pule, and inside museum collections in the British Museum, Te Papa and Auckland Museum. A pulou that is a part of the Clarke Collection was also found to be made by Molie as the original tag retained her initials.

Now when I think of my great nanas, I think of their success and their strength. I think of how I was searching for that personal connection to the Collections when my nanas were always here in the first place. All I had to do was to take a step back and look at my relationships from both the past, present and future. Recognising my nanas’ pasts has allowed me to think about my future and enjoy their presents they have left us here today.


Kua manamanatu e tagata ke he hana loto he puhala ke fano ai a ia; ka e fakatonu e Iehova e mena ke fina atu a ia ki ai - Fakatai 16:9

We can make our plans, but the Lord determines our steps - Proverbs 16:9



[1] Thode-Aurora, Hilke. ““How Can We Weave in a Strange Land?” Niuean Weavers in Auckland.” Pacific Arts 3, no.5 (2007): 46-59.

Potu tanini made by Malo Tulisi. AWMM 1989.7, 52975. Photographed by Jennifer Carol.


About Paulina

Under the Human History, Pacific Collection team, Paulina Bentley is one of two Tautai Interns at Auckland Museum. She is a recent University of Auckland graduate with a BA in Pacific Studies and Art History. With her maternal family hailing from the villages of Fasito'o Uta and Iva, Savai'i and her paternal side Ululauta, Mutalau and Tamahaleleka, Liku, she was fortunate to grow up in the deep roots of both Samoan and Niuean culture in New Zealand.