The Fiji Museum reopens
By Samantha Magick
For more than two years, the Fiji Museum’s doors were closed to the public. Now, with the opening of its flagship exhibition, Voyages: Stories of an Ocean People, we can see what the team has been busy working on.
It’s a place transformed.
“The necessity to change the Fiji Museum gallery is long overdue after three decades of adhoc curation, disconnected storylines, limited or no connection to our communities, and sharing a colonial view with minimal effort to better highlight the voices of knowledge holders and Indigeneity,” writes Director, Sipiriano Nemani in his introduction to the brochure accompanying Voyages.
He says the exhibition embodies tolerance: “It is important for Fijians, young and old to understand why some of our ancestors used the sacred eel club to worship their gods, used masi to adorn themselves and to learn the significance of the apei (fine mat) to Rotuman traditions, status and ceremonies. Communities must be able to access information on why the use of the hookah was a favourite pastime for some Girmityas while labouring in the fields. They must learn who their traditional trading partners were and the materials that were traded or bartered, such as the mahima in its special basket made by the women of Lomaiwai. Visitors should be able to appreciate the importance of the tuluma in as far as food security is concerned for small atolls like Tuvalu. They must be empowered by the knowledge that our forefathers were expert swimmers and divers, builders of magnificent houses that endured cyclones, and swift canoes that were faster than schooners and could carry up to 200 warriors.”
With the doors now open, Fiji Museum Head of Special Projects Katrina Igglesden said there are ‘almost no words to describe’ what it feels like to see the museum filled with both local and international visitors.
“Seeing people enjoy it is, I think, one of the most humbling feelings but also one of the best feelings, because it makes the [museum] staff realise that the work being done is really worth it, and gives a boost for the rest of the work that has to be done. There’s a lot more to come.”
Voyages includes some of the well-known elements of the museum’s collection, such as the ‘Ratu Finau’, a double hulled drua (canoe), plus new elements that have never before been displayed publicly. The space includes artistic installations—fish made from found materials swim across the gallery ceiling and turtles climb the walls—and exhibits that address environmental concerns. There is also an audiovisual aspect, where videos and stories about Fiji voyages can be viewed. This element will extend to other parts of the gallery in the future.
Introducing elements speaking to climate change and environmental degradation of our oceans is part of an effort to shift perceptions of the museum being seen as just a place of history and the past, says Igglesden.
“We’re really trying to posit the present, but also the future within the story from the get-go. It is really important to look backwards to be able to move forward. We also need to look at the present because that is history. So we need to be able to document all stages of history.”
Igglesden has been working with the Fiji Museum for 15 years, but only started in her current role in November 2022. She will be overseeing the rest of the renovation work, and is keen to look at ‘making and doing’ in future exhibits.
“So looking at, [for example] techniques of how masi making took place, how the history of textile in this culture is huge and has gone into the present as a real high fashion story, which people don’t really realise, you know, started hundreds of years ago.
“Dealing with galleries, both upstairs and downstairs will be challenging, because what the Museum does want to move away from are just these little pockets of things, and really have a story to go through and talk about. And so we’re in the process of creating the story.”
One challenge the team will need to address is how to get people coming back to the gallery. Traditionally, it’s a place Suva school children visit on a school excursion, but may never return to, as a child or adult. Similarly, in the past, tourists often sped through, not really engaging with the exbibits.
Igglesden says programming, to bring out different objects and stories, will be important to encouraging return visits. But perhaps one of the biggest transformations will be bringing down the walls, so the public can see curators and museum staff at work in a living exhibition space.
“All of the work going on will be visible by the public. So that will change every single day, every single hour, every half an hour, likely, you’ll see something different. Creating those stories will allow the entire collection to be seen. If you sit in front of those windows every day and watch, you will see the entire production.
“I think for local communities, it is going to be a really important part of the museum experience, because that will also help us learn, by their interest, what we should start doing next and how we should start changing.”
The Fiji Museum has received support from the United States and Australian governments for recent work, and the Tokani (Friends of the Fiji Museum) group also fundraises for the institution. Government’s most recent national budget also allocated more funding than in recent years, and Igglesden hopes this financial investment will continue. They will also be looking to corporate partnerships.
U.S. government funding enabled the ‘Urban Pathways’ paid internship program, which included the Fiji Museum, and was aimed at looking how urban youth identify with, and experience culture, and develop sustainable and viable employment for youth people in the cultural heritage sector.
Three of those interns are now museum staff members, and the program developed the museum’s first virtual open day. It was followed by a four-day workshop more recently, which saw a different cohort spend time with the collection.
One of the difficulties the museum has is cataloguing and understanding what it has in its enormous collection. An inventory is underway, and Igglesden thinks there may be more than 100,000 items, but no one knows for sure. This includes 3D objects, textiles and flat works, a natural history collection and a strong archeology collection.
This means there is a sense of discovery, even for long-term staff members. For example, Igglesden describes identifying a necklace she wanted to use for the outreach work recently.
“We gently lifted up [the necklace] and realised that it was collected in the 1870s on the HMS Challenger expedition. We’ve got the name of the sailor on board who collected it, where it’s from. And lo and behold, it was one of these objects that nobody really knew about… We found the original number on it when it came in… And so we’ve been able to trace back that story to realise what it actually was, and what it actually meant.
Being able to understand the story behind items in the collection is immensely satisfying, she says.
“I think I almost cried. I welled up in thinking that this is something that I didn’t really know was here, and that people need to know it is here.
“Being able to have others learn about that, but also come to work here and find it themselves, it’s going to be something that could change somebody—it sounds a bit dramatic—but change somebody’s life in realising what it is, and what it means.”
This article first appeared in Fiji Traveller, January 2023.