Vaka Moana Exhibition At Auckland Museum

The untold story of the World’s greatest exploration – The dramatic story of the world’s greatest human migration is told for the first time in a major exhibition, on view 8 December 2006 to 8 April 2007 at the Auckland War Memorial Museum.

The untold story of the World’s greatest exploration – The dramatic story of the world’s greatest human migration is told for the first time in a major exhibition, on view 8 December 2006 to 8 April 2007 at the Auckland War Memorial Museum.

Incorporating the most recent scientific research in fields as diverse as genetics, linguistics and computer modelling, the landmark Vaka Moana exhibition tells the extraordinary story of the exploration and peopling of the vast Pacific Ocean.

In developing the world-class exhibition, Auckland Museum has drawn on its unsurpassed Maori and Pacific collections, as well as the expertise of in-house curators and academic specialists from New Zealand and the Pacific Rim.

Some 200 objects from Auckland Museum’s collection and other New Zealand and international collections, including rare carvings and a full-size inter-island voyaging canoe, are on display, supported by specially commissioned multi-media installations, interactive displays and a lavish, authoritative tie-in book.

After its Auckland debut, Vaka Moana will tour internationally, opening at the National Museum of Ethnology (Osaka, Japan), September – December 2007; the National Museum of Natural Science (Taichung, Taiwan), June – August 2008; the National Museum of Australia (Canberra, Australia), October 2008 – February 2009; and the Tropenmuseum (Amsterdam, Netherlands), December 2009 – February 2010. The exhibition the exhibition is also slated to travel to France, the United States and Canada, before returning to New Zealand in 2011.

Vaka Moana follows on from the internationally acclaimed Te Maori exhibition of 1984 which signalled the renaissance of Maori culture in New Zealand. It is the most significant touring exhibition to be developed and curated by Auckland Museum.

Exhibition Themes

Visitors to Vaka Moana will learn how the Pacific began to be explored 3-4000 years ago by the world’s first truly maritime people – the ancestors of today’s Pacific peoples. How they developed vessels and a means of navigating – their descendents prefer to call it ‘way-finding’ – based on observations of the sea and the sky.

And how, as a result, they were able to range across the vast expanses of the Pacific Ocean thousands of years before the Vikings, Portuguese, Spaniards and other seafaring cultures undertook their first trans-Oceanic forays.

Vaka Moana also tells how the extremities of Polynesia were the last regions on earth to be settled by humans, and it places the epic achievements of the voyagers in the context of the gradual exploration of the entire habitable world.

Hawaii, Rapanui (Easter Island) and Aotearoa/New Zealand were the last places to be discovered because getting to them involved overcoming enormous physical and technological challenges.
The exhibition reveals the types of craft used, the nature of the essential skill of ‘way-finding’, and the evidence modern investigators have pieced together to retell the story.

It examines the response of early Spanish, British and French expeditions to the widely scattered Polynesian peoples and presents their recorded impressions of the technology they encountered.

Early ideas about the origins of the Pacific peoples are supported by recent scientific research. Noting the resemblance of people and language on distant islands, British exploer Captain James Cook surmised that they had a common origin in Southeast Asia.

Later scholars disagreed and championed now discredited notions, including the sailing of a great fleet and ‘accidental’ voyaging. These alternative theories are discussed and presented as part of a long process of intellectual enquiry which resulted in today’s acknowledgement of the achievements of the ancient voyagers and in the modern renaissance of Pacific voyaging.

‘We didn’t want to take a chronological approach, because that wouldn’t have worked’, says Exhibition Development Manager Penny Morison. ‘Vaka Moana is about contemporary Pacific cultures, which are diverse but which have a common ancestor’.

In answering the question of how that came about, the exhibition makes use of several hundred objects from the Auckland Museum’s collection and elsewhere as well as graphics and multimedia technology. ‘But the story is the hero’, says Morison. ‘Everything else is focused on illustrating that’.

‘The human settlement of the Pacific Islands is not just a Pacific story’, says Professor Kerry Howe of Massey University’s School of Social and Cultural Studies, who edited the exhibition’s companion book. ‘It is also the final chapter in the story of human exploration and settlement of our planet. With the settlement of the Pacific islands, we reached the end of our habitable world’.

‘It was the first great migration to require technology’, says the Director of Auckland Museum, Rodney Wilson. ‘That is one reason the exhibition is so successful. Here we are as a people in the 21st century, having occupied all of the earth and looking to islands in space. It is analogous to where humans were 40,000 years ago’.

‘Scholars have drawn a parallel with the exploration of the Pacific Ocean and space’, agrees archaeologist Geoff Irwin, of the University of Auckland’s Department of Anthropology. ‘The proof is there that small numbers of people travelling fast are viable; that just a canoe-load or a plane-load of them can take a portable economy – the ancestors of the Polynesians took a whole suite of plants and domestic animals – and can reproduce culturally and biologically’.

The exhibition also shatters the myth of explorers arriving at luxuriant tropical island paradises. Most islands were relatively poor in flora and fauna before the arrival of humans and were incapable of sustaining human populations for long periods of time. Successful settlement depended on the intentional introduction of new plants and animals.

‘It is no coincidence that the islands of the Pacific were settled after humans had developed agricultural practices – that is, within the past 10,000 years’, says Kerry Howe. ‘Actually, they were the first places on earth to be settled by humans who were agriculturalists. Every other part of the globe had been initially settled by humans long before the agricultural revolution’.

The means of finding a way to the new lands and back again was also something new, and so different from the instrument-based navigation of later European explorers that scholars at first dismissed the possibility that it had been done at all.

‘What the exhibition tries to say is that successful voyaging depended on the traditional knowledge of expert navigators’, says Auckland Museum’s Curator of Ethnology, Roger Neich. ‘Even learning tools like the Marshall Islands’ stick chart, which visitors to the exhibition can see, were not taken on the voyaging canoes. Everything took place in people’s minds’.

In recent years a clearer picture has emerged about how Pacific culture spread from island to island, thanks in part to computer modelling of likely exploration strategies.

‘Since World War Two it has been a developing story based on accumulating evidence from archaeology, DNA mapping, linguistics and so on. We looked at that evidence and the considered theories about what went on to produce it’, says archaeologist Geoff Irwin, himself a blue water sailor.

Through computer simulation, Irwin and his colleagues tested a range of voyaging strategies and found that the best explanation was that the early explorers were able to accurately navigate and that their method of exploration was rational and cautious.

‘Clearly settlement was intentional and motivated, but it was also underpinned by a concern for safety’, says Irwin. ‘There was a policy of searching, then returning home. The safest way was to go against the prevailing winds, so that the winds would take them home again. Their own islands then became a safety net to fall back on’.

It is now thought that the Austronesian voyagers most likely waited for the brief annual reversal of the tropical Pacific’s prevailing south-easterly winds to take them east, rather than attempting to sail against them.

‘What the story tells us is that humans expanded when they had the capacity and, in this case the technology, to do so’, says Irwin. ‘We increasingly know how it was done, when and by whom. What we still don’t know is why’.

The exhibition does far more than recount distant events and solve archaeological puzzles, however.
‘It is about telling the Pacific story of which we are all a part’, says Auckland Museum’s Director, Rodney Wilson. ‘As a fifth generation Pakeha New Zealander, I feel that this is my story too. The Pacific has been a place of settlement for 4000 years and that has never stopped. New waves of immigrants are a part of the vibrancy and excitement of this country’.

‘Te Maori was the first big cultural exhibition to tour internationally and it was a fulcrum moment in regard to Maori culture’, says Wilson. ‘Vaka Moana is the next big exhibition and it takes us forward as a nation, helping us to see ourselves as part of the Pacific family.

‘It has always struck me as curious that we use the phrase “New Zealand and the Pacific” as though we stand apart from our neighbours; as though separation is more important than kinship’.

‘It is fitting that Auckland Museum should curate Vaka Moana’, says Wilson. ‘We are the oldest museum in the country, with the strongest Maori and Pacific collections in the country. We have had priceless artefacts coming into the collection from early times. And we are in the foremost Pacific Island city in the world. No city has a bigger Pacific Island population or a stronger Pacific identity’.

The Exhibition Experience

The open lattice screens, tapa panels and floor graphics immediately connect visitors with the Pacific cultures whose story this exhibition tells. Artefacts ranging from rare carved representations of deities and intricately fashioned body armour to jewellery and similar ancient pottery found in widely separated island groups delight the eye and engage the imagination.

Centrepiece canoes drawn from Auckland Museum’s world-renown Pacific collection impress with their skilled design and construction, lending weight to the depiction of the world’s first ocean-going culture.

Among the artefact treasures on display are a Maori patu collected by Captain Cook, an extremely rare Tongan goddess figure handed to early Christian missionaries, exquisite traditional Pacific jewellery bearing witness to the special role of sea life in Pacific cultures and a bowl from Rurutu in the Austral islands, carved from the jaw of a whale.

Vaka Moana Comprises The Following Themed Sections

“¢ Ocean A dark blue environment alive with projected ocean swells greets visitors as they enter the exhibition, inviting the mind to contemplate the vast sweep of the Pacific and signalling the entry into a many stranded story of exploration and settlement.

To many people the ocean, which embraces a third of the planet, appears empty, featureless and threatening, but early Pacific peoples thought of it in entirely different terms -as a place of nurture. As ‘Home’.

“¢ Island People The island’s of the Pacific were the last habitable parts of the globe to be discovered and settled. Today’s diverse Pacific cultures arose from shared ancestors. Their stories are also diverse, but speak of origins in the West.

Entering this section, visitors meet the imposing 2.2m-high Kave, a goddess figure from Nukuoro, a Polynesian outlier in the eastern Caroline Islands. Kave, one of the museum’s treasures, has been in the museum collection since 1878. Nearby stands Tiki, an elaborately carved gateway figure from the Maori village of Ohinemutu on the shores of lake Rotorua.

An inter-island outrigger canoe from Tikopia, a small island in the Solomon Islands, rests in the centre of the circular space. Carved ancestor figures from other Pacific cultures line one curving wall and against the other side are photographs of 16 different island communities. Audio-visuals present a range of Aucklanders with Pacific Island backgrounds talking about their understanding of their ancestors and their origins.

“¢ Search for Origins Ever since European explorers first encountered Pacific peoples there has been speculation about who their ancestors were and where they came from.

Archaeology, ethnology, traditional knowledge and comparative linguistics, along with computer modelling of voyaging possibilities and comparative DNA of humans, plants and animals, have helped researchers piece together the probable answer to this puzzle.

It is now believed that there was a common ancestor – the Austronesian societies living throughout southern China and Southeast Asia some 5000-6000 years ago (before the rise of modern Chinese civilisation).

Visitors gain an understanding of Pacific exploration through a large map of migration paths and settlement dates. A huge panel of tapa cloths and a language tree show cultural similarities and differences, while objects from Taiwan, including paddles, pots, an ancestor goddess figure and a shaman’s box, make a connection with distant western origins. Displays of ancient Lapita pottery and modern Pacific pottery also suggest the Pacific-wide spread of a common culture.

“¢ Navigation Unaided by maps or instruments, Pacific navigators relied on their immense knowledge of stars, sea conditions, wind and weather patterns and the many natural indicators of the whereabouts of distant land. Such skills earned these navigators great respect.

Visitors standing beneath a dome of the night sky hear a spoken explanation of the many ways in which ancient voyagers were able to accurately find their way across the vast Pacific and unerringly retrace their journey home to bring news of new discoveries.

A computer-controlled voyaging strategy game allows visitors to test different approaches to exploring the Pacific.

“¢ Vaka In order to set out across the Pacific Ocean, entirely new tools were needed. The result was the vaka, the world’s first blue-water technology. The hulls, sails and outriggers of these vessels developed by the world’s first maritime culture demonstrate an extraordinary achievement in design, construction and handling.

A double-hulled canoe from the southern Cook Islands introduces visitors to some of the design principles behind the voyaging canoes. Though this canoe was used as a lighter to island trading ships moored outside the island reefs rather than for ocean travel, the nearby full-size cross-section of a large vaka gives visitors a sense of the scale of the ancestral canoes.

The vaka’s dimensions are based on an actual vessel seen in Tahiti by James Cook, which measured 32 metres in length – the size of Cook’s Endeavour. Though most likely a war canoe, carrying 50 or more warriors, the original is thought to have been similar to the voyaging canoes that sailed the Pacific 500 years before Cook.

“¢ Landfall As the islands of the Pacific became populated diverse cultures arose in response to the very different environments – ranging from volcanic islands to coral atolls – that they found themselves in. Gradually, as the possibility of finding uninhabited islands diminished, canoe technology was adapted to new purposes, including trade, travel and warfare within their own island groups.

Here visitors encounter one of the canoe developments – a bonito-fishing canoe from the Solomon Islands that has been in the care of the Auckland Museum for more than 90 years.
Objects in this part of the exhibition, including a range of adzes and ornaments along with Kiribati body armour, suggest ways in which the new lands encouraged the development of cultural diversity.

“¢ Two Worlds Europeans encountering Pacific cultures for the first time were astonished at the sophistication of the ocean-going technology they saw and tried to learn something of their navigation techniques. The Islanders, for their part, often crewed in Western vessels and leaders in Tahiti, Hawaii and elsewhere came to own considerable fleets of them.

One result of cultural contact was the abandonment by Pacific communities of their traditional vessels, sailing routes and navigation skills.

Visitors to the exhibition can examine a wall of canoe models, some representing types of craft no longer built, along with original watercolours capturing the impressions of early Europeans. Engravings from the reports of these early explorers can also be seen, along with period maps which illustrate the increasing European understanding of the Pacific.

“¢ Renaissance Thought by the 1970s to have been completely lost, the ancient Pacific navigation skills were recorded by New Zealand sailor and academic David Lewis, who found them being used by a few old navigators in Micronesia.

In Hawaii, Ben Finney spearheaded the interest in replica voyaging with the Polynesian Voyaging Society’s double-hulled vessel Hokule’a, which in 1975 made a groundbreaking voyage from Hawai’I to Tahiti. Since then, Hokule’a has sailed to most parts of Polynesia, including New Zealand and Easter Island.

Today these traditions are being embraced as part of a wider renaissance of Pacific culture.
This section features a single-person vaka ama – a modern racing canoe – which was specially commissioned for the exhibition, along with recorded interviews with some of the people involved and original unpublished photographs.

The exhibition is on view through 1 April 2007. PRICE: Adults $15, Children $6, Concession $12, Family Price (2 adults,2 children) $32

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Written By James Huliq