Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Conservation of Two Fine Mats from Samoa and Tonga

As a third year student studying for a BA in Conservation and Restoration at the University of Lincoln I am spending six weeks within the Conservation Department at the Pitt Rivers Museum. I have been working on two finely woven mats from Samoa and Tonga. Since coming into the Museum collections in 1948 they have been housed in cramped glass frames, making it difficult to tell the condition and even their full size. Upon their release from these frames I discovered a number of interesting aspects - including the fact the Tongan mat was over two metres squared, more than twice the size of the Samoan one.

Left: Samoan Mat PRM 1948.12.1 B with the frame backing removed
Right: Tongan Mat PRM 1948.12.2 B in the old glass frame © Pitt Rivers Museum
Arthur Mahaffy, a British colonial officer, collected both mats. In a letter written in 1914 to a Mrs Harcourt - from whom the Museum received the mats in 1948 - he declared the larger Tongan mat to be over 50 years old. While specifying no age for the Samoan mat, though he noted it was cleaner and overall in better condition. Mahaffy spent most of his career in the Pacific; by 1908 he was Deputy Commissioner of the West Pacific and often visited Samoa and Tonga, where he would have been familiar with the respective political families. These included the revered figure of Fatafehi, the last in a succession of Sacred Tongan Kings, who gave the larger mat to Mahaffy.

Left: Mahaffy's letter 1914; right: detail of the red and white feathers on the Samoan mat © Pitt Rivers Museum
Despite slight differences in the cultural associations of fine mats in Tonga and Samoa - or kie hingoa and 'ie toga respectively - there are central aspects that are true for both. For instance, fine mats make up most of the material wealth of important Tongan and Samoan families and are often reserved for wearing only at weddings or funerals, or other significant events. The cultural exchange back and forth between the two islands and their shared history can be followed in the exchange of these mats down through the years. The red feathers typical of these mats are probably the highly valued rare parakeet feathers from Fiji (possibly the Fiji parrotfinch), which were traded back and forth between Fiji, Samoa and Tonga.

Both mats are likely to be pandanus leaves (a relative of palm) the finest of these reserved for fine mats. Ideal characteristics of these leaves include suppleness, colour, and the thinness of fibre. The leaf is laboriously processed with many cycles of soaking in salt and fresh water, drying and splitting repeatedly until the desired qualities are achieved. These fibres are then woven together by hand often taking six months to over a year to complete.

Having possibly spent close to a 100 years tightly packed into frames both mats had deeply impressed creases. Plus the fibres at the folds and creases were comparatively brittle compared to the supple texture of the main body. To relax the fibres I used an ultrasonic humidifier to mist water vapour across the creases, whilst gently and carefully manipulating these areas with my fingers. The creases were then weighted and left for a time.

Left: Tongan mat crease before humidification; Middle: after humidification
Right: Samoan mat weighting of creases and pandanus ribbons © Pitt Rivers Museum
After this process both mats could be fully unfolded, making visible a number of aspects previously hidden from view. These included an interwoven zigzag design in a red-brown yarn, with a stepped edge at the top; original repairs; plus a number of holes in the larger mat. I could also see where strings of feathers had become separated from the body of the mats, which I secured with a couching stitch to prevent any losses. The original repairs were interesting to note, as they imply how important the preservation of these mats were to their original owners.

Left: Untangling the pandanus fringe on the Samoan mat
Right: Detail of the zigzag design on the Tongan mat © Pitt Rivers Museum 
In Samoa and Tonga particularly important fine mats are named. A mat belonging to the Tu'ifa family named Kie Monumonuka or mat that is wounded is described in Adrienne Kaepler's study "Kie Hingoa: Mats of Power, Rank, Prestige and Security". As a trainee conservator this is an appealing concept, where the prestige of the mat derives from the history that is visible in its current condition. As Kaepler, the Pacific scholar suggests, they are 'old because they are important and not important because they are old'.

The Samoan mat after treatment © Pitt Rivers Museum

Bethany Skuce
Conservation and Restoration Student

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