By Chantal Knowles, Principal Curator (Oceania, Americas and Africa), National Museums Scotland
2 November 2008
Situated in the heart of Edinburgh, theNational Museum of Scotland incorporates two wonderful buildings – one modern, the other a grand Victorian building known as the Royal Museum building. Currently the Royal Museum project, a £46.4 million initiative, is underway to transform and revitalise this iconic building into a modern, 21st century museum. This is a three year project and will create 16 new galleries with a focus on World Cultures and the Natural World, reopening in 2011.
One of these new galleries will be dedicated to the Pacific Ocean – exploring life, culture and the islands of the Pacific. A centrepiece of this new Pacific gallery will be a pre-1850s Maori waka.
The waka presents a mystery to us! In a poor state of repair, and at only 20 feet in length it is a composite canoe. The hull is from a river boat and the side strakes were taken from a full length war canoe, cut and shaped to fit. Finally a prow was carved to scale. The carvings on some parts suggest it came from the Bay of Plenty region. The original stern post is missing and instead there is a 19th century museum repair.
We have decided to continue the tradition of adding to the canoe and have commissioned George Nuku to carve a new stern post for it. George is currently in Edinburgh working on this carving, which will be carved in acrylic.
As we restore the waka for display, we are trying to find out more of the story of how this waka was put together, who made it and for what purpose. We are discovering the history of the waka as we peel back the layers of each generation of work.
This is an exciting and daunting undertaking. We are transforming something existing in our collection – marrying old with new – which is an innovative step for us. We are documenting everything we do through reports, photography and film. As the work progresses, we hope we will eventually find out when and where the waka was collected and who brought it to Scotland more than 150 years ago.
Image 1: George Nuku examining the prow
Image 2: National Museum of Scotland, with the Victorian Royal Museum building to the left and the modern building centre and right
Image 3: The waka before restoration