On 20 September 2018 the National Maritime Museum opened its ‘Pacific Encounters’ gallery. The gallery is a new permanent display dedicated to Pacific taonga (treasures) and histories. Before the press view, the VIP evening opening, and the weekend of public events, there was a special moment for the communities of Te-Moananui-a-Kiwa (the Pacific Ocean) to bless and celebrate their taonga and the gallery.
The blessings were an occasion for communities, their ancestors, and for staff. They were not public events. The atmosphere of the morning was one of love, family and moving forward together. The event began with a Māori Karakia, led by Ngati Rangiiwaho, a sub-tribe from Gisborne, Aotearoa (New Zealand) who were commissioned by the museum to produce an artwork for the new gallery space.
Following the Māori blessing, Robbie Atatoa from Mangaia in the Cook Islands, performed a Kave Eva (unveiling) of two toki, now displayed in the gallery. The ceremony required staff and family members involved in the story of the toki peeling away layers of cloth (traditionally tapa would be used, but in this instance pareu and tivaevae were more appropriate). The final layers were removed by members of Robbie’s family. The ceremony was important to celebrate the existence of the toki, and the mana (power) of the pia atua (sacred god). Robbie first visited the museum in 2015 when he attended an early consultation session. At the session Robbie recognised one of the taonga as being from his island and carved by his ancestor Tangitorou. This meeting has enriched the museum’s understanding of the toki, and has since worked with Robbie on creating appropriate interpretation in the gallery.
The Fiji High Commission arranged for a kava ceremony and blessing of Adi Yeta, the Fijian drua now a star taonga in the gallery. Dr Kevin Fewster AM, Director of Royal Museums Greenwich, was presented with a tabua (ceremonial whale’s tooth), cementing the ongoing relationship between the museum and the Fijian community.
Finally, following an exciting opening gala, the Tongan High Commission honoured staff with a kava ceremony and performances of traditional Tongan dance.
For three years the National Maritime Museum have been consulting and working with the communities of Te-Moananui-a-Kiwa (the Pacific Ocean), both in London and the Pacific. This has been a journey for the museum and its staff. It has required honest conversations, flexibility, and changes in practices both in content creation and object care. Far from being the culmination of the journey, the blessings are the beginning of relationships for a living gallery.
The Sackler Gallery: Pacific Encounters is now open at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London. Admission is free.