There is nothing we like more, here at the University of Aberdeen Museums Service, than a good mystery, and recently we discovered one in our collections. During a visit from Eve Haddow, the assistant curator for the Pacific Collections Review Project, one of the objects examined from our collection was this wonderful Samoan boat model which you can see below:
The mystery surrounding this object begins with the National Museum of Scotland’s object record. The model boat was donated in 1897, to the NMS, by Miss Balfour but the record tells us that it wasn’t originally hers, but rather that it was ‘brought home by the late Mrs Stevenson, mother of Robert Louis Stevenson, and sister of the donor.’
The mystery mounted as we continued to read the original museum record as it stated that the model was destroyed in 1948. It was evidently not destroyed, as it has ended up here, and is currently being cared for at the University of Aberdeen Museums Collection Centre.
What we have managed to find out is that Mrs Stevenson, who went by the name of Maggie, travelled to the Pacific with her son, the famous Scottish writer, Robert Louis Stevenson where they travelled around and decided to settle in Samoa in 1889. After her son died in Samoa in 1894 Maggie came back to Edinburgh and moved in with her sister, who was probably the same sister who ended up as the depositor of the boat model.
It is still not clear why the National Museum of Scotland’s record claims that the model was destroyed, but we are very glad it wasn’t! The object is a beautiful example of a model of a Samoan bonito canoe, or va’a alo in Samoan. The full sized bonito canoe would have been used to catch the titular fish, the bonito, which is a type of predatory fish, related to tuna and mackerel. The boat would have been manned by two people and through using paddles rather than sails they would have reached extraordinary speeds, perfect for chasing and catching the bonito.
Without the Pacific Review we wouldn’t have got the chance to further explore this interesting Samoan object with its fascinating connections to Scotland. The Pacific Review is an 18 month partnership project supported by the Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund. It aims to reconnect dispersed Pacific collections held in museums across Scotland and their histories. The other museums involved in this project are the National Museums Scotland, Glasgow Life, and Perth Museum & Art Gallery.
If you would like to find out more about the project head over to their webpage at: http://www.nms.ac.uk/collections__research/pacific_collections.aspx
Or to follow the progress of the review check out their blog at: http://pacificcollectionsreview.wordpress.com/