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Untold Histories In Tongan Bark Cloths At Hastings Art Gallery

“Objects last. They’re witnesses, and actors, in history.”

That’s one of the reasons why Dr Billie Lythberg, a senior lecturer at University of Auckland, has spent the past 13 years travelling the world studying Pacific textile arts – because of the fascinating stories which can be uncovered when historic objects are examined.

Dr Lythberg, who completed her post-doctoral research at Cambridge University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, will visit Hastings at the end of this month to give a free talk about ngatu, Tongan bark cloths, at Te Whare Toi o Heretaunga - Hastings Art Gallery.

She describes ngatu in civic collections as historic jigsaw puzzles, which can be pieced together to rediscover the histories and relationships formed around these objects, as well as the way they travelled lands and oceans.

“One of the really interesting things about the bark cloths is that large cloths were often cut into smaller pieces, either by Tongans or by the people who received them. In Europe they were seen to be divisible in ways other artefacts wheren’t. So pieces cut from the same cloth are dispersed throughout collections and they can be the key to putting dispersed collections back together,” Dr Lythberg says.

She contributed to the research project which underpins Hastings Art Gallery’s current exhibition – ‘Amui ‘i Mu'a - Ancient Futures, by leading Tongan artists Dagmar Vaikalafi Dyck and Sopolemalama Filipe Tohi.

Before creating the exhibition, Dyck, Tohi, and Dr Lythberg, along with other artists and colleagues, visited and examined 18th and 19th century Tongan artefacts in museums and institutional collections in Europe, the United Kingdom, North America, Asia and Oceania. In some instances, it was the first time these objects had been seen or touched by Tongans since they were first traded. Dr Lythberg brought academic expertise to these interactions, unpicking the economic and political factors around the objects’ travels.

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“With the 18th century ngatu that were collected on Cook’s voyages and others, they came back to London, initially. Then crew members and gentlemen scholars had their collections, that they further dispersed among people of influence. They were presenting gifts to cement relationships of prestige and mutual obligation with people, in ways similar to the Islanders who had given them in the first place.”

She says the three ngatu from the Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust collection, which are part of ‘Amui ‘i Mu'a - Ancient Futures, are from the 20th century and their physical characteristics hold stories, just like their earlier counterparts - whether it’s in their kupesi patterns (the design printed and painted on the ngatu), similarities in cloth or makers’ techniques, or whether the bark cloths have been upcycled into their current state.

“We were already aware that the MTG had some cool things in their collection, but it’s really hard to look at things on a database with tiny little thumbnails… It’s different to feel the texture and weight of something. So, for example, it’s really nice to look at the back of the

[Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust collection] ngatu with jagged edges, because its kupesi are really, really clear. You can see the relief of the kupesi on it.”

There is little information known about the ngatu on display in Hastings Art Gallery, so Dr Lythberg’s expertise adds valuable insight to our local museum collection. In her talk, she will discuss the Tongan bark cloth making process, the specific kupesi patterns on our locally-held ngatu and the insights they can give us about Tongan life at the time they were made.

  • To hear more from Dr Billie Lythberg, come to her talk, A Tale of Two Queens, at 11am on Saturday, October 28, at Te Whare Toi o Heretaunga – Hastings Art Gallery. All welcome, no booking required. For more information go to

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