A beautiful cloak woven from flax and kiwi feathers might seem like an unusual piece of sports memorabilia, but in 1889 this is exactly what the museum acquired from the visiting New Zealand Native rugby team. This team toured Australia, New Zealand and the British Isles as a money-making venture at the height of international fascination in the exotic colonies, giving the world their first glimpse of New Zealand's now-renowned rugby talent.
ANU scholar Keren Ruki recently completed a one-month internship in MV's Indigenous Cultures department examining and researching the cloak and other collection objects from New Zealand. The cloak is exquisitely made and in beautiful condition but was largely undocumented. Keren's research means we now know much more about the cloak and its story.
Keren Ruki with the kiwi feather cloak housed for more than a century in Museum Victoria's collection.
Image: Rod Start
Source: Museum Victoria
Keren first visited Museum Victoria several years ago when she was researching Māori cloak construction for her own art practice. Born in New Zealand but raised in Australia, Keren describes feeling somewhere between the two cultures and drawn to the weaving techniques of her ancestors. "I felt a big urge to go home to find out who I was," she says, explaining her trips back to New Zealand to learn how to weave. Some weaving techniques have been lost in time but keen detective work helps to recover them and keep them alive. "Cloaks in collections teach me how things are made. If you've got an object, it's never dead. You can relearn how to make it."
Now embarking upon a master's degree in liberal arts, an 1854 Student Scholarship helped bring her back to Melbourne for a closer look at this cloak in particular. It was woven top to bottom using an off-loom weaving technique that is unique to Māori weavers called whatu. In a laborious process, the maker(s) used mussel shells to extract fibre from the native flax plants, drew the fibre out into string, and wove the string across the warp, locking each kiwi feather in place. It would have been highly prized when it was made and thus chosen to accompany the New Zealand Native team on their tour.
This kiwi feather cloak was purchased by the museum in June 1889.
Image: Rod Start
Source: Museum Victoria.
The 1888-1889 rugby tour was a triumph for the New Zealanders. They won 78 of their 107 games. As Keren puts it, "They took the game back to the masters and flogged them at it. The rugby field was one of those places where we could have a fair go. It was a great equaliser in a sense, even though it was a colonial game." The players wore black shirts with a fern motif, later adopted as the national team colours and still used today. It was also the first time that the haka was performed at the rugby, perhaps even while wearing this cloak.
The tour coincided with the Great Exhibition movement when the world was hungry for objects from faraway places. "Cloaks and the Māori were such a novelty, that's why the team came here – there was a market for them," explains Keren. However the tour was not as lucrative as the captain and organiser Joseph Warbrick had hoped. It was expensive to feed and transport 26 players and there were injuries due to the gruelling schedule of games. Cultural items were sold off to museums as the team returned to New Zealand. This cloak was bought by the (then) National Museum of Victoria on 10 June 1889, the day before the New Zealand Natives slaughtered the Victorian team in a rugby match. Another cloak was purchased by the Australian Museum.
1888-1889 New Zealand Natives football team before playing Queensland in July 1889.
Source: In the public doman, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.
Keren's research is not complete; she's still hoping to uncover the whakapapa or ancestry of the cloak – who made it and where it came from. "It's from the Ngati Kahungunu tribe from the Kaimanawa Ranges in the North Island. There might be other ways to follow the threads of cloak through cloaks in other collections. The maker might be a Warbrick relative."
It's wonderful to hear that she will continue seeking the stories behind the Māori treasures in Australian Museums. "To have a look at my own cultural material is really important and it's very significant to the Māori community in Australia. It's been an amazing journey for me because everyone's opened up their doors."
This year's round of 1854 Student Scholarships is open for applications until 31 March 2012.
Pacific Island Ethnographic Collection