05 February 2011

Looking backwards isn't backwards: saving Tongan material culture

Princess Pilolevu laughing with Langafonua leadership
 The doors, closed, were guarded by the Royal army, and it was hot. The crowd in the room was slowly melting into their chairs, the women vainly trying to slow the process with the slow flap of woven fans. The only breath of cool air in the room was coming from a solitary electric fan, pointed at the most distinguished guest of honour, the current king's sister, Princess Pilolevu.

We were next door to the handicraft centre where I help out, gathered in the central room of the Langafonua women's association for the official opening of the Royal Art Gallery and Demonstration Village. This was a big day; the collection of royal portraits and the two fine mats displayed in plexiglass cubes are the first and only museum area showcasing Tonga's governmental history in the entire country.

One of the things that we and many Tongans lament is the lack of publicly-accessible history anywhere in the islands. In New Zealand, you can get a well-done historical education at Te Papa museum, in the US, you can browse the Smithsonian Museum of American History, but here in Tonga, you have to find someone to ask, and that has as much a likelihood of producing a real history as it does a creative fictional one!
A fale in the Demonstration Village set up for tapa making

Things already don't last very long in this climate, and much of the material history of Tonga only exists in people's memories. In a rapidly globalizing culture where most people even in the countryside prefer ("new and modern") messy, burn-prone foil packets rather than ("old and backward") biodegradable, clean banana leaf packets to cook their Sunday 'umu, ancient items often get forgotten. The now mostly defunct Tonga cultural center once had a kalia, a beautiful traditional Tongan canoe, which, because of it's size, was left outside in the elements until this exquisite piece of history disintegrated into the grass.

Everyone at Langafonua is, then, very excited about this new semi-museum space right in the middle of town; it has immense potential. The other area officially opened this last week was the Demonstration Village, a beautiful collection of Tongan fales built behind the new Royal Art Gallery and the Handicraft Centre building. Mats lie under shady woven roofs, kava bowls sit ready for mixing, Tongan pillows are scattered about for a quick nap. The Handicraft Centre (also called Langafonua Gallery) is going to start holding our weekly craft demonstrations out there, occasionally calling in extra demonstrators when a cruise ship docks and the city is flooded with expensive white faces.
Mele demonstrating kava making. Picture right is dried kava, and she's holding a strainer to filter out the powder from the water. She's just been selected go with me to this year's Smithsonian Folklife Festival to demonstrate Tongan weaving.

Both areas have a long way to go before visitors can walk up to printed information signs and be helped by a friendly docent, museum-style, but it is a huge step in a great direction, and it will be exciting to see what the future holds. Maybe we're looking at the seeds of a Tongan national museum. Who knows!


  1. Have you been to the Cultural Center? Maybe they should just fix that one up/improve the displays. They have one pretty decent display about Lapita pottery, but the rest is mostly old pictures. Oh, and they have the famous tortoise.

  2. Totally! I think they should fix it up too- it's too bad it's gone down so much apparently in the last few years. There's a lot of politics behind it as well as behind Langafonua that I don't quite understand, and I wish that the powers that be could work together to have cultural history + governmental history all in one place! We can hope, I guess... :)

  3. Elena, My Name is Hannah Kent-Johnston and I am interning for the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. I am writing a sign post that will be placed outside Mele's tent when she is weaving at the festival this summer. I need to include how the Peace Corps is involved with Tongan weaving or more specifically how the Peace Corps has helped Mele. Can you tell me a little about what you do in Tonga-I noticed that you work at a handicraft center, ydo you help market their tradition goods? Any help would be great, thanks so much!

  4. Hi Hannah. It would be easiest if you email me at eb (dot) noyes at google's mail service. Then I'll be able to send a full answer directly to you through email. :)



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