Accepted paper:

The past in the present: the visibility of eighteenth century Polynesian artefacts in Tahiti today


Jasmin Guenther (James Cook University/Aarhus University)

Paper short abstract:

Recent fieldwork in Tahiti has not only enabled the exchange of knowledge about the HMS Pandora collection, but also drew attention to the visibility of comparable artefacts in Polynesia today. This paper explores how old (museum) objects continue to be present in contemporary practice and creation.

Paper long abstract:

HMS Pandora sank in 1791 after a five-month search through Oceania for the mutineers of the Bounty. Since the discovery of the wreck on the outer Great Barrier Reef in 1977, many objects were transferred from the bottom of the ocean to the Museum of Tropical Queensland, including a range of artefacts classified as Polynesian material culture. The collection is considered significant, because it can be ascribed to a specific time, place and context. Valuable insights were gained through previous research, yet from an archaeological perspective with a focus on conservation science and the past. However, the aim of my PhD project is not only to understand the relationships between the objects and humans in the context of eighteenth century maritime exploration of the Pacific, but also to explore what value they can have for people today. Despite the inevitable loss of certain materials and knowledge once attached to them due to the sinking of the ship, the artefacts recovered have outlived the men and women that once made them, gave them away or collected them. Among them are stone pounders, adze blades, wooden clubs, fishing implements, modified shells and an object assemblage suggesting that there has been a Tahitian mourner's costume on board - things that are still visible in French Polynesia today, even though they may have transformed, taken different sizes or shapes and made new connections. The past, then, seems to continuously act on the world, as the present is being lived and the future built.

panel P12
Enlivening the dead: anthropology and heritage