Accepted Paper:

The enigma of liku (Fijian fibre skirts) in museums: trade, translation and reconsideration  


Karen Jacobs (University of East Anglia )

Paper short abstract:

This paper analyses misunderstandings surrounding liku fibre skirts worn by 19th century Fijian women. Liku were exchange items resulting in their abundance in museums from where they were exchanged further. Each exchange led to a revaluation of liku and a new translation in the museum catalogue.

Paper long abstract:

Liku, fibre skirts worn by indigenous Fijian women in the 19th century, now only exist in museum collections (mainly outside Fiji). Their abundance in museums is a result of their status as important exchange items in Fiji as liku were presented during solevu gift presentations and to secure bonds. Liku were also external markers readily understood by Fijians - indicating the wearer was tattooed, (un)married, a mother or of high status. However, once the female wearer entered non-Fijian written records, she was subject to the gaze of others who often misread her liku. Liku were therefore classified in museums as 'belt', 'waist band', and even 'necklace'. Once in museums, these liku lost their close connection to female bodies, but were treated as objects, a large number of which was identified as 'duplicate'. By embracing the concept of 'duplicate' it is implied that there are many examples of the same type, but an overview of liku museum collections demonstrates an enormous variety. From the mid-19th century, a large number of 'duplicate' liku in the Smithsonian Institution and the Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology were regularly exchanged with other museums. Each exchange led to a revaluation of liku and a different translation in the museum catalogue. Most recently, seven women of Fijian heritage (two curators and five artists) have drawn on liku in museums to produce new artworks and exhibitions showing how these understudied garments in museum stores remain at the core of new networks and reassessments.

Panel P100
Collections as Currency? Objects, Exchange, Values and Institutions