Pacific objects in focus #2: Admiralty Islands ceremonial regalia

Ceremonial regalia and shell money (nine pieces), designed and made in Manus Island, Admiralty Islands, 1900-1925. 94/21/1. Collection: Powerhouse Museum.
Ceremonial regalia and shell money (nine pieces), designed and made in Manus Island, Admiralty Islands, 1900-1925. 94/21/1. Collection: Powerhouse Museum.

This ceremonial regalia from the Admiralty Islands (early 20th century) is one of the Museum’s most prized Pacific pieces. While individual components of the regalia (like the armbands or apron) can often be found in public and private collections, a near or complete set, like this, is very rare. It is also in remarkably good condition and demonstrates the exquisite quality and workmanship that went into Admiralty Islands weaving and beading.

The regalia consists of nine pieces, including: (-1) a fringed and beaded rectangular apron with traces of colourful parrot feathers along the top; (-2) a narrow beaded waist band worked in red, white, blue and black glass beads; (-3 and -4) a pair of wide, rectangular ‘mats’ (worn as leg bands) worked in red, white, blue and black glass beads fastened with plaited vegetable fibre ties; (-5 and -6) a pair of arm bands, one of which has two surviving fibre ties and; (-7 to -9) three cuffs of different sizes worked in red, white and blue glass beads and backed onto rigid, circular bark strips. It’s likely that the largest cuff is a later addition and is not, in fact, contemporary with the set.

Detail of apron showing remains of colourful parrot feathers, designed and made in Manus Island, Admiralty Islands, 1900-1925. 94/21/1. Collection: Powerhouse Museum.
Detail of apron showing remains of colourful parrot feathers, designed and made in Manus Island, Admiralty Islands, 1900-1925. 94/21/1. Collection: Powerhouse Museum.

One of the most intriguing questions raised by this ceremonial regalia is – how was it worn? No images or written records survive as primary evidence, which means that any inferences we make are drawn from oral traditions recorded in secondary sources and from looking at other comparable types of Melanesian dress.

Based on Sylvia Ohnemus’s comprehensive publication “An Ethnology of the Admiralty Islanders – The Alfred Bühler Collection, Museum der Kulturen, Basel”, along with a combination of other sources, we can surmise that the apron was probably worn full frontal, possibly with a grass skirt underneath or with a second longer apron positioned at the back, which was held into place by a waistband. Hans Nevermann in his publication “Admiralty Islands”, suggests the smaller beaded bands with tassels were worn just above the elbow, while the matching pair of cuffs were worn on the forearms.  A headband, typically adorned with dog’s teeth, might have also accessorised the outfit – although we do not have one in this assemblage.

Detail of apron showing beaded shell money, designed and made in Manus Island, Admiralty Islands, 1900-1925. 94/21/1. Collection: Powerhouse Museum.
Detail of apron showing beaded shell money, designed and made in Manus Island, Admiralty Islands, 1900-1925. 94/21/1. Collection: Powerhouse Museum.

The type of ceremony this regalia would have been worn at is a marriage, dance/festival or initiation ceremony; the type requiring an impressive display of wealth. Thought to have been predominantly worn by men, women may have also worn the outfit as part of their wedding dowry.

The display of shell money, as well as dog teeth, in costume and dress was restricted to ceremonies. Shell money comprises the upper section of small conus shells sourced from either Ponam or Sori (islands off the north coast of Manus) and was traded throughout the rest of the Admiralties. They were drilled in the centre and woven onto a pandanus or bark backing.

Detail of armband showing the geometric motifs, designed and made in Manus Island, Admiralty Islands, 1900-1925. 94/21/1. Collection: Powerhouse Museum.
Detail of armband showing the geometric motifs, designed and made in Manus Island, Admiralty Islands, 1900-1925. 94/21/1. Collection: Powerhouse Museum.

Each of the pieces forming this ceremonial regalia are decorated with geometric motifs formed through threading and knotting white shell discs and red, white and blue beads onto vegetable fibre yarns. The glass beads were probably imported.

The Museum fortuitously acquired this particular regalia assemblage at a Sotheby’s auction in 1993 (ex collection Peter Hallinan). Before this, it was in the collection of Daniel Leighton Patterson, who was sent with the Expropriation Board of Australia to New Guinea to take over from the German administration following the annexation of the territory by Australia.

The regalia will be on display in the ‘Ornamented Men’ section of A fine possession: jewellery and identity opening at the Powerhouse Museum from September 2014.

Melanie Pitkin, Assistant Curator, Design and Society

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One response to “Pacific objects in focus #2: Admiralty Islands ceremonial regalia

  • Hi there,
    My people, the Sori Islanders, were the initial manufacturers of the Manus Island Shell money during that period, traded and distributed to many parts of Manus and the Admiralty Islands.

    Though, I have seen some attires designed as pictured, many are dying out and may no longer be in existence.

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