18 May 2010

The mystery of the Ranginui ‘drum’

(Click picture for a larger image)
This upright anthropomorphic drum from Mangaia in the Cook Islands is the only one of its kind in the world. It also has a unique history, having survived numerous air raids in London during World War II, where the former owner, William Oldman, and his wife Dorrie, protected their collection in the basement of their house using buckets of sand and water. The bulk of the collection was bought by the NZ government in 1948 and was divided up and shared amongst the major and regional museums of New Zealand. This piece went to the Napier Museum in Hawke’s Bay, where it resided for many years until a former president of CILAMS spotted it and asked for its return. It was eventually returned in 1988.
William Oldman saw a lot of significance in the piece – it was never offered for sale in his catalogues and was kept with his personal Easter Island, Hawaiian and Cook Islands collections. A photo of Oldman in a booklet called ‘No sort of iron’, shows this piece nearby.
The label that accompanied this artwork from New Zealand claims it is “Ranginui, master of tranquility”. However, nowhere in Mangaia’s history or mythology is such a character evident. Perhaps the carver, or Oldman himself named it, or maybe it was named by one of the many curators who have taken care of the carving over the years.
But the question always being asked about this item - is it a drum at all?
It has been labelled as such for nearly 100 years but it doesn’t have the typical features of a Cook Islands drum; for one thing it is made of coconut palm wood, which is not usually used for drums as it is not durable and doesn’t produce a good sound.
Secondly, it is too ornately carved; typical drums have designs carved sparingly on them so as not to interfere with the quality of sound. By contrast this one has carved designs on every surface, except the head. Most of the designs on the drum are the double ‘k’ design. This motif is said to represent two warrior brothers fighting back to back, who were slain around 1725. Their sacrifice contributed greatly to their father, Mautara, being installed as “Mangaia” (leader) of the whole island (Ref: MPJ Reilly, War and Succession in Mangaia, which we have in the Library). It is a motif commonly used on ceremonial adzes and it is the ‘k’ motif that helps to identify Ranginui as Mangaian.

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