In Tasmania’s ‘Antipodean Wunderkammers’ [1•2] the Tasmanian Aboriginal people’s [1•2] shell necklaces figure large. Deep in the museums’ memory banks, and in their exhibition spaces, they have catalogued the shifting paradigms within which these ‘loaded artifacts’ are, and have been, imagined.
Curiously these necklaces seem omnipresent in ‘Tasmanian Branding’, along with the Truganini story; the Thylacine extinction story; apple iconography; convict narratives; Huon pine furniture and boats; Lake Pedder and wilderness imagery; forest protests; stories about giant squid and enormous crabs; mutton birds; trevalla; pink eye potatoes and much more that Tasmanians claim as being uniquely ‘theirs’. Unquestionably, shell necklaces figure large in Tasmanians’ cultural imagination.
‘New Tasmanians’ need to know about these things before they can begin to make sense of the place. Inevitably these iconic shell necklaces will be quietly explained in the induction process – typically over coffee and quietly. These are the kind of stories that one needs to have explained to you on an island with histories all of its own under almost every rock.
The story that is not told is the one about the theft of an ‘industrial quantity’ of necklaces from the Hobart Wharf in 1907. John Ward, a Hobart wharf labourer, was found guilty for having
“stolen, or otherwise [receiving], a large quantity of shell necklaces [100 dozen], consigned to a wholesale firm in Sydney by Mr. Paget, fur dealer, Elizabeth Street. At [his] previous trial the prisoner pleaded not guilty, and the jury failed to agree as to a verdict, whereupon the accused was remanded on bail, to be retried. On this occasion John [Ward] again pleaded not guilty, and was defended by Mr. Harold Crisp, the Solicitor General (Mr. E. D. Dobbie) prosecuting for the Crown ." TRANSCRIPT – Hobart Mercury, 20.05.1908.
Yet the story about the Royal Society’s implication in the robbery of Truganini’s grave is one that is spoken of – albeit in hushed whispers. Just a generation after her death the Tasmanian Museum put on exhibition that perplexing and macabre tableau that included Truganini’s skeleton, her death mask, various photographs of her, shell necklaces and ironically one of Lieutenant-Governor George Arthur’s famous ‘proclamation boards’ plus other Aboriginal artefacts. It’s legendary that there are Gothic resonances to Tasmanian stories – even those about necklaces.
The potency of the shell necklaces famously worn by Truganini is palpable. For the colonials cum settlers cum ‘invaders’ there is almost no escaping these necklaces’ ‘trophy of empire’ cultural cargo. For Tasmania’s Aboriginal community, clearly the necklaces are cultural property and treasures invested with the continuum of their being; charged with connections to place; and endowed with linkages to elders and ancestors. In Tasmania there is nothing ordinary about all shell necklaces – they evidence the continuity of Aboriginal Tasmanians’ presence and identity.
Unraveling the narratives that attach themselves to necklace making in Tasmania is an exercise full of irony and there is no comfort whatsoever to be found in the postmodern proposition that truth is myth, and myth, truth.
Mixed up within the Social Darwinian idea of “survival of the fittest” is the need to identify and to be identifiable. Body ‘adornment’ can be a very sophisticated identity tool and a ’necklace’ can be many things – souvenir, token or simple adornment. But ‘necklaces’ usually need to wait to be given meaning, a social function or perhaps some personal significance.
Essentially, “necklace” is a generic European cum globalised idea. It’s not an idea that fits at all well within local or Indigenous peoples’ naming and belief systems. ‘Necklace’ is a kind of generic term that best fits the circumstances of globalisation and the imperatives of industry. It’s a catchall term, a lowest common denominator, something that comes to a wearer via ‘commercial’ production ready for it to be invested with meaning.
In a postcolonial cum ‘global’ paradigm, various kinds of ‘necklaces’ – rosaries, chains of office etc. – carry subtexts that typically emerge from the ether to haunt us in various ways. Interestingly, they are rarely referred to as "necklaces."
Hawaii's Queen Liliuokalani, the last of the Hawaiian monarchs, owned a number of Tasmanian kelp – maireener – shell necklaces that seem to have come to her via a retail sale in Honolulu – and possibly understood by her as lei . They are now in the collection of the Bishops Museum in Honolulu.
“Queen Liliuokalini lived until 1917, and thus it’s most likely that she would have either bought them at a store, or perhaps someone might have given them to her, but probably (again) just by having purchased them commercially. By the time she was an adult, Hawaii had a completely westernized economy, particularly in Honolulu”
There is no doubt that Queen Liliuokalini’s 'shell necklaces/lei' originated in Tasmania as ‘Hobart Necklaces’– Hobart’s quintessential souvenirs. Most likely they found their way to Honolulu via the M M Martin enterprise of Hobart [2•3] established in 1875 and with Honolulu “branch factory”. Once in Honululu Hobart Necklaces could be recontextualised as, and marketed as, lei – and ultimately accepted by a Polynesian monarch as such. They left Tasmania as ‘Hobart Necklaces’ and immediately turned into ‘lei’ the moment they landed on the wharf in Honolulu.
When Tasmanian Aboriginal shell necklaces –maireeners – are claimed as “necklaces,” or ‘lei’ even, it says nothing at all about their ‘original’ cultural context. It is an act of cultural homogenisation. Moreover, it is more to do with "blanding’ than it might have anything to do with blending." – Dr. Rod Ewins paraphrased. What is missing is the accommodation of differing cultural sensibilities in a global context. Ultimately, all this is to do with colonising ‘identity’.
On eBAY at least, it seems that the Tasmanian Aboriginal language word ‘maireener’ has been added to the lexicon when it is necessary to distinguish one shell necklace from another. 'The word' has currency when it comes to asserting a 'necklace's' Tasmanian Aboriginal bona fides. Indeed, ‘maireener’ has come to carry layers of meaning to do with identifying a class of personal adornment cum cultural identifier. In the Aboriginal community, it is also the word used to describe the kinds of shells used to make necklaces.
In its Aboriginal context, it seems that a maireener is not by necessity a necklace any more than a lei is a necklace A lei is a lei. A maireener is a maireener. Like a lei, a maireener has cultural functions and cultural significance.
Firstly it seems, it is itself, a maireener, and almost coincidentally a necklace. But a maireener is something more than a necklace. They seem to embody a bond with place and carry the imprimatur of cultural continuum. Possibly, a maireener might be a necklace of a kind sometimes. In a way a maireener cum necklace may be significant as a kind of cultural crossover when it is used as a memento of ‘place’ – a souvenir. Arguably the ‘maireener idea’ is somewhat ‘liquid’.
In the end, however, the maireener continues to be what it has probably always been: a 'connector'; a bonding agent; a ‘gift’ that connects people. The making of one clearly seems to connect people to place. Likewise, the receiving of one seems to connect people to a set of beliefs and imaginings to do with a place and its stories. In so many ways a maireener seems to be something like a symbolic umbilical cord that connects people to both place and culture – ways of believing and being.
There is something primordial about a Tasmanian Aboriginal maireener. There’s something there that refuses to be diluted by colonialism, golobalisim or cultural imperialism. Is the colonial appropriation of, the sanctioned plunder of, and the global commodification of these so-called ‘necklaces’, and by the thousands [ 1 • 2 ] it now seems , tantamount to the theft of identity and innocence? On the one hand, appropriated Tasmanian shell necklaces – Hobart Necklaces? – are exactly what they are, mere shadows of the maireeners they mimic. They are simply a ‘commodity’ analogous to grain before it becomes bread – cake even. You cannot steal, subsume or overtake history – written or oral. Then again, when a shell necklace is understood as “a flapper’s Art Deco necklace” on eBAY, somehow in that naivety there may be a glimmer of innocence. Yet, despite this destiny as cliché, the presence of the maireener remains. Certainly, its present Indigenous makers aim to take back this presence from its colonial commodification as a necklace and an artefact of Tasmania.
Ray Norman, Tasmania, February 2010.
ENDNOTE: The Queen Victoria Museum & Art Gallery has within its exhibit of Tasmanian Aboriginal shell necklaces six necklaces described as 19th C 20th C exemplars, which given their apparent lack of provenance, and the information currently to hand, must be regarded as of ambiguous Aboriginal authenticity.