The foundation of the Pacific Collection was laid in the early days of the Colonial Museum in the nineteenth century, when some important gifts were received. These gifts included a cloak made from wool and fibre derived from an indigenous Cook Island plant. It was presented to the New Zealand government by a Cook Island chief.
The collection was boosted by major gifts in the early years of the twentieth century - by Lord St Oswald’s Collection, for example, which was derived from the voyages of Captain James Cook. It has been growing ever since.
Of special importance are the several groups of items collected during the voyages of Cook, and particularly the magnificent feather cloak presented to Cook by the Hawaiian chief Kalani‘ōpu‘u on 26 January 1779. Other outstanding objects include historic canoes from Samoa and the Cook Islands, and many beautiful examples of mats and tapa (decorated bark cloth).
It is only since 1993 that Te Papa has managed its Pacific treasures as a separate collection. For most of the institution’s history, Pacific items formed a significant part of what was called the Foreign Ethnology Collection.
As currently defined, the collection consists of about 13,000 items and includes both historical and contemporary material from the Pacific Islands, including Papua New Guinea but excluding Indonesia, the Philippines, and Australia. An exception is made for the Torres Strait Islands, part of Australia but culturally more aligned to Papua New Guinea.
There is now an important focus on the art and material culture of Pacific peoples living in New Zealand.