Monday 10 December 2012

Polynesia: the Mark and Carolyn Blackburn collection of Polynesian art

The Mark and Carolyn Blackburn collection of Polynesian art
Of the collection catalogues I studied this year one that I return to is a testament to what collecting can mean when it is both assiduous and informed. Polynesia: the Mark and Carolyn Blackburn collection of Polynesian art overviews this Hawaii-based collection of over 1,000 items. The Blackburn collection is considered the pre-eminent private collection of Polynesian art.

It is likely that such a collection can never be duplicated again because it focuses on artworks of the highest artistic rarity and quality. Many of the items are also amongst the earliest known examples. When I first saw this catalogue I instantly recognised that only a few public collections hold comparable material. The intelligence of the collector’s acquisition strategy is everywhere evident; it is as if they only decided to acquire the best of the best.

The items presented in Polynesia come from New Zealand, the Austral Islands, the Cook Islands, Fiji, Futuna, Hawaii, Malden Island, Easter Island, Rennell Island, Samoa, Tahiti, Tonga, and the Tuamotus, and other locations. This taxonomic approach is impressive because it very difficult to initiate such a collection on such a comprehensive basis. When the Blackburns began collecting decades ago, such broadness was still possible. It would be unachievable to assemble similarly today.

The Blackburn’s have been close friends of Adrienne Kaeppler for many years and, as the curator of Oceanic Ethnology at the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, she was arguably one of the most experienced scholars to write the collection catalogue. Had he been able to contribute, Professor Roger Neich could have beneficially contributed. This is the most impressive catalogue because it is so far-reaching in its information.

Adrienne has commented, 'This is probably the best private collection of Polynesia in the world….They are not just outstanding pieces, but representative objects. It's very unusual for a private collector to look for so many different things.'

I met Mark and Carolyn Blackburn at a Pacific Arts Association conference in Rarotonga a couple of years back. I told them that I believed they had assembled the most important private collection of Polynesian art since that established by William Oldman (1879-1949). The New Zealand government in July 1948 purchased Oldman’s collection. Parts of the collection are now distributed between the Museum of New Zealand, Auckland Museum, Canterbury Museum and Otago Museum.

I certainly hope that the Blackburn collection can remain together because this is what curators call ‘a serious collection’. The Blackburns kept files about all their acquisitions and they extensively read all the literature – be it historical, modern or contemporary. Their collection catalogue is not widely available in New Zealand; four copies are held at Auckland Libraries. I recommend this wonderful book.

To read an interview with Mark Blackburn

To sample what is held in the Mark and Carolyn Blackburn collection

Adrienne Kaeppler
Polynesia: the Mark and Carolyn Blackburn collection of Polynesian art
Honolulu: Distributed by the University of Hawai’i Press, 2010
ISBN 9781883528386

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