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Fiji Museum
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Fiji Museum
  Viti Levu Travel Tip

by Eileen Chambers, Fiji Visitors Bureau

... Just as old West cowboys carved notches on their six-shooters and the Red Baron marked his dogfight wins on his biplane, Fijian warriors would tally on the shaft of their war clubs how many enemy skulls they bashed. The brutality of pre-Christian Fiji can be unsettling to modern minds as indeed can the brutality of any pre-humanist culture. But the history and artifacts of that era are mesmerizing. Fortunately, much has been preserved at the Fiji Museum, a treasure house of tropic and tribal finds in Suva, the capitol, and a helpful introduction to the sights beyond.

Set on the grounds of the handsome Thurston Gardens, the Fiji Museum provides visitor experiences of both the botanical and cultural histories of the island nation. Founded in 1904, this is the oldest historical museum in the South Pacific islands. It has enough items in storage to fill a much larger space, but funds are more limited than artifacts. Still, admission is only 50 cents.

A mammoth replica of a drua, a huge double-hulled canoe, dominates the entrance to the museum. Boats such as this were widely used into the present century. The quality of local woods made Fiji a boat-building center for Tongans and other island peoples who would come hundreds of miles to carve their own canoes.

The museum's Great Room holds the bulk of artifacts on exhibit -- war clubs, spears, ceremonial yaqona bowls and bulutokos, the forks chiefs used for eating flesh. The exhibits are not gruesome, even if their history is. Staff members and Fijians in general are not shy to talk about the days when Europeans knew of their homeland as the Cannibal Islands, so do not be shy to ask questions about it. But do treat your hosts and their history with the same respect you would an Italian speaking of Lions vs. Christians. Cultural paradigm is more relevant than time.

One Fijian war club (vinikau bulibuli) shows evidence of a Tongan craftsman it its ivory star designs inlaid into a nubby root ending. The beautiful bludgeoner, weighing more than 13 pounds, must have made a smashing weapon.

Another favorite of Fiji visitors is the fabled golden cowrie (buli kula), a rare shell hung as a pendant on a high chief's neck cord. The chiefs refused to give the precious golden cowrie to greedy sea captains, but missionaries who spent more time among the people and earned their trust were sometimes presented with a shell.

Also sacred -- and exceedingly rare -- is a yaqona dish (dave ni yaqona) carved in the shape of broad-shouldered, big-bodied man (human figures are few in Fijian art). The grog normally drunk from a half-shell of a coconut held in both hands was served more ceremoniously to the priests -- in carved dishes placed on the floor and emptied without being touched. Nor did they have drinking straws.

Beyond the Great Room, glass case-lined corridors chronicle with artifacts and photographs the coming of the European and American clipper ships seeking whales, sandal-wood and beche-de-mer (sea snails regarded as a delicacy in the 18th and 19th centuries). Relics from Capt. Bligh's Bounty are here too. A section explaining the inhumane beginnings of East Indian indentured labor over a hundred years ago is especially poignant and compelling.

Avid history fans can inquire about the Fiji Museum's archaeological and oral history programs, its publications on language and culture and other ongoing research efforts.

Open daily except Sundays from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., the Fiji Museum is a memorable must for anyone wishing to know more of these islands than sun, sand, surf and its wonderful smiles.

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