Toitū Otago Settlers Museum and the Otago Museum have recently been gifted a piupiu, a waist garment made from processed harakeke (flax), believed to be over 165 years old and one of the earliest examples of traditional Māori costume in Otago.
The piupiu was initially donated to Toitū OSM by Jenny Morgan, great-granddaughter of Ralph Nicholson, who came to Otago on the ‘Titan’ in 1851. Nicholson worked for a time in Dunedin as a chemist before relocating to Tasmania in 1852, returning back to Otago in 1863. He was employed at the Mosgiel Woollen Company as an accountant and first secretary of the company from 1873 until his retirement in 1896. Nicholson’s son, Edwin, an office boy at Hallensteins who rose to become chairman of directors at the company, passed the piupiu on to his granddaughter, Annette (Jenny’s sister).
An assessment of its construction suggests it was manufactured in the mid-19th century and is thought to have been gifted to the Nicholson family as early as the 1850s.
There is little evidence of how the piupiu came into the Nicholson family’s possession, however records at Toitū OSM document Māori patronage of pioneer Dunedin chemists in the early 1850s. It may be that Nicholson received it as payment by a Māori customer during his brief time working as a chemist in Dunedin.
Unfortunately, due to its construction method, materials and the passing of time, the piupiu is in poor condition, requiring significant conservation treatment before it can be displayed. Although offered in the first instance to Toitū OSM, Otago Museum holds a significant collection of Otago piupiu so it was decided that this would fit better within the larger collection, where its preservation can be further explored. Upon completion, it will be housed within Otago Museum’s large Māori textile collection.
”It was exciting to see this rare survival of Māori costume from the colonial era, even if its origins are a little uncertain. Passing it on to the Otago Museum enhances its reference value by placing it alongside their extensive collection of Māori textiles”, says Toitū OSM Curator, Seán Brosnahan.
Rachel Wesley, Otago Museum’s Curator – Māori, says “the piupiu is a remarkable example of the early interactions and trade between local Kāi Tahu and the first European settlers. It is very exciting to be able to work with staff at Toitū OSM so that we can collectively conserve and tell the story of this amazing piece of history”.
Image: Gift of Jenny Morgan, acquired from Toitū OSM; Otago Museum Collection.