MUSEUMS / Curators Choice: Rayal Museum of Scotland

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The Independent Culture
The object I've chosen is an incredibly fine, plaited mat, donated by the family of Robert Louis Stevenson (above) after his death in Samoa in 1894. It is made out of freycenetia leaf, edged with sugar cane cuticle and decorated with bright red and green Fijian parrot feathers.

The mat was placed over Stevenson's body as it lay in state in his house by Chief Tupuola, who came from a small village on Upolu, the island Stevenson settled on. When the chiefs heard of his death, they came to pay their respects. One of their highest tributes was to honour people with these mats: they are highly-prized heirlooms.

Stevenson was much loved by the people and still is. He lived there happily, learned their language and their customs. He swapped Scottish stories for traditional stories and became involved in island politics.

Though for me the mat is not a wonderful work of art, the way it was given to him as a mark of respect appeals to me very much indeed. He was even given the burial of a chief. He had asked to be buried on the top of Mount Vaea and this was no mean feat; they had to clear a path up the mountain in order to carry the coffin. The Samoans didn't see him as some kind of colonial intruder, they accepted him as a friend. He respected the Samoan way of life, not seeking to impose a western lifestyle on them. Considering how valued these mats are, for it to be given to a westerner when he died is quite a tribute.

Maureen Barrie is the curator of 'Treasure Islands' at the Royal Museum of Scotland, Chambers St, Edinburgh (031-225-7534). To 3 Jan, Mon-Sat 10am-5pm, Sun 12-5pm

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