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Reviewed by:
  • Adorning the World: Art of the Marquesas Islands
  • Haidy Geismar
Adorning the World: Art of the Marquesas Islands. Exhibition, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 10 May 2005-15 January 2006.

In 1988, Arthur Danto, philosopher of art, described a hypothetical instance in which the baskets and pots of two fictitious African tribes were displayed in two museums, one of art and one of natural history, facing one another across a park ("Artifact and Art," in Art/Artifact, edited by Susan Vogel, 1988). Danto referred explicitly to the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in his discussion of how African objects in the art museum areviewed as "vehicles of complete ideas," while those in the natural history museum are "implements that help human beings to live out their material lives" (as discussed by Alfred Gell in his article, "Vogel's Net," in The Art of Anthropology, 1999, 194). The display strategies in each museum thus follow the delineations of their tribal makers, and differentiate the pots and baskets from each area as either poetic "art" or prosaic "artifact."

The ways in which "cultural" objects should be exhibited and interpreted within metropolitan museums continues to provoke lively debate and public interest. Moving forward twenty years, a visitor to the African collections of both the American Museum of Natural History and the Metropolitan Museum of Art might be surprised to find that these galleries are still perfect illustrations ofDanto's discussion. The AMNH African galleries reconstruct African habitats and peoples in "life-like" tableaux, or group artifacts together in functional and regional categories. At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, African art is displayed in reverent, timeless darkness, individual pieces onstark pedestals or in glass cases, spotlit from above.

However, the Oceanic collections are displayed somewhat contrarily inboth museums, provoking us to question our classifications of art andartifact and the contexts usually associated with them. The AMNH Margaret Mead Hall of Pacific Peoples, while organized according to cultural areas and functional themes, is also strikingly modernist in its style of presentation. Divided by evocative panels of color, the central axis of the hall is formed around a large replica Easter Island head, spotlit dramatically as "art," a concept that, in turn, following Mead's explicit intention, becomes the conceptual focus of the gallery (see Diane Losche's "The Margaret Mead Peoples of the Pacific Hall at the American Museum of Natural History," a paper presented to the New York Academy of Sciences, 24January 2005).

At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Pacific hall of the Michael C Rockefeller wing displaying the Arts [End Page 480] of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas is currently closed for renovation and redesign. Art of the Pacific Islands may be viewed in a temporary exhibition space, carved out of the African galleries and currently home to Adorning the World: Art of the Marquesas Islands. The exhibition, curated by Eric Kjellgren, is marked out from the ochre backgrounds of the African displays by turquoise panels. In addition to this insertion ofOceanic blue, Adorning the World sets itself apart from the rest of the gallery by its incorporation of secondary representations and detailed textual commentaries in the display.

The strength of Adorning the World is in the juxtaposition of beautiful artifacts with the historical contextualization of Marquesan patterning that these secondary sources provide. The exhibition focuses on artistic production in the Marquesan archipelago in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and the inclusion of European books, drawings, and lithographs not only expands our perception of the wealth and diversity of Marquesan design at the time, but also inspires a gentle meditation on the cross-cultural efficacy of Marquesan aesthetics.

The introductory panel in the gallery acknowledges that this is the "first exhibition devoted exclusively to Marquesan works presented by an art museum" (although Marquesan art has long been displayed in art contexts, for instance Charles Ratton's 1936 exhibition juxtaposing surrealist and tribal art in Paris). The exhibition has been strongly endorsed by the Marquesan people. Toti Te'ikiehu'upoke (director of the Academie Marquisienne, and president of the Fédération Culturelle Motu Haka des Îles Marquises) writes in the...


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pp. 480-483
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