- Life in the Pacific of the 1700s: The Cook/Forster Collection of the George August University of Göttingen
At the opening ceremony for Life in the Paciﬁc of the 1700s at the Honolulu Academy of Arts (HAA), indigenous peoples ﬁlled the central courtyard as honored guests, performers, and visitors. On the surrounding courtyard walls, a companion exhibition, Life in the Paciﬁc: The 21st Century, featured colorful photographs taken by primarily indigenous youth, who documented their connections to past traditions. The presence of indigenous participants at the ceremony and in the making of the photographic exhibition sharply contrasted with their absence in two other spaces. At a three-day HAA symposium on "Transformations of Cultural Traditions in Oceania," inaugurated the following evening, only one indigenous person delivered a paper. In the main galleries, the views of indigenous peoples were conspicuously absent except in two introductory textpanels in the entrance hallway. The caption labels—the sole texts in the main galleries—only listed each object's name, materials used, place oforigin, and inventory number (eg, "Sperm whale shoulder blade, Tonga, Inv. Oz 137"). Visitors unfamiliar with customary practices were left on their own to discern the function and signiﬁcance of an object and the cultural activity in which it was used.
Art exhibitions typically minimize the amount of "extra-aesthetic" information they provide in galleries to encourage "unmediated" experiences with the objects. Before discussing the limitations of this practice, I would like to acknowledge some curatorial accomplishments. Aside from persuading German ofﬁcials to loan out the entire Cook/Forster collection for the ﬁrst time since it became part of Göttingen University in the eighteenth century, the Honolulu Academy of Arts oversaw the construction of exhibit cases and the conservation treatment of objects in Germany, produced a three-volume catalog with extensive color plates and informative essays by indigenous and nonindigenous scholars, sent a Hawaiian kupuna (elder) to Germany to conduct appropriate protocol, organized two parallel exhibitions (the photographic project mentioned above and engravings by the artist John Webber), hosted a scholarly symposium, and offered free admission to the exhibition.
The Cook/Forster exhibition was an unmitigated success for many visitors, and their enthusiastic comments ﬁlled the guest book. Local reviewers were equally impressed. One reviewer explained that the "text-free strategy" limited the academy's curatorial voice and allowed the objects to tell their own stories (Marie Carvalho,"Objects Tell Paciﬁc Peoples' Stories," Honolulu Advertiser, 9 April 2006). As a nonindigenous museum studies educator, however, I believe the academy's strategy undermined the potential for the objects to tell crucial stories about Paciﬁc cultures. This is especially troubling in light of criticisms of art museums for fetishizing the appearances of non-Western objects over other qualities (see, eg, Hal Foster, "The 'Primitive' Unconscious of Modern Art," in Recodings [Bay Press, 1985], 181–208). Even my own experiences conﬁrmed the importance of these prior critiques.
Although I was disappointed the exhibition was not more dynamically installed, I found the modular cases and vitrines (glass cabinets) quite [End Page 344] beautiful—simply and elegantly designed, and warmly lighted. Even more appealing was the pale blue (almost turquoise) felt material lining the cases and complementing the earth tones of many of the objects. I was therefore surprised when an indigenous cultural practitioner described the color as "too passive."
Initially, I was content to revel in my observations of the objects' visual and material beauty since there was no interpretive text to redirect my attention. This was before I walked through the exhibition with knowledgeable colleagues or engaged them in extensive conversations, and before the arrival of the catalogs weeks later. Once armed with more insights, especially those of indigenous scholar-practitioners, I began reading against my own experiences. More importantly, I recognized I was doing precisely what they feared most—apprehending the works as art objects, appreciating them not within speciﬁc cultural contexts, but as decontextualized objects, as ﬂoating "aesthetic" signiﬁers. This is not to discount the importance of the exhibition, but to emphasize one consequence of its curatorial strategy.
In a provocative essay...