- New Ireland: Art of the South Pacific
New Ireland: Art of the South Pacific, Saint Louis Art Museum, 15 October 2006–7 January 2007; Nouvelle Irlande: Arts de Pacific Sud, Musée du quai Branly, Paris, 3 April–8 July 2007; Welt der Schatten: Kunst der Südsee, Totenkult und Ahnenbilder aus Neuirland, Ethnologischen Museums, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, 10 August–11 November 2007.
Also available in French and German: €45.00.
This was one of the most comprehensive exhibitions of art from a Pacific [End Page 510] Island in recent years. It was conceived by two Pacific art curators: Michael Gunn, Associate Curator for Oceania at the Saint Louis Art Museum, Saint Louis, Missouri, and Philippe Peltier, Curator, Head of Oceania and Islands of Southeast Asia, Musée du quai Branly, Paris. Three curators—Gunn, Peltier, and Markus Schindlbeck, Curator for South Seas Department, Ethnologisches Museum, Berlin—oversaw the installation of the exhibition at its three sites. The exhibition included about 150 objects, but that number varied slightly at the different museums.
New Ireland is an island group located north of New Britain and northeast of New Guinea. This exhibition focused on arts produced in New Ireland during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, following Western “discovery” in the seventeenth century. Much collecting by outsiders was accomplished between 1880 and 1915, the period of German colonization of New Ireland and neighboring islands. The northern part of New Ireland was more accessible than the south, resulting in a preponderance of objects from that area. Although many of the objects came to reside in ethnological museums, they did not go unnoticed by European artists of the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, specifically artists belonging to the French Surrealist and German Expressionist movements. Following German domination of the area after 1914, colonial rule passed to Australia until 1975, when New Ireland and adjacent islands achieved independence as the country of Papua New Guinea.
Several factors motivated Gunn and Peltier to develop an exhibition that would include all types of art from New Ireland. Traditions from the northern territories and their associated malagan (funerary) ritual carved and painted sculptures and masks had always been privileged in the literature and in exhibitions. Previous reports appeared to reveal that the single term malagan had different connotations in different regions—a hypothesis that demanded further investigation. Traditions from central and southern areas, less well known to the general public, deserved their due, and this was another motive for a new exhibition. Gunn and Peltier recognized the frequent omission of contextual documentation for objects in museums; their research for this exhibition only reinforced their perception. The last motivating factor for the exhibition was a desire to know how present-day New Irelanders would react to photographs of objects collected from their ancestors under the colonial conditions of former years.
These motives prompted the following strategy in preparation for the exhibition. Museums in Europe, Australia, and the United States were first consulted for their New Ireland holdings. Then the curators took photographs of the objects back to New Ireland, the planned re-presentation being more than a hundred years after Western appropriation. As Gunn wrote in an article about the exhibition in the journal Tribal Arts (42:82–87 [Autumn 2006]): “In our search for context, we brought hundreds of photographs of art objects in western museums with us to New Ireland. We traveled by truck and by canoe, visiting as many of the twenty-two [End Page 511] different regions of the islands as we were able to reach. We sat down with them and tried to explain what we were doing, what a museum was, and what an exhibition could be. Then we asked them to look through the photographs and comment upon what they saw. By far the majority of individuals we interviewed were interested only in the objects that originated from the...