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Reviewed by:
  • The Great Ocean Voyages: Vaka Moana and Island Life Today
  • Manami Yasui
The Great Ocean Voyages: Vaka Moana and Island Life Today. Exhibition, National Museum of Ethnology, Osaka, Japan, 13 September–11 December 2007.

In celebration of its thirtieth anniversary, Japan’s National Museum of Ethnology in Osaka mounted a two-part exhibition entitled “The Great Ocean Voyages: Vaka Moana and Island Life Today.” The Japanese people’s keen interest in the exhibition’s theme—the title of which includes the Polynesian words vaka (canoe) and moana (ocean)—is due, at least in part, to the [End Page 516] recent visit of the Hōkūle‘a, a traditional Hawaiian voyaging canoe built in 1973, which sailed from Hawai‘i in January 2007 through Micronesia to Japan using traditional sailing methods such as navigation by stars and ocean currents. On its arrival in July, large crowds welcomed the canoe, its captain Nainoa Thompson, and the crew as they visited the ports of Okinawa, Kumamoto, Yamaguchi, Hiroshima, and Yokohama.

The first part of the exhibition, called “Vaka Moana: Voyages of the Ancestors,” was designed and first presented at the Auckland Museum in New Zealand, where it was entitled “Vaka Moana: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Exploration.” Following its appearance in Japan, this part will be shown in Taiwan, Korea, Australia, the United States, and Canada, and some places in Europe, through the year 2011. Containing items chosen primarily from the Auckland Museum’s extensive collection, it presents thousands of years of Pacific people’s migration patterns, in eight sections: “Ocean,” “Island People,” “Origins,” “Navigation,” “Vaka,” “Landfall,” “Two Worlds” and “Renaissance.” The superbly presented section on navigation includes touch-screen computer displays based on interdisciplinary research that succinctly provide pertinent information on migration patterns, as clearly exemplified by similarities in flora and fauna, pottery, language, and dna. It also features a dome-like exhibit, which shows how ancient navigators used the stars in the night sky to guide them to island destinations.

In the “Island People” section, a touch screen presents oral histories of the origins of various Pacific Islands. For me, the video on the origin of Fiji as told by a mother to her children was most impressive, with regard to both the narration and the expressions on the mother’s and children’s faces as she describes the physical origin of the Fiji Islands and arrival of the first Fijian people.

The exhibition’s second part, “Island Life,” was designed by Japan’s National Museum of Ethnology, using items from its collection to display aspects of contemporary daily living on a number of islands that were inhabited as a result of the prehistoric migrations: Madagascar, the Philip-pines, Papua New Guinea, the Federated States of Micronesia, Tahiti, and Easter Island (Rapa Nui). Also included here is a replica of a travel agency in Mino, a village in the Sepik area of Papua New Guinea, which is loaded with computers and information pertinent to the interests of tourists and other visitors. This illustrates that tourism—which some might view as a contemporary descendant of prehistoric voyaging—continues to be an important aspect of life in the Pacific Islands.

Several interesting events such as lectures, symposia, film screenings, and performances have been scheduled in conjunction with the exhibition. In addition, every day in the National Museum’s hall, a volunteer staff member teaches visitors how to manipulate string, which is a popular activity in Japan, to make Pacific Islanders’ string figures such as a turtle in Papua New Guinea, a fisherman’s net in the Caro-line Islands, and a star in Hawai‘i. There is also a special program for visitors to make their own miniature [End Page 517] canoe. In these ways, visitors can come to better understand Oceanic cultures not only by looking at the exhibition, but also through personal, hands-on experience.

The presentation of objects is excellent in both parts of the exhibition; however, a large time gap exists between the prehistoric era and today. Except for Captain James Cook, very little attention is paid to the European occupation and influence in the Pacific from the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries...