- Presenting the Pacific
Recent publications by Eric Kjellgren and Conal McCarthy offer significant contributions to our understanding of the history of the collection and display of Pacific Island art. Kjellgren’s Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in the Metropolitan Museum of Art documents the history of one of the most important collections of Oceanic art in the United States, while McCarthy’s Exhibiting Maori: A History of Colonial Cultures of Display offers a self-reflexive study that examines how one specific region of the Pacific Islands represents its culture.
Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in the Metropolitan Museum of Art was published in conjunction with the reinstallation and reopening of the museum’s Art of the Pacific Islands galleries located in the Michael C. Rockefeller Wing. The Rockefeller Wing, first opened to the public in 1982, is largely composed of Melanesian objects from the collection of Nelson A. Rockefeller, the former New York state governor and presidential candidate. Originally on view in Rockefeller’s now disbanded Museum of Primitive Arts, the collection was merged with the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the late [End Page 719] 1960s to form the basis of their Department of Primitive Arts (now the Department of Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas).
The recent redesign and reinstallation of the Oceanic galleries is an important development in the institutional history of art of the Pacific Islands and a testament to one American museum’s commitment to their Oceanic collections at a time when many displays are out dated or off view. In the United States, major collections of Pacific Island objects are primarily held in museums on the east coast, including the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, and the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Other large collections in the United States are found in Chicago at the Field Museum of Natural History, and the Bernice P. Bishop Museum in Honolulu.
The reinstalled galleries now divide the exhibition space into three sections. The largest area is devoted to objects from Melanesia and is dominated by a Kwoma ceiling that soars above the visitor, while the Asmat bis poles and New Britain hareiga figure tower nearby. The other two sections are much smaller—one is devoted to the museum’s Polynesian and Micronesian collections and the other to their collection of objects from Island Southeast Asia, a new addition to the installation. Upon the reopening of the new wing in November 2007, The New York Times heralded the project as both “spectacular,” and “beautifully reinstalled.”1
Kjellgren’s catalogue of the collection begins by providing maps of Oceania and Melanesia, followed by an introduction that touches on the major issues surrounding Oceanic art—its origins, areas, artistic traditions, common themes, the notion of art, the role of the artist, and influences between Oceania and the West. The introduction also discusses the often-neglected point that the arts are still actively pursued in the Pacific. Interspersed within the text are contextual photographs and references to objects in the collection that illustrate what is being discussed. One nicely articulated example illustrating the influence of Oceania on post-war art is the inclusion of a 1946 Matta painting in the museum’s modern art collection that depicts Malagan sculptures from New Ireland. The introduction concludes with information relating to the history of the collection and display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Although only touched upon in the introduction, the character of Nelson Rockefeller’s collection and collecting habits are areas that merit further discussion.
The catalogue is divided into six sections based on geographic region: New Guinea, Australia, Island Melanesia, Island Southeast Asia, Micronesia, [End Page 720] and Polynesia. Each section’s introduction follows a format similar to the information presented in the introduction to the book—discussing location, the development...