In December 2018, as part of the Pacific History Association ( pha) Conference program, participants visited the Oceaniaexhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. Curated by Nicholas Thomas (University of Cambridge), Peter Brunt (Victoria University of Wellington), and Adrian Locke (Royal Academy of Arts), the central display was located in the main galleries at Burlington House.
For the conference audience traveling to the United Kingdom from Polynesia, Micronesia, and Melanesia, expectations for Oceaniawere high, particularly in terms of its success in contextualizing stories, objects, and cultural histories. How would Oceaniaengage audiences with stories relating to the diverse Pacific, and what factors would influence the complementing but also competing and contested narratives?
Drawing global media attention, the opening was attended by Her Royal Highness the Duchess of Sussex, with major outdoor performances by Pacific Island groups from around the region. Although the exhibition marked 250 years since Captain James Cook navigated the Pacific, Oceaniasought to highlight Indigenous stories, like those of Tahitian navigator Tupaia, who had traveled with Cook.
The scope of the exhibition was far-reaching, with objects drawn from public institutions in New Zealand, the United Kingdom, France, the Netherlands, Denmark, Australia, and Germany, though some, such as photographs by Mark Adams, were sourced from private collections. However, that these public institutions are located mainly in the northern hemisphere indicates the complex changes that have occurred in terms of the extension of space, place, and people in Oceaniaas these objects have traveled. In this way, Pacific Islanders' involvement in the exhibition was limited to engagement with collections housed in these institutions. Access to the collections usually involves institutional collaboration and dialogue with communities, and it is unclear how this was managed for the exhibition.
The 169 objects on display explored six key themes: voyaging and navigation, making place, the spirit of the gift, performance and ceremony, encounter and empire, and memory. The most moving theme was that of "making place," which included an assortment of spiritual figures representing various Pacific Island places such as Sāmoa, Rapa Nui, the Torres Strait Islands, Papua New Guinea, the Austral Islands, and the Caroline Islands. For instance, a wooden female figure from Amaile village in Sāmoa had been acquired by a missionary in 1839, and its presence evoked for me intangible connections to my mother's village.
Display methods varied, with some objects placed in crowded or difficult to view cases or modern "cabinets of curiosities," thus continuing problematic museum practices, and other, larger pieces such as canoes placed in central, open areas, enabling a close view of their dimensions and craftsmanship. In many respects, the outdated exhibition style and display techniques evoked mixed feelings, ranging from curiosity and respect to confusion and alienation. [End Page 278]Despite containing a diverse range of objects including digital and mixed media, the exhibition left visitors to wonder about the deeper narratives foregrounding these objects and their significance, since many of the display labels provided limited information.
Oceaniawas a collective space encompassing centuries of exchange and interaction, thus raising the question, to what degree can a space illustrate the depth, scope, and complexity of Oceania? The ambitious exhibition captured complex snapshots of places, spaces, and peoples. Compared to the aforementioned larger themes, for me, the exhibition also denoted some other, recurring themes concerned with representation, loss, change, identity, and continuity, particularly when the contemporary works were placed in dialogue with the historical objects. Often the latter conveyed very modern forms and identities. Works by established artists such as Lisa Reihana and Yuki Kihara and the haunting life casts produced by Fiona Pardington added another layer of complexity by incorporating digital and visual modes of display.
According to the Royal Academy of Arts, as a diverse space, Oceaniarepresented Indigenous "histories of inter-island trade, ocean navigation, and social and artistic traditions." However, its inclusion as part of the academy's anniversary celebration raises the question of how the institution, with its long imperial and colonial history, is coming along in terms of its approach to the voices and experiences...