South Pacific Museums

overmodeled human skull

Overmodeled human skull at the Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum, Cologne, Germany.

The South Pacific’s most important history or anthropology museums are at Punaauia (Tahiti), Rarotonga, Nuku’alofa, Pago Pago, Suva, Noumea, Port Vila, and Honiara, but most of the objects in their collections are of relatively recent origin. To see Pacific artifacts dating from the period of first European contact you must visit museums outside the region. The Museum of Man (or British Museum) in London, for example, has a huge collection covering the entire region, gathered by British officials and missionaries, but most of it is locked in storage for lack of display space and funding. The warehouses of many other European museums are also bulging with Pacific art objects inaccessible to the public for the same reason, yet very few are willing to return their treasures to the islands where they originated.

Some of the 2,000 objects brought back from the Pacific by Captain Cook can be seen in the Institut fur Volkskunde, Gottingen, Germany; the Hunterian Museum, Glasgow, Scotland; and the Museo Borbonico, Naples, Italy. Many British universities, such as those of Cambridge, Oxford, and Aberdeen, have impressive Pacific collections. The ethnographical museums of Budapest, St. Petersburg, and Vienna have Oceanic artifacts from former imperial collections. The vast collections of the ethnographical museums of Germany were gathered by scientific expeditions during the German colonial period before 1914. The collection of Berlin’s Dahlem Museum is perhaps the best displayed, but those of Bremen, Cologne, Dresden, and Hamburg are also outstanding.

Many objects in New England museums were brought back by whalers, including the rich array of objects from Fiji and Tonga in the Peabody Museum, Salem, Massachusetts. The collections of the American Museum of Natural History, New York, and the University Museum of Philadelphia were gathered by systematic collectors at the turn of the 19th century. The Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago, has more than 50,000 Melanesian art objects, assembled by A.B. Lewis from 1909 to 1913. The Bernice Bishop Museum, Honolulu, has been adding to its Polynesian collection for more than a century.

Mention must also be made of the Melanesian art at the Museum der Kulturen, Basel, plus the fine collections of the Royal Museum of Art and History, Brussels; the Museum of Man, Paris; the Musee Barbier-Muller, Geneva; the Asia and Pacific Museum, Warsaw; the Exeter City Museum; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the St. Louis Art Museum; and the de Young Memorial Museum, San Francisco. The museums of New Zealand, especially those of Auckland, Christchurch, Dunedin, and Wellington, hold a rich store of Pacific art, and a few have loaned objects for display at South Pacific museums such as the Museum of the Cook Islands on Rarotonga. The enormous wealth of Pacific art held by Australia’s museums is mostly locked away in storerooms although the Australian Museum in Sydney occasionally mounts exhibitions. The Macleay Museum at the University of Sydney has a large Melanesian ethnographic collection dating from the 19th century.