Sydney, Thursday 19 October, 2023: The Australian Museum has one of the largest and most significant Pacific cultural collections in the world, and now, for the first time in decades, this extraordinary collection featuring the stories and artefacts of some 19 Pacific nations with collection items from 32 Pacific communities, will go on permanent display.

Wansolmoana – meaning one salt ocean – showcases a selection from the AM’s world-leading Pasifika collection of over 60,000 objects, together with newly commissioned objects by prominent Pacific Island artists and knowledge holders. It celebrates the rich history and traditions of the Pacific nations, past and present and Australia’s relationship with them, and also represents the Pasifika peoples’ concerns and response to the global climate emergency.

Some of the featured objects include the Tokelauan canoe used in the 2014 Climate Change protest in Newcastle Harbour, a rare Rotuman Suru (head-dress) believed to be the first of its kind made since the 1800s, a ‘Turaga’ Fijian warlord’s ceremonial attire, and intricate traditional Tongan pole lashings – the first to be featured in a museum in Australia. There are also works by contemporary artists Jasmine Togo-Brisby, Dylan Mooney and Angela Tiatia.

Wansolmoana speaks to the experiences of both Pacific Island people living in the region and the diaspora of Pasifika people living in NSW. It is designed around three themes: Deep Connections, Identities and Disruptions. The exhibition narrates stories of origins and ancestors and colonisation in the region including slave culture and ‘black-birding’.

Wansolmoana is curated by the Australian Museum’s Pacific team, led by Exhibition Lead Curator and Manager, Pasifika Collections & Engagement, Melissa Malu, a proud Fijian and Tongan woman, along with Pasifika staff, cultural knowledge holders, community members and contributions from a Pacific Island Curatorium and curatorial advisory group.

Australian Museum Director and CEO, Kim McKay, AO, said today’s opening of Wansolmoana and the new permanent gallery is an important celebration of the living and thriving cultures of our Pacific neighbours and their close connection with the ocean and their natural environment.

“For far too long, First Nations and Pasifika stories and culture have been dominated by a Western cultural lens and master narrative. The gallery will now enable the museum to have objects from its Pacific Island collection on permanent rotation, selected and narrated by Pasifika voices,” McKay said.

“By bringing the customs and celebrations of our Pacific neighbours to the people of NSW and beyond, we hope to give audiences the chance to experience the creativity and cultural diversity encountered in different parts of the Pacific.

“The development of this gallery represents a ground-breaking moment for the AM, which has been made possible with the generous support from the Macdoch Foundation and the NSW Government. Curated and programmed by the AM’s First Nations Pacific team and with extensive community consultation, it is the realisation of the AM’s commitment to unlocking our Pacific collections.”

The new Pasifika Gallery will also serve as a springboard for engaging audiences through outreach programs, public talks, and other activities. This includes the outreach initiative “Wansolmoana Connect” which brings together Pasifika diaspora, community leaders and youth groups from Western and South-Western Sydney. Run as pilot workshops in recent years, the workshops have had a proven impact, building confidence and a sense of belonging amongst Pasifika youth participants.

The Hon John Graham MLC, NSW Special Minister of State and Minister for Roads, the Arts, Music, the Night-time Economy, Jobs and Tourism said: “The Australian Museum has always been the leading institute to help the people of NSW understand the country they live in, and the world around them. The state is home to 130,000 Pasifika people, many in Western and South Western Sydney – all of whom will have free access to stories about heritage, home and diaspora. This new permanent Pasifika space and the Wansolmoana project provide new levels of cultural excellence in the recognition that Australia is a Pacific Island.”

Melissa Malu, Wansolmoana curator and Australian Museum Manager, Pasifika Collections & Engagement.
Melissa Malu, Wansolmoana curator and Australian Museum Manager, Pasifika Collections & Engagement. Image: James Alcock
© Australian Museum

Melissa Malu, who led the curation of the exhibition in the new Pasifika Gallery, said Wansolmoana is not only an invaluable step towards reconciliation between Australia and Pasifika people, but that by displaying this unique collection the AM hopes to encourage the exploration of cultures that are also part of the social fabric of Australia.

“The opening of this new gallery represents a major opportunity for the AM to forge cultural leadership with respect to collecting practices and its role as an enabler of community voices in the future,” Malu said. “These objects are significantly important to the Pacific diaspora in Australia and offers them the opportunity to reconnect with their ancestral heritage.”

Wansolmoana is the work of five years’ engagement with community voices from Pasifika nations and territories including Rapa Nui, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji, New Caledonia and Aotearoa New Zealand. A total of 300 objects will be on display including musical instruments, masks, canoe models and tattooing implements as well as interactive multimedia and video works.

With the support of the Macdoch Foundation, the AM is now able to realise its mission of education, research and special programs with the Pacific community.

Macdoch Foundation Chairman Alasdair MacLeod, who previously served as a Director of the Australian Museum Foundation and has an ongoing interest in the Pacific Islands, said: “Australia is part of the Pacific region and we have a considerable role to play to support this region, navigate significant geo-political challenges and respond to the reality that the Pasifika countries will acutely feel the effects of climate change.

“These topics are explored in depth in the Australian Museum’s new permanent Pasifika Gallery Wansolmoana and we are delighted by the engagement of expert Pasifika curators and the extensive community consultation. The Museum has gone a long way to de-institutionalise through community engagement and consultation, but even more importantly, it has asked community experts to lead the curatorial process. The curatorial team is outstanding. We could not have hoped for a better outcome and are very grateful for their incredible passion and expertise in this work.”

The AM’s Pacific collection is held in the Australian Museum’s Cultural Collection Centre with a team of experts overseeing conservation efforts, research projects and access for an array of academics and communities throughout the region. The AM prioritises giving voice to First Nations stories and has formally endorsed a commitment to facilitate a place of welcome, healing and richness for all First Nations people.

Editors note: Curators and collaborators are available for interviews on request.

Photos here AM Blog here.

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About the Australian Museum

The Australian Museum (AM) was founded in 1827 and is the nation’s first museum. It is internationally recognised as a natural science and culture institution focused on Australia and the Pacific. As custodian of more than 21.9 million objects and specimens, the AM is uniquely positioned to provide a greater understanding of the region through its scientific research, exhibitions, and public and education programs. Through the Australian Museum Research Institute (AMRI), the AM also plays a leading role in conserving Australia’s biodiversity through understanding the environmental impacts of climate change, potential security threats and invasive species.

About the Macdoch Foundation

The Macdoch Foundation is the Australian philanthropic foundation of Prue and Alasdair MacLeod, established in late 2019. The purpose of the Foundation is to build the resilience of people and the planet. The work of the Macdoch Foundation focuses on natural and productive landscapes, climate change solutions; and healthy communities, and where possible, the intersection of all three. The Macdoch Foundation funds in Australia and the USA.

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Claire Vince, Media and Communications Adviser

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