This review is by our work experience student Taliesin Heyman-Griffiths who casts his critical eye on our iconic cultural exhibitions, in addition to helping with collection management jobs behind the scenes.
The Australian Museum’s Pacific Spirit Exhibition showcases an astounding collection of items from across the Pacific region. Holding one of the largest cultural collections of this kind in the world, with over 60,000 items, the Australian Museum gives its taste with 23 awe-inspiring Malagan masks; intricately carved ceremonial poles from New Ireland, Papua New Guinea; breathtaking kava bowls and drums from Samoa, and astonishing slit drums from Vanuatu. Pacific Spirit also shows a variety of items from the Solomon Islands, Fiji, New Caledonia, Easter Island, Tonga, New Zealand and several other islands in the Region. It is dazzling.
Pacific Spirit provides a window into the history and ceremonial life of different societies in our region. It highlights some aspects of unique cultures which are all too rarely looked at in Australia. Yet, the fascinating, colourful and diverse cultures of our Pacific neighbours are merely alluded to through objects of exquisite beauty and artistic originality. While the exhibition strongly entices a visitor, it provides little to increase our understanding of the Pacific cultures. Many of the individual items capture viewers’ attention, just through their sheer size, beauty and intricacy, but without an overarching story connecting the items, the exhibit struggles to effectively maintain focus.
As a high school student I would like to discover not only spectacular objects but informative understanding. In New South Wales’ schools, the full extent to the studies of this region is a short course on Polynesian expansion and even this is one of three options given to students. Subsequently a majority of students have never once looked at the history or cultures of our Pacific neighbours. Pacific Spirit has the potential to engage and to kindle a lasting interest in the cultures and people of the Pacific and a strong narrative would serve this purpose well.
Having an exceptional opportunity of working a little in the Collection Stores, I am beginning to understand the enormous extent of the Collections and their potential for research and future exhibitions. I will be, definitely, keeping my eye on the Australian Museum’s programs and what it has to offer to the public.