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Artifacts of a Changing Pacific Now On View

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On Exhibit posts

This week the Museum unveiled a new exhibit in the Margaret Mead Hall of Pacific Peoples dedicated to showcasing art and artifacts of contemporary communities in the Pacific Islands. The exhibit, which was produced with the Columbia University/AMNH Museum Anthropology Master of Arts Program and in consultation with members of the Pacific diasporic community, focuses on the resilience of Pacific Islander communities in the face of climate change and is located near the hall’s famous cast of a Rapa Nui (Easter Island) moai ancestor figure.


Three people stand beside a tabletop model of the new case.
The new case was developed with students from the Museum Anthropology Master of Arts program offered jointly by Columbia University and the Museum.
© AMNH/R. Mickens

The Pacific region produces less than one percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, yet it is experiencing some of the worst consequences of climate change as cyclones, droughts, and rises in both sea level and temperature threaten the homes and livelihoods of many communities. Relocation is a reality for many: more Tongans, for example, live overseas than in Tonga. Many Marshallese live throughout the United States. “We look at our children and wonder how they will know themselves or their culture should we lose our islands,” reads one of the exhibit’s featured quotations from Pacific Islanders.


Two people examine a wood carving of an octopus and rat in an exhibit case.
Anthropologist Jacklyn Lacey and Senior Vice President for Exhibition David Harvey examine a carving in the new case in the Mead Hall of Pacific Peoples.
© AMNH/R. Mickens

The new display showcases a range of objects and images that connect Pacific Islanders to their homelands and cultural identities. Among the featured works, visitors will see vivid feather strands recalling a legend of native birds protecting a Hawaiian princess—part of an artwork used to raise funds for the conservation of alala, Hawaiian crows that are now extinct in the wild. A striking mashup of an ancestral figure and a barcode beneath Māori text celebrates “people of the land, extended family, clan, tribe” while critiquing brands that use Māori imagery for profit. Several artifacts donated by noted Tongan artist Amalani Williams, whose daughter lives in New York, include her son’s kava bowl, a wooden container used in a communal ceremony central to Tongan culture. 


Four people work on an installation of artifacts into a case in the Mead Hall of Pacific Peoples.
Joel Sweimler (left) and Alec Madoff from the Exhibition department work with conservationist Mary Lou Murillo and Curator Jenny Newell to install artifacts.
© AMNH/R. Mickens

Dr. Jennifer Newell, Museum Curator Laurel Kendall, and Senior Vice President of Exhibition David Harvey, all of whom serve on the faculty of the joint Columbia/AMNH Museum Anthropology program, worked on the project with 16 of their Master's degree candidates. Members of the Pacific diasporic community were also consulted during the curation and preparation of the new display, and Columbia University provided funding for the conservation of objects, mount making, graphics, and other expenses involved in realizing this exhibit.