manche de chasse-mouches © Londres, British museum
manche de chasse-mouches © Londres, British museum
pectoral © Londres, British museum
pectoral © Londres, British museum

Art and Divinity in Polynesia, 1760-1860

17th June - 14th September 2008

Exhibition dossier – East Suspended Gallery

Exhibition curators: Steven HOOPER and Karen JACOBS

Scientific coordination for the musée du quai Branly : Philippe PELTIER

This exhibition gathers together more than 250 works of Polynesian art from the 18th and 19th centuries, from the collections of the great European museums but which are rarely exhibited: astonishing divine images, ivory ornaments, war bonnets, decorated textiles… The exhibition therefore explores the Pacific Islands at the time of their first contacts with European travellers, missionaries and colonists.

pendentif de cou © Londres, British museum - Click to enlarge, open in a new window
pendentif de cou © Londres, British museum

Before coming to the Musée du quai Branly, the exhibition was shown at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts and then at the British Museum under the name “Pacific Encounters”. 

The Polynesian Islands (from the Greek polys and nesos: “many islands”) were first explored 3000 years ago by the first travellers to venture east from the Western Pacific.

In the 18th century, the entire region of the “Polynesian Triangle” (composed of Hawaii, the Easter Islands and New Zealand) had long been inhabited by the Polynesian people who shared the same roots.  

Art and Divinity in Polynesia is the most comprehensive exhibition to date on Polynesian art: it is the first time such a large number of objects have been gathered together in an exhibition. These rare pieces – made from precious materials, such as feathers, ivory, nephrite and pearl – played important roles in the cultural and religious life of the Polynesian people between 1760-1860.  The exhibition explains the role of these objects in their original context, celebrates the creativity of the people who created them and informs the visitor about the history of the collections from which they are taken.

effigie en plumes © Londres, British museum - Click to enlarge, open in a new window
effigie en plumes © Londres, British museum

Pacific Encounters?

There were many types of these encounters. Wherever they went, the Polynesian people always adapted themselves to the different environments and materials they encountered.  They also met other Polynesian people with whom they became allies or in whom they saw a potential enemy. Valuable objects were made and exchanged with the goal of establishing and maintaining important relationships – between family groups, between chiefs and between mankind and the gods. 

Between 1760 and 1860, Polynesia’s cultural landscape fundamentally changed.  Before 1760, there was regular contact between the Polynesian people on different islands.  They ignored Europe, metal, firearms and Western religion.  With the arrival of the first boats from the West, most of the Polynesian Islands built a colonial, or pre-colonial, relationship with the European powers.  In less than a century the majority of the Polynesian people had suffered various epidemics and had been converted to one of the competing forms of Christianity.  Yet, paradoxically, strong Polynesian cultural identities survived and further developed. 

Art and Divinity in Polynesia concentrates on this turbulent period, from 1760 to 1860: a period of contact with European navy officers, crew members, traders, whalers, missionaries, travellers, colonists, administrators and artists - all types of Europeans, driven to Polynesia by fate.
Relations with these visitors were, for the most part, conducted via the intermediary of objects and materials which travelled in both directions.  Although a lot of objects collected by or given to the Europeans were taken back to Europe and North America, the Polynesians themselves also kept goods which they integrated into their culture.