The permanent and official blog of the University of Leicester's School of Museum Studies PhD student conferences and special events.

6 November 2013

Transmutation #25 - Restaging a space for Pacific relationships: a study of the renovation of the Polynesian Hall, Bishop Museum, Honolulu

Alice Christophe's current reseach focuses on the interactions between cultural institutions in the Pacific. She looks at the ways in which exhibitions taking place in the Pacific display several distinct cultures in the same show: in other words, her thesis will look at pan-Pacific exhibtions.

Today, she talks to us about the impact of gallery rennovation on instituional and cultural identities. For this presentation, she compares the ways in which pacific cultures were displayed before and are displayed after the rennovation of the Polynesian Hall at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu. Has the redisplay, she asks, allowed for the development of new relationships.

The Bishop Museum was founded in 1889 by a wealthy gentlemen, Charles Reed Bishop,on the death of his wife, Princess Bernice Pauahi. The original Polynesian Hall was opened in 1894, and at that time it was showcasing the entire Pacific. He had no time or money to finish his plans for a museum to display all Pacific cultures in three separate parts (Polynesia, Micronesia and Melanesia, as categorized by Westerners at the time), so all eventually were shown in the Polynesian Hall. In this room, the ground floor displayed objects symetrically and geographically, with a few rarities on display. On the second floor, there was a large map of the Pacific area.

Between its opening and the 1980s, it underwent several rennovations, which there is no time to discuss here. Shockingly, the gallery that existed from 1980 to 2011 was never documented - only photographed. In this display, again the map with the three zones of Oceania dominated. These zones dominated the arrangement of the physical display space itself. The design of the cases was colourful, telling stories that we tell in Europe: tattooing, for instance, and other cheif characteristics of the cultures.

This became obsolete very quickly. It didn't meet visitor expectations, and the community of the area needed to reconnect with the rest of the Pacific. Pressure for change was coming from the University, and students on the heritage program. After the renovation of the Hawaiian Hall, they chose to redevelop the Pacific Hall: in the process, rewriting or rediscovering their purpose - to engage people with Hawaiian culture, and recognise the ancestral cultures in the Pacific.

The curators of the redevelopment wanted to move beyond the three zones, and focus on commonalities rather than differences between the cultures of the islands. How were they to do this? They undertook consultative processes, which were difficult. Eventually, a quote from Epeli Hau'Ofa about the relationship between the people and the sea, and the idea of the Blue Continent, inspired the curators to think about the historical continuities and future aspirations of the people.

The new gallery opened a month and a half ago. It is arranged far more topically, to emphasise commonalities - canoe models from all around the Pacific are displayed together. The archaeology galleries on the second floor are based on the most recent discoveries: for instance, the uncovering of the Taiwanese heritage of Pacific Islanders.

The floor map, made of marquetry, materialises for Christophe the theme of the gallery - the Blue Continent - but also the difficulties of overturning Western ontologies. It was made from a Western design, and uses the Western names for the Islands. So there are still echoes of the old categories of the old Polynesian Hall. But the way it was activated by the artists and visitors in the opening ceremonies show how it brought people together. It was surrounded with a lay, binding the people of the islands together, children played on it, jumping from one island to another, and a Maori choreographer, Jack Gray, performing upon it.

Sometimes, museum professionals and researchers sometimes feel powerless in changing things and institutions. How much of the experience of redevelopment the Bishop's Museum will take home, Christophe doesn't know. But she can see that differences have been made - at least to the communities of the Pacific Islands, and the family of Oceania.

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