22 April 2015

Pacific Worlds – a reflection of good practice at the Oakland Museum of California

‘A man with elaborate tattoos in Huahine, Leeward Islands, French Polynesia. © Michel Renaudeau/age fotostock’
My doctoral research on museums and their work with diaspora communities recently involved me interviewing museum staff in the San Francisco Bay Area. I was especially struck by the activities of Oakland Museum of California (OMCA) in this respect and wanted to take the chance to update MEG members on OMCA’s forthcoming exhibition, Pacific Worlds (30 May 2015 - 3 January 2016).

OMCA is the result of the mid-1960s merger of three civic institutions – the Oakland Public Museum, the Oakland Art Gallery and the Snow Museum of Natural History. At the point of merger the divergent aims and collections of these organisations were refined to an emphasis on telling the story of California. The strong sense of public purpose and interest in innovative practice shared by the three organisations, however, would continue to inform the development of OMCA and is much in evidence today.

At the time of the merger some of the inherited collections seemed to speak more clearly to the new mission than others. The Oceanic collection – encompassing some 3,000 objects many of which were collected by Oakland dentist John Rabe who travelled the Pacific in the 1880s and 1890s – initially seemed anomalous and thus, as one of several ‘legacy’ collections, had not been on display since 1965. More recently an increasing awareness of the Bay Area’s long-established but largely overlooked Pacific Islander communities and the chance to mark this year’s 100th anniversary of the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition (PPIE) held in San Francisco led to a review of OMCA’s Oceanic holdings and to the development of the Pacific Worlds exhibition. The exhibition aims to highlight the presence of California’s Pacific Islander ‘neighbours’ – the nearly 300,000 Pacific Islanders who live within in the state as well as those on the other side of the Pacific Ocean – and to turn ‘the familiar idea of California as the western frontier on its head and re-position the State as “the East Coast of the Pacific”’ (OMCA press release, 6 November 2014).

The exhibition development process was informed by a community advisory task force of individuals well-connected within their Pacific Islander communities. The task force helped shape the focus and structure of the exhibition so as to reflect community concerns including a desire to connect objects to family stories and a commitment to the re-invigoration of historic cultural practices. Within the exhibition personal narratives will be brought to the fore through a series of large-scale photographic portraits of Pacific Islanders and films of cultural practitioners, and cultural dynamism reflected through commissions, including of tapa, a traditional Tongan outfit and a Hawaiian featherwork standard (kāhili).

Pacific Worlds demonstrates much that is to be admired about OMCA not least its commitment to using its historical collections as the basis for generating new knowledge through dialogue with diaspora communities, a commitment reflected in the organisation’s policy, structure and practice and in its curators’ genuine pursuit of collaborative scholarship. My thanks to OMCA staff – Louise Pubols (Senior Curator of History), Suzanne Fischer (Associate Curator, Contemporary History and Trends) and Christine Lashaw (Experience Developer) – for the time they spent with me. Thanks also to the Santander University of Brighton Travel Grants Scheme and to the University of Brighton Centre for Research & Development College Research Student Fund for making my visit possible.

Helen Mears, Keeper of World Art, Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove, April 2015.

Pacific Worlds will be on display at The Oakland Museum of California, 1000 Oak Street, Oakland, California, US, 30 May 2015 - 3 January 2016. See museumca.org for further details.

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