The curated exhibition modules are comprised of photographs of art objects available from digitized museum collections of Oceanic art. Working with digitally available images allows for dialogue between art objects housed in discrete collections, often from far-flung regions of the world. Each curated module represents a unique student perspective on a dialogue between two art objects. The modules engage art objects comparatively by focusing on form, material, use, and context. For instance, they reflect on the use of materials and the makers’ immediate environment and trade relationships just as they address what the objects’ use and context reveals about social life and spiritual practices. With the understanding that a single perspective tells a single story, the projects emphasize the effort to learn and elaborate on objects. The curated modules are intended to be experimental and creative propositions rather than comprehensive or authoritative assertions. Students recognize their work as part of the endeavor to learn and grow as autonomous thinkers and critically informed global citizens. Their interest is “in humanism rather than primitivism, in re-presenting art objects in new conversations rather than representing cultures.”
The process of research and curation entailed learning about the social biographies of Oceanic art objects—the maps of their histories and meanings. The objects they studied are in museums often located an ocean away from their communities of origin. Many were appropriated by traders, missionaries, administrators, and travelers during the colonial period although some were acquired more recently. While the provenance of these objects begins with their creation and use by Polynesian and Melanesian populations, mapping their social biographies necessarily speaks of the complex relationships webbing individuals and institutions from seemingly distant geographical and cultural locations. Students grappled with the implications of these relationships and explored issues of power and agency as they relate to representation, ownership, and authority.
Students conducted research on objects using published scholarship while acknowledging the limitations of using secondary sources to contextualize objects. Raising questions about geographical and temporal distance, students grappled with the implications of framing objects in western scholarly discourse instead of the perspectives of those who made or used the objects. Students confronted the absence of indigenous voices and perspectives in representing and mediating Oceanic art. Many asked how our understanding of objects would shift if we learned about them from other viewpoints, including those of their makers. Similarly, they addressed the challenge of using historically specific sources, such as a publication from the 1970s, to contextualize an object made in the 1870s. Furthermore, they questioned how they could account for the contemporary form or use of historical objects in museum collections. In many cases, it was impossible to account for the dynamism of cultural objects as their materials, forms, or purposes change. Several students concluded that objects change with time and so too should their representations.
Acknowledging these limitations, challenges, and possibilities, especially in relation to the absence of contemporary indigenous voices, facilitates the invitation to dialogue. One of the objectives of this digital platform is to create a space to continue and encourage dialogue between individuals, objects, and communities. As students have learned in the creation of their exhibition modules, such dialogue fosters meta-narratives that expose contradictions and ambiguities while acknowledging multiple shifting identities in the contemporary global economy of objects and maps. The creation of this web platform built around digitally available collections not only offers a resource for future student learning. It also opens up possibilities for new conversations bridging geographical locations.