Seeing as its Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, we’re celebrating the rich and diverse art and culture from the Pacific Islands at museums and cultural centers around the US. Here are our top five suggestions for where you can understand and learn more about these unique cultures (short of visiting the islands themselves, that is!).
American Museum of Natural History (New York)
The Margaret Mead Hall of Pacific Peoples (named after museum curator and author Margaret Mead who specialized in this area) is a great place to learn about the many cultures of the South Pacific islands. Feast your eyes on finely painted and adorned masks from New Ireland (part of Papua New Guinea) and a to-scale plaster cast moai, one of the large stone heads found on Rapa Nui (Easter Island) off the coast of Chile. Another impressive part of this exhibition is the display of shadow puppets from Java (an island of Indonesia) and the discussion surrounding the tradition of Javanese puppet theater, which dates back to the 11th century and was historically used to communicate information about religious tenets, moral codes, history, and myths.
Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York)
While you’re in New York, head over to the Met to experience a stunning range of art and artifacts from the Pacific Islands, including sculptures from Polynesia and the Sepik region of New Guinea, religious images from Melanesia, and Southeast Asian textiles. The Met’s exhibitions also speak to how imagery found in art from the Pacific Islands had a direct influence on many western artists, from Paul Gauguin to the German Expressionists and the Surrealists.
Los Angeles County Museum of Art – LACMA (Los Angeles)
In 2008, LACMA acquired a vast collection of Pacific art. The visually appealing exhibition (on view in galleries designed by Austrian artist Franz West) focuses on Polynesia and Melanesia and includes an 18th-century Hawaiian drum collected by Captain James Cook in the 18th century, an Easter Islands dance paddle, and a hermaphrodite ancestor figure from Papua New Guinea.
Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center (Washington, D.C.)
The impressive Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center is dedicated to telling the stories of Asian Pacific Americans (who make up over 5% of the US population) through innovative museum programming. Even if you can’t get to D.C., you can still experience their timely conversations and interdisciplinary exhibitions on Asian Pacific American art, culture, and identity that the museum curates on their website.
St. Louis Art Museum (St. Louis)
St. Louis’s premier art museum houses a large collection of historical masks, sculptures, ceremonial shields, textiles, adornments, artifacts, and paintings from Polynesia, Melanesia, Micronesia, and Australia. Highlights of the collection include a figurehead from a Maori fishing canoe, a breastplate from Fiji, and a human-bird figure from New Guinea.
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