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!).

The American Museum of Natural History

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.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

If you’re taking any cheap non-stop flights to  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.

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA)

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.

The Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center

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.

YOU MAY ALSO ENJOY: A Look at the Rich Cultural Traditions of the Pacific Islands

St. Louis Art Museum

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.

The Pacific Island Ethnic Art Museum (PIEAM)

 

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Located in Long Beach, California, the Pacific Island Ethnic Art Museum — aka PIEAM — is on a mission to amplify the culture and history of Oceania. Founded by Robert Gumbiner, PIEAM maintains permanent exhibits, welcomes visiting exhibitions, runs educational programs, and funds a lecture series. The Pacific Island Ethnic Art Museum’s permanent collection features artifacts crafted by peoples from Fais, Samoa, the Mortlock Islands, Fiji, and more. Don’t feel like heading out to the museum? Cozy up with their website, which features exciting and educational storytelling productions about Oceania creation myths. You can also follow the museum on Instagram.

The Guam Museum

The architecturally striking Guam Museum — officially the Senator Antonio M. Palomo Guam Museum & Chamorro Educational Facility — is on Road Tumon in Guam, and it’s home to about 300 curated pieces. Images, audio presentations, and short films round out its collection. The inspiration for the Guam Museum dates back to 1926 when an area teacher’s association wanted to establish a place to celebrate local culture. At the time, organizers started collecting antiques and artifacts from individuals on the island. Today, the museum honors the Chamorro people and their culture through art, educational programs, and lectures. Additionally, its website is a comprehensive resource that illuminates the history and traditions of the Mariana Islands.

The Jean P. Hayden American Samoa Museum

The Jean P. Haydon Museum in American Samoa may not look impressive from the outside, but inside, it’s a wealth of memorabilia and information about the island and its people. The museum’s building was once the region’s commissary. Today, it houses a curated collection of books, artifacts, and diplomatic gifts presented to people on the island. The museum’s main exhibit highlights the area’s maritime history, jewelry, and home life, which includes restored canoes, coconut-shell combs, tusk armlets, and native pharmacopeia.

USC Pacific Asia Museum

 

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The USC Pacific Asia Museum first opened its doors in 1971, and it’s the only U.S. university-run gallery exclusively dedicated to the culture and arts of Asian Pacific Islanders. The organization’s goal is to amplify intercultural understanding. In addition to its permanent collection of over 15,000 items, the museum also develops educational outreach programs. Over the years, it’s curated several notable exhibits, including: China Modern: Designing Popular Culture 1910-1970 Japan in Blue and White Following the Box, an exhibition inspired by found Indian photographs taken during World War II.

NMI Museum of History & Culture

Located in Garapan, Saipan, the NMI Museum of History & Culture covers a wide breadth of API history and culture. Its main exhibit honors the Chamorro and Carolinian peoples. In addition, the museum houses documents, artifacts, photographs, and textiles from the German, Spanish, Japanese, and American occupations of the Northern Mariana Islands. NMI has also restored several historical buildings and is admirably involved in repatriation efforts that reunite indigenous communities with historical objects stolen from said communities in the past.

Wing Luke Museum

 

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Based in Seattle, Washington, the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience opened in 1967 and is affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution. Notably, it’s the only pan-Asian, community-based museum in the country with representations from over 26 ethnic groups under the Asian Pacific Islander umbrella. The Wing Luke boasts an extensive 18,000-piece collection and actively facilitates, produces, and catalogs oral histories. Who is Wing Luke, the museum’s namesake? Mr. Luke was the first Asian-American elected to public office in the Pacific Northwest in 1962.

Know of any other museums in the US where you can experience Pacific Island art & culture? Tells us about it in the comments section! 

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About The Author

An insatiable foodie, art collector, and international literature aficionado, I have traveled throughout Europe, Asia, the U.S. and Canada. For the past fifteen years, I have written about my adventures for various travel and literary publications. I am the owner of Lucidité Writing (www.luciditewriting.com) and Bouchard Design Co.