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Our Oceanic holdings reveal connections between the porous boundaries of art, religion, and life.
Oceania encompasses thousands of islands and extends across the southern expanse of the Pacific, the world’s largest ocean. With acquisitions dating to the museum’s origins in 1799, PEM’s outstanding Oceanic collection includes objects spanning the 18th century to the present from more than 36 Pacific island groups in Polynesia, Melanesia, and Micronesia. Several hundred well-documented pieces distinguish these holdings, including works from Aotearoa (New Zealand), the Austral Islands, the Caroline Islands, the Cook Islands, Fiji, Hawai‘i, the Marquesas Islands, the island of Niue, Papua New Guinea, Rapa Nui (Easter Island), Samoa, the Society Islands (including Tahiti), the Kingdom of Tonga, and Vanuatu (New Hebrides).
Oceanic artists have expressed their understanding of the world through objects drawn from the natural environment. Through ritual objects and regalia, Pacific people communicate with gods and ancestors, and affirm their divine lineage. Elaborate designs and graceful forms reveal connections between the porous boundaries of art, religion, and life. Many of these works are imbued with ha, the breath and pulse of life, and mana, supernatural or divine power.
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During the East India Marine Society’s first two decades, from 1799 to 1819, nearly 20 members — sea captains and traders who traveled the world in search of commerce — donated over 110 objects from the Pacific Islands, from religious and ceremonial objects to household items, adornment, fishing equipment, and weapons. Logbooks, journals, letters, and nautical equipment related to many of these voyagers and their journeys are held in PEM’s Phillips Library and maritime collections.
Beginning in 1880, after the Peabody Academy of Science subsumed the society’s collections in 1867, director Edward Sylvester Morse focused attention on building unrivaled ethnographic collections.
One of only three temple images of its kind in the world, the ancient Hawaiian god Kū occupies a place of honor in PEM’s dramatic 2019 wing. A master carver created this ki‘i (image) of Kū, more famously known in his warring form of Kūkā‘ilimoku (“snatcher of land”), for a heiau (temple) of the great chief and warrior Kamehameha I, who united the Hawaiian Islands in the early nineteenth century. At PEM, Kū can be understood as a manifestation of mana and a visual representation of Native Hawaiian agency. The Oceanic collection remains vital as we honor the many objects that embody spiritual, functional, and celebratory traditions, linking past generations to the present and future.
We invite you to search our collection database to explore thousands of outstanding works of art and culture that engage the mind and the spirit.
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Learn more about the nation’s oldest collecting museum in the Peabody Essex Museum Guide. Available for purchase in the PEM Shop.