Pacific Ethnographic Collection
For information regarding the Pacific Collection please contact: [email protected]

MASK FOR DANCING. Catalog No: ST/692

The Pacific ethnography collection, with over 25,000 objects, represents the peoples of the Melanesian Islands, the Polynesian Islands, the Micronesian Islands, and the continent of Australia. A few of the objects date from the early 19th century, and many of the objects date from the late 19th century, but most of the objects are from the early 20th century.

The oldest objects in the Pacific collection are from Polynesia. A spectacular cape from Hawai'i, decorated with the red and yellow feathers of honeycreeper birds, dates from ca. 1800 (to see this, search for "cape" in "Name/Catalog Number" and select "Polynesia" from the pull-down menu next to "Regions"). Two carved wood figures from Rapa Nui (Easter Island) were recovered from the wreck of a Spanish ship in 1841, so these were made in the early 1800s (to see these, search for "figure" in "Name/Catalog Number," select "Polynesia" from the pull-down menu next to "Regions," and scroll down to catalog numbers ST/5315 and ST/5316).

The Pacific Ocean covers 70,000,000 square miles, or a third of the Earth's surface, but the combined area of the continent of Australia, and the numerous islands of Melanesia, Polynesia, and Micronesia, is less than 3,400,000 square miles. The islands are often very far apart and it is not possible to see from one island to the next, so Pacific islanders had to be great navigators. The people of the Marshall islands used navigation charts made of sticks (representing currents) and shells (representing islands), to find their way between islands (to see these, search for "chart" in "Name/Catalog Number"). The oldest chart, catalog number 80.0/3317, was collected in the late 1800s by Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894), the author of Treasure Island (1883), Kidnapped (1886), and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886).

Otto Finsch (1839-1917), a German ornithologist, collected over 1,100 objects during expeditions in the 1880s to the Melanesian islands of New Guinea, New Britain and New Ireland, and the Micronesian islands of Kiribati (formerly called the Gilbert Islands) and the Caroline Islands. Pacific islanders made trumpets out of large Tritonium shells; four of these were collected by Otto Finsch (to see these, search for "trumpet" in "Name/Catalog Number"). There are twelve shell trumpets altogether: catalog numbers "ST/654," "ST/655," "ST/656," and "ST/657" were collected by Finsch and date from the late 19th century; and catalog numbers "80.0/5216" and "80.0/6927" were collected by Margaret Mead in the early 20th century.

Margaret Mead (1901-1978) worked in the Anthropology Department from 1926 until she died in 1978, and is the person most closely associated with the Pacific ethnography collection. Mead collected over 3,400 objects during her fieldwork in Samoa (1925-26), the Admiralty Islands (1928-29), and Papua New Guinea (1931-33). Over 250 of these objects are exhibited in the Margaret Mead Hall of Pacific Peoples, which first opened in 1971, and the other 3,150 objects are in storage. Whether on exhibit or in storage, almost all of the objects Mead collected can be seen on this Web site (to see these, search for "Mead" in "Donor/Collector" from the pull-down menu.)

Ronald (1916-1990) and Catherine Berndt (1918-1994) worked amongst Australian Aborigines throughout their careers and collected thousands of objects, almost all of which are in the Berndt Museum of Anthropology at the University of Western Australia. The American Museum of Natural History is fortunate to have 162 objects collected by the Berndts, a highlight of which is ninety bark paintings made in the Yirrkalla area of northeastern Arnhem Land (to see these, search for "bark painting" in "Name/Catalog Number").