The Oceanic Art Exhibition at Bowers Museum

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Founded in 1936 Bowers Museum is an arts institution located in Orange County in California whose mission is to enrich the lives of its visitors through its wide collection of fine art from different cultures in the world like Asia and Latin America. For more than a decade, the museum has displayed more than 50 exhibitions which have been showcased both locally and globally. The museum`s Oceanic arts exhibition is a popular display of objects such as masks belonging to the diverse people and cultures inhabiting the South-Pacific Islands which are divided into three main regions of Micronesia, Melanesia, and Polynesia. This paper seeks to evaluate the Oceanic exhibition of the museum using the "salvage paradigm" with the evaluation being centered on representation.

            Bowers museum has an extensive collection of artifacts from the people inhabiting various islands in the South-Pacific Ocean with special focus being paid to New Guinea due to its rich historical and cultural heritage all which are skillfully incorporated to their art. Under the "salvage paradigm," the exhibition is a way of preserving the culture of what is referred as Oceania. By developing a system of collection, recording, and displaying artifacts from regions that are undergoing change is instrumental in preserving the cultural heritage that may be lost as time progresses due to strong cultural influence from other regions (Clifford, 121). 

The Oceanic exhibition at Bowers Museum features some of the best artworks from the cultures of the South-Pacific which can be described as being visually stunning due to their unique imposing looks. In total, the museum has a collection of 2,400 traditional Oceanic artifacts in its possession and are all part of the exhibition. These objects which represent various aspects of the life led by the South-Pacific come from different time periods such as the prehistoric and modern. Bowers has collected a wide range of objects from the region such as basketry, pottery, sculptures, tools, trinkets, and the attire worn by various cultural groups living in the region.

Artifacts from Papua New Guinea and Irian Jaya make up a significant section of the collection owing to the expert artistry used to create them as well as the rich cultural traditions such as cannibalism and headhunting that the two regions practice. It such traditions that give more meaning to what the some of the artifacts mean or represent and thus the need to preserve the cultural identity contained in their art. By recording and preserving the artifacts, the history and culture are retained and can then be accessed in the future since culture is bound to change over time. However, there are concerns that bias may be applied in the translation of one culture by the other whereby, one is projected as primitive and subordinate (Clifford,132).   

The presentation of the artifacts was commendable with everything being displayed in good lighting and positions that in turn captures one attention and imagination enabling a deeper understanding of the works. The good presentation allowed one to view the objects from multiple angles enabling deeper appreciation of the craftsmanship used to create them, this also enhanced the viewing experience. The exhibition had a nationalistic theme whereby, the artifacts were arranged according to the nation that they were recovered from with the over-arching theme being the changes in the culture over time.

Artifacts were first grouped into the respective nations and cultures that they were recovered from then they were further classified into their respective time periods to indicate how the culture has progressed over a period of time. Classifying the objects into their respective nations or cultures conveyed that although related by geography the South-Pacific nations and their people belong to different cultures which should be appreciated individually. By combining artifacts from different time periods was instrumental in assisting one develop a deeper understanding of the individual cultures allowing one to gain insight on how a particular culture has evolved over time.

The nationalistic theme of the exhibition also allowed one to make comparisons on the sophistication of each culture relative to another. Classification of the artifacts into their respective cultures, as opposed to random displays, allowed one to discover differences in the craftsmanship used in creating the objects.

In terms of craftsmanship and variety, relics from New Guinea proved superior to the rest. New Guinea cultural art appeared more sophisticated due to the wide variety of items that were on display as well as the attention-capturing detail that some of the pieces had an example of this were the large wood-carved ceremonial masks. Artifacts from Irian Jaya also showed a high level of sophistication and attractiveness which explains the wide variety on display.

By using a nationalistic theme in presenting the artifacts their historical significance to a particular community was better preserved as opposed to a random presentation which would have reduced the individuality of the various South-Pacific communities. A Random display would have even with descriptions would have made it hard for one to distinguish which object belongs to a particular group of people in the South-Pacific therefore, reducing their cultural significance to the exhibition.

I had a good experience in the gallery space which had a relaxed atmosphere as art enthusiasts moved from slowly from one display to another occasionally conversing in low tones. The artifacts were well distributed across the gallery space which enabled unrestricted movement and reduced congestion which made the experience more relaxed. Bowers used lighting in the gallery to enhance the shapes and details of the artifacts thereby enhancing the experience and emotions like fear that the objects gave off. 

When compared with how other exhibitions like the Chinese exhibition are displayed, one can find more similarities than differences such as the provision of short descriptions, grouping according to period and culture lighting conditions. The main difference observed was that, while the Oceanic exhibition showcased how the cultured have evolved till the contemporary times, the other displays are limited to specific time periods like the prehistoric age. Other exhibitions such as the Chinese are positioned individually unlike the Oceanic which artifacts belonging to a certain culture were grouped together. 


Bowers museum can be commended for the proper presentation of the cultural heritage and evolution of numerous South-Pacific cultures and nations which enabled a deeper understanding of the region and its cultural history. Although the exhibition was not done by members of the different South-Pacific cultures whose artifacts were displayed, I believe even though there may be some loss of meaning or bias it is not very significant to discredit the information provided by the museum. Therefore, I support cultural exhibitions like this one since they preserve cultural identities of traditional cultural groups undergoing cultural changes; which is important.  

Works Cited

Clifford, James. "The others: Beyond the ‘salvage'paradigm." Third Text 3.6 (1989): Pp 121-132.

August 01, 2023

Art Culture

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Artwork Museum

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