Pacific Worlds

Oakland Museum of California
Oakland, CA

Pacific Worlds explored historical and contemporary connections between the Pacific Islands and California, inviting diverse Californian communities to get to know their neighbors across the ocean. Pacific Worlds was developed about, with, and for Pacific Islanders in California. It is the first exhibit on the mainland US to highlight this growing minority group and to discuss their experiences in historical context and in their own words.

Pacific Islanders have been coming to California since before the Gold Rush, with around 300,000 Pacific Islanders in California today. OMCA convened a Community Taskforce, a group of eleven cultural advocates from diverse Pacific Islander and Native California communities who worked with the exhibition team in monthly meetings for a year. The exhibit focused on groups highly represented in the Bay Area: Samoan, Tongan, Native Hawaiian, Chamorro, Fijian, and Carolinian. It was primarily directed toward adult visitors, but included a number of kid-friendly interactives. Taskforce guidance made sure the exhibit was culturally accessible.

Exhibit interpretation foregrounded Pacific Islander voices, giving visitors personal entry points into content that front-end research indicated was unfamiliar to many Californians. After a multi-sensory entrance experience evoking the ocean, visitors encountered a wall of faces of Bay Area Pacific Islanders and a 27-foot outrigger canoe from Papua New Guinea, explicitly connecting historic artifacts to contemporary people. A giant wall map helped visitors place themselves in space; a timeline helped visitors orient themselves in history. The exhibit explored seven ongoing cultural practices: kava, board sports, food and fishing, dance and music, tattoo, war and the military, and textiles — tapa and fine mats. Also discussed was the centennial of a World’s Fair that considered relationships between California and the Pacific. The exhibit included 221 artifacts from OMCA’s collections, most never before exhibited, along with 15 contemporary items such as tapa and featherwork, demonstrating cultural continuities and elaborations. Labels featured first-person perspectives from Pacific Islanders on collections objects. Visitors also encountered interview excerpts and large-scale photographs, taken by Samoan American artist Jean Melesaine of Bay Area Pacific Islanders.

Pacific Worlds drew new audiences to the museum and increased visitation by Pacific Islanders tenfold. By widening the scope of their interpretation and spotlighting an underrepresented culture, the Oakland Museum created a unique exhibit that shared authority with its subjects and forged a meaningful community partnership.