Australian Museum shines spotlight on Pacific Communities’ stories and treasures

"I believe it’s here to help our younger generations understand our history and to carry it forward from our ancestors to now.”

By Viliame Tawanakoro

More than 200 people from the Pacific Diaspora and the Australian Community recently attended the opening of the breathtaking Wansolmoana Pacific collection displaying ancient artefacts at the Australian Museum (AM).

For the first time in decades, this collection will feature stories and artefacts of some 19 Pacific nations with collection items from 32 Pacific communities and will go on permanent display.

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Curators and co-curators of the Wansolmoana Pacific Collections at the Australian Museum on October 21, 2023. Photo: Viliame Tawanakoro

The exhibit will showcase a selection from the Australian Museum’s world-leading Pasifika collection of over 60,000 objects and newly commissioned objects by prominent Pacific Island artists and knowledge holders. 

Wansolmoana Exhibit

Exhibition Lead Curator and Manager, Pasifika Collections and Engagement Melissa Malu said establishing a dedicated Pacific collection was inspired by a 200-year history of collecting and preserving items that reflect Australia’s relationship with the Pacific.

“Initially established as a colonial institution, the museum accumulated a significant portion of its Pacific artefacts from sources such as peacekeepers and religious missionaries who received gifts from the islands.”

Exhibition Lead Curator and Manager, Pasifika Collections and Engagement Melissa Malu at the Australian Museum on October 21, 2023. Photo: Viliame Tawanakoro

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She said as these collectors aged and their families passed away, many items were donated to the museum.

“The idea to create the Pacific Gallery, known as Wansolmoana, meaning One Salt Ocean, emerged nearly a decade ago when our Chief Executive Officer recognised the vast number of objects in the collection that were not on public display. 

Tokelauan kids sitting in front of the Vaka gifted by their Grandfather, Hio Pasilio, at the Australian Museum on October 21, 2023. Photo: Viliame Tawanakoro

“The museum received funding to build the gallery to address this issue. What sets Wansolmoana apart is its focus on allowing Pacific communities to tell their stories, moving away from the traditional approach where Western researchers and anthropologists interpreted the Pacific cultures through their own lens.” 

Ms Malu said this shift enabled the Pacific communities to take control of the narrative and share their stories with the world.

She added, “One of the challenges the museum faces is the limited presence of the Pacific diaspora in Sydney, where most collections are housed. This makes it difficult to connect with the community, gather traditional names for objects, and hear unique stories.”

“However, there is a significant Pacific population in New South Wales, and the goal was to represent the local diaspora and the broader Pacific community. Extensive consultations, including Talanoa sessions, helped identify the important stories and themes to include in the gallery.”

Ms Malu said in terms of recent additions to the Pacific collection, some notable acquisitions have been made for Wansolmoana.

“Some of the featured objects include the Tokelauan canoe used in the 2014 Climate Change protest in Newcastle Harbour, a rare Rotuman Suru (head-dress) believed to be the first of its kind made since the 1800s, a ‘Turaga’ Fijian warlord’s ceremonial attire, and intricate traditional Tongan pole lashings – the first to be featured in a museum in Australia,”

Miss Samoa 2023-24 Moemoana Schwenke, also a Co-curator of the Pacific Collection, performing a Samoan Dance at the Australian Museum on October 21, 2023. Photo: Viliame Tawanakoro

She said the collaboration in developing Wansolmoana involved several storytelling sessions, including personal stories from knowledge holders, diaspora stories, and the Pacific using the Pasifika framework and expert research.

“The museum engaged in extensive consultation with various stakeholders including community leaders not only from the Diaspora but from the islands as well, ensuring that cultural elements were well presented with facts.”

Matavai Pacific Cultural Arts Co-Founder and Director Maryjane Schwenke, at the centre, surrounded by her colleagues and students from Matavai at the Australian Museum on October 21, 2023. Photo: Viliame Tawanakoro

“For far too long, the Pacific people, particularly in Sydney, have endured stigmatisation. Our primary aim is to ensure the genuine retelling of our history, promoting a greater understanding of our customs and the reasons behind our actions without facing discrimination. Above all, we aspire to promote a deep understanding and reflection on our identity and our values.” Ms Malu said

Celebrating Culture and Conservation

The co-curator of the Samoan Pasifika Gallery, Taofia Pelesasa, said curating this Gallery was an important task, but there were challenges during the project.

“We’re in a colonial space, and, as open as they are to change and new ways of working, you still have difficulties you must overcome and break down. Ensuring representation for all Pacific nations and languages was a crucial challenge.”

The co-curator of the Samoan Pasifika Gallery, Taofia Pelesasa, standing in front of The Vaka that came from his mother’s village in Tokelau at the Australian Museum on October 21, 2023. Photo: Viliame Tawanakoro

Mr Pelesasa said the collection extends beyond culture and history and contributes to ongoing discussions about environmental conservation in the Pacific region.

“Many Pacific nations, such as Tokelau, are facing the threat of submersion due to rising sea levels.”

“The reality is a place like a museum is so important for holding our collections because, for some of us, there is no place to hold them,” Mr Pelesasa explains.

“We do need places like the museum to hold and conserve our treasures to preserve culture while we deal with the pressing issue of climate change.”

The Australian Pasifika Educators Network Team at the Australian Museum on October 21, 2023. Photo: Viliame Tawanakoro

He said the Pacific Collection reminds us of who we are (Pacific People), objects displayed side by side reminding us of our shared histories and stories that offer hints on how communities can move forward together.

“The significance of this exhibit becomes even more apparent when visitors engage themselves in this unique collection. This can promote cultural exchange and understanding between Pacific communities and the broader Australian society.”

Mr Pelesasa explains, “You want them to understand the contribution that Pacific people made to this world, whether it be navigation, fishing; this space is here to let people know the things that make us who we are.”

“The Gallery is not just about showcasing culture but also an effort to challenge stereotypes about Pacific people. Especially in a country where stereotypes are held quite clearly about Pacific people, this space is designed to ensure we break those down,” he said.

“A focal point of the gallery is a big vaka (canoe) and a sail, which holds a deep personal significance for me.”

“The vaka comes from my mother’s village in Tokelau, and a Tokelauan woman weaved the sail from my mother’s village. My connection to this Gallery is very personal because if Tokelauans aren’t in spaces like this, we’re often forgotten.”

“These exhibit represents these smaller Pacific nations and reminds visitors that their stories are just as important as any others,” he said.

Spirit of Unity and shared heritage

Monica Vave, a 22-year-old of Tongan heritage, shared her thoughts and experiences at the event, shedding light on the significance of the event and the role of the Wansolmoana in maintaining the rich history and culture of the Pacific region.

Ms Vave enthusiastically said, “This is a wonderful event. It brings togetherness and ties our Pacific countries into one. It is humbling to be acknowledged in Australia because there are times when you feel displaced within Australia, but being able to come here, it feels like you are home away from home.”

From the right, 22-year-old Monica Vave crowned Miss Tonga Australia 2023 alongside her family at the Australian Museum on October 21, 2023. Photo: Viliame Tawanakoro

She highlighted the importance of the Pacific Collection in preserving and understanding the diverse cultures and history of the Pacific. “It’s here to serve and preserve not only our culture but our understanding of our history. I believe it’s here to help our younger generations understand our history and to carry it forward from our ancestors to now.”

Family who also enjoyed the event at the Australian Museum on October 21, 2023. Photo: Viliame Tawanakoro

Ms Vave said, “I feel alive and blessed to be a part of the event. It’s not only just one culture but also saying that we all can come together as one.”

Regarding the collection’s role in addressing environmental and conservation issues, Ms Vave said, “I believe it shows how we can preserve our culture and address ongoing issues like climate change.

“We see that our oceans are rising, and seeing that the Wansolmoana here can show that we can preserve our culture is also a beautiful thing because it can show our youth that not only are they able to see our culture, but they can do something else to let our Pacific nations know that we need to be heard and taught.” she said.

Pacific Voices

Australian Museum Director and Chief Executive Officer Kim McKay said during the first opening on (19th October 2023) of the Wansolmoana and the new permanent gallery is an essential celebration of the living and thriving cultures of our Pacific neighbours and their close connection with the ocean and their natural environment.

Family who also enjoyed the event at the Australian Museum on October 21, 2023. Photo: Viliame Tawanakoro

“For far too long, First Nations and Pasifika stories and culture have been dominated by a Western cultural lens and master narrative. The gallery will now enable the museum to have objects from its Pacific Island collection on permanent rotation, selected and narrated by Pasifika voices,” Mr McKay said.

“By bringing the customs and celebrations of our Pacific neighbours to the people of NSW and beyond, we hope to give audiences a chance to experience the creativity and cultural diversity encountered in different parts of the Pacific.

“The development of this gallery represents a ground-breaking moment for the AM, made possible with the generous support from the Macdoch Foundation and the NSW Government. Curated and programmed by the AM’s First Nations Pacific team and with extensive community consultation, it is the realisation of the AM’s commitment to unlocking our Pacific collections.”

Art Collections

The Australian Museum is the custodian of over 21.9 million objects and specimens of cultural and scientific significance, of which 60,000 objects come from the Melanesian Countries of Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji and New Caledonia, with representative collections from Polynesian and Micronesian countries.

Contributing Author: Viliame Tawanakoro hails from Fiji and is currently part of a student exchange program between the University of the South Pacific and Western Sydney University. Viliame is undertaking an internship at The Australia Today as part of his academic and professional growth.