Pacific Encounters: Art & Divinity in Polynesia 1760-1860. Hooper, Steven. 2006

Pacific Encounters: Art & Divinity in Polynesia 1760-1860. Hooper, Steven. 2006

Hooper, Steven. 
Pacific Encounters: Art & Divinity in Polynesia 1760-1860.
The British Museum Press (ISBN 0-7141-2575-X) and Ta Papa Press (ISBN 1-877385-20-4).

The Pacific Encounters exhibition at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, University of East Anglia, Norwich [see Cook's Log, page 17, vol. 29, no. 2 (2006)] is a triumph. Go and see it. If you do, you will want to buy this catalogue. If you can't get there you NEED to buy this catalogue.

Although, as the dates in the title suggest, the artefacts covered are not only from those collected by Cook and his crews, our hero is mentioned often enough in the 288 pages that you might believe so. Produced in full colour this sizeable publication is worthy to sit alongside the Joppien and Smith volumes on the art of Cook's voyages and will be a valuable accessory to understanding the vibrancy and complexity of the cultures encountered by the first European explorers to the Pacific.

Starting with a very useful timeline showing the early settlement of Polynesia and then the main European voyages, from Magellan in 1519-22 up to William Wiseman in 1865, we see a most engaging account of Polynesian history and an explanation of how and why the various artificial curiosities were collected. This is not presented in a purely Eurocentric way. Some of the items had a religious or ceremonial purpose, as we know, and explanations of how they fitted into the various island societies are provided. But Steven goes further than this. He reminds us that the Polynesians were collectors too:

It was of course not only Europeans who were interested in exotic objects. Polynesians were selectively interested in what Europeans had to offer; exotic items of metal or cloth and things which they could incorporate into their own schemes of value.

and that:

In addition, the great majority of things here were made for sale, or the local equivalent - exchange. They were commissioned, offered and presented before being used for other purposes. Objects such as the Austral Islands' drums or Fiji/Tonga breastplates were in many cases made for export, because their value and effectiveness was intimately connected to their transactability.


This "export" of goods was happening between islands and island groups long before the Europeans arrived.
We also get an insight as to how present day Polynesians are re-discovering their heritage through the objects collected by Cook et al.

There is one point that confuses me however. Steven states: "The (European) ship's captains, costumed in ‘sacred' red, will have appeared as powerful chiefs…." Whilst we know of the Polynesians preference for red cloth and feathers from Cook's journals, I am not aware of any ship's captains, whether British, French or Spanish that had red uniforms. Our marines wore red, of course, but there is no indication that they were considered as, or more, powerful than Cook. But this is a minor quibble and doesn't detract from a most interesting read.

The catalogue of objects obviously takes up the majority of the book, with 268 items beautifully photographed and presented in full colour. They are split into nine "chapters" representing the various islands, such as Easter Island, or the recognised island clusters, like "The Cook Islands". Each chapter starts with a map and brief history of that area. Each object is fully annotated (as one would expect of a work of this depth) and the provenance given. If there is a problem with the provenance this is clearly stated. Where there has been no firm point of origin, the methodology used to place the item is given.

There is still work to be done on many other objects from Polynesia lying in museums and collections around the world - proving provenance and purpose - but for now and many years to come, Steven Hooper's work will be a major source of help and reference. In my own limited knowledge only Kaeppler's work comes close.

I was bowled over by the exhibition and equally so by this catalogue. I can do no better than echo a paragraph on the rear cover: Pacific Encounters is a groundbreaking book that conveys the wonder and excitement not only of the objects themselves, but of the fascinating Polynesian cultures that produced them.

Steve Ragnall

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 32, volume 29, number 3 (2006).

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