Protecting the Spirit of the Pacific

Pacific Spirit. Photographer: James Morgan. Rights: © Australian Museum. 

Pacific Spirit. Photographer: James Morgan. Rights: © Australian Museum. 

by Richard J. Thompson.


Keywords: Pacific Spirit, Australian Museum, Climate Change, Oceania Rising.




Upon entering the current Pacific Spirit exhibition at the Australian Museum, one is tasked by the curators to “reflect on the way in which each object embodies the culture that continues to resonate in contemporary Pacific societies, particularly here in Sydney.”


Walking through the exhibit I am naturally awe struck by the remarkable artefacts on display. Specifically, it is the various masks that draw me into the reflection I am invited to as an observer of the artefacts by the curators. The masks invoke a particular relationship of cultural embodiment in my mind. That is, masks naturally lead one’s mind to the thought of their relation to people, and more specifically, to ritual. Masks are commonly associated with ceremony and ritual, both of which are indispensable to cultural continuation. The continued sharing of culture is key to all groups of people worldwide, no matter how big or small that culture and people may be. However, culture can be cited as something at risk to many Pacific islanders as the increasingly grim prospect of climate change in the region endangers the livelihoods of communities.


It is well documented that the present and future effects of climate change pose a huge challenge for the Pacific, especially when one considerers the prospect of rising sea levels threatening to submerge land on low lying Pacific islands. This devastating impact on the natural environment would thus have an equally devastating effect on the cultural environment and peoples’ livelihoods, as for instance, they are forcibly uprooted from their lands. Oceania Rising: Climate Change in Our Region, a novel program dealing with the aforementioned issues of climate change in the Pacific, recently held its community kick-off event at the Australian Museum. Crowd-sourced questions have been gathered from the community that will influence and be explored throughout the program, with the goal of seeking answers. In the sourcing of these questions, one community member decided to make a simple statement. “Help us to understand and connect with our origins and cultures to help (us) ‘stand up’ and rise”. Through programs like Oceania Rising that the Australian Museum is involved in, the museum as an institution can act as the agent that helps the general Australian public to understand and connect with, not simply Pacific culture as they may do through reflecting on artefacts like the masks in Pacific Spirit, but the contemporary issues facing our Pacific neighbours, the climate changes that threaten the spiritual homes of the stunning material culture on display in exhibitions like Pacific Spirit.


Under the breathtaking ceremonial poles located in the centre of the Pacific Spirit exhibition, Frank Puletua, Manager of the NRL (National Rugby League) Museum and former NRL player, is quoted as saying, “I don’t see a big conflict between the contemporary and the traditional. I just think that’s exactly where we are at, as a people, at this point in time.” For museums, institutions historically focused on the protection of the traditional, we can say, especially considering the circumstances, that it is only time they turned their attention to the contemporary in new ways. Oceania Rising can be thought of as an example of this spirit – a project protecting the present and future in light of the dangers climate change poses to livelihoods and culture in the Pacific.




Pacific Spirit is the first of a series of exhibitions in which the Australian Museum will showcase its extensive, world class Pacific Collection.


Oceania Rising: Climate Change in Our Region is an exciting 6-month program of art installations, discussions, workshops, and meetings with museum collections – designed to work through big questions around climate change. The program is a partnership between the Australian Museum, Blacktown Arts, and Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre, working in collaboration with the community.


Richard J. Thompson is an intern with the Engagement, Exhibitions & Cultural Connection division of the Australian Museum, working under Dr. Jenny Newell, Manager of the Pacific and International Collections, specifically in relation to the development of the Oceania Rising program and related climate change focused projects.



Jenny Newell