Forum – the reopening of the Rockefeller Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Rockefeller wing opened in 1982, sponsored by Governor Nelson Rockefeller as a memorial to his son, Michael Rockefeller who disappeared on a collecting trip amongst the Asmat in Papua New Guinea and moved the collections from the Museum of Primitive Art into the bastion of Great World Art that is the Metropolitan Museum. With the current reinstallation the enshrinement of Oceanic material culture “as art” is doubly reinforced.
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The Gallery has been featured in a number of ‘best of” lists:
goldwaterlibrary.typepad.com/rgl/2008/01/aaoa-best-of-th.html
And
Read the review in the NY TImes and checkout the slide shows:
www.nytimes.com/2007/11/16/arts/design/16ocea.html?_r=1&ex=1195880400&en=67dd70f4be773968&ei=5070&emc=eta1&oref=slogin
However, the emphasis on non-western art, as fine art, complete with a refocus on the oceanic collections as being authored by specific “artists” has arrived a little late. Little is made of the idea of art as a cultural practice, embedded within social relations, rather the aestheticisation of these affective creations are celebrated in a majesterial way. By contrast, the Native American collections feel extremely “underrepresented” as either art or artifact – their display feels very much like an after-thought…
What follows are a series of comments and descriptions by different visitors to the space. Please feel free to add your own comments below:
The Redisplay of the Oceanic Collection in the Michael C. Rockefeller Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Fanny Wonu Veys, Musee Quai Branly, Paris (formerly Graduate Intern, Department of Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas, Metropolitan Museum of Art).
The Michael C. Rockefeller Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art officially reopened on Friday 14 November 2007. More than four hundred objects from different parts of Oceania are shown in the redesigned first floor galleries which are accessible from the Modern Art wing in the west, the Greek and Roman Art wing in the east and the African art wing in the north. These entrances are marked by introduction text panels on Oceania.
The display of the objects is arranged geographically. Australia, New Guinea and Island Melanesia occupy the main space with the slanted windows reaching from the ground to the mezzanine level. The Australia display includes both traditional historical objects as well as contemporary paintings. Some of the most impressive New Guinea pieces include Asmat bis poles that were collected during the Michael Rockefeller expedition of 1961 and formed part of the initial Nelson A. Rockefeller Museum collection that was housed in the Museum of Primitive Art, founded in 1955. The Kwoma ceiling made of more than two hundred painted sago palm spathes is now installed in full in the central part of the exhibition space. These paintings, that traditionally adorned the inside of a ceremonial men’s house, were commissioned specially by former Oceania curator Douglas Newton to be displayed in the Metropolitan Museum. A slit gong from northern Vanuatu is one of the most prominent pieces of the Island Melanesia section.
The above mentioned freestanding objects were installed first, starting with the Kwoma ceiling and followed by the Asmat bis poles, and other large objects such as canoes and drums. A specialist team of riggers worked in close collaboration with the museum conservators.
Smaller compartmentalized sections are dedicated to the arts of Polynesia, Micronesia and Island Southeast Asia. A number of Polynesian objects were received on long term loan from other museums. For the first time, one case is dedicated to the display of Polynesian barkcloth, thus contrasting and complementing the objects made out of hard materials such as wood and bone and representing an important aspect of women’s art. As textiles are sensitive to light, this display will rotate. One case in the Polynesian section displays Micronesian objects including a gable figure, a mask, a navigational ‘stick chart’ and several household implements such as bowls and food pounders.
The Island Southeast Asia subdivision covers objects made and used by indigenous peoples living in Taiwan, Borneo, the Philippines and Indonesia. There is a wide variety of materials ranging from the ikat textiles from Sumatra (Indonesia), to gold jewellery from Indonesia and the Philippines, wooden masks from Borneo, paper divination books from the Batak people in Sumatra and wood architectural sculpture carved by the Paiwan, one of the indigenous peoples in Taiwan.
All the objects on display are accompanied by labels giving object name, if possible also in the vernacular language, materials, dates, and collector. Many items have more extensive information, elaborating on their iconography, use, and significance. Each of the six areas – Australia, New Guinea, Island Melanesia, Polynesia, Micronesia and Island Southeast Asia – is introduced by general information panels which are accompanied by detailed maps indicating all the islands from which the objects originate.
For the first time, a catalogue written by the Oceania curator Eric Kjellgren and discussing a selection of the Metropolitan Museum’s Oceanic collection was produced to accompany the opening of the renewed gallery.


Commentary By Tate Lefevre, NYU Anthropology
The New Galleries for Oceanic Art opened at the MET on November 14th, 2007, following three years of substantial renovations. The exhibition consists of three halls; a vast Melanesian gallery flanked by smaller galleries for Micronesian and Polynesian Art and the arts of the indigenous people of Island Southeast Asia. In all, the exhibition showcases more than four hundred works.
The Melanesian Gallery’s expansive size is impressive. The curators have made good use of the space’s lofty ceilings, and monumental sculptures definitely seem to be the focal point of the exhibition. Nine spectacularly carved Asmat ancestor poles and a forty-eight foot long Asmat spirit canoe line one side of the room while a collection of massive slit gongs from Vanuatu and an enormous Harenga headdress effigy from New Britain border another. Upon entering the gallery, visitors will perhaps be most struck by the colossal Kwoma ceremonial house roof, which hangs from the ceiling, spanning almost the entire length of the room. The roof, constructed from over 270 individual paintings commissioned from a group of Kwoma artists in the 1970s, is by far the most colorful object in the gallery, which, despite the spectacular nature of the pieces it showcases, feels monochromatic and sterile. This is due at least in part to the exhibition’s drab, grey-blue color-scheme. It is unfortunate that curators seem somehow compelled to surround Pacific art with an unappealing palette of “island and ocean” colors (such as the infamous sherbet hues of the Margaret Mead Hall at the AMNH).
Though the exhibition offers visitors an impressive and varied collection of art from across the Pacific, Papua New Guinea is by far the best-represented region. Amongst the most striking objects on display are woodcarvings from Michael C. Rockefeller’s extensive collection of Asmat art, including the aforementioned ancestor poles and spirit canoe. Though nearly half of the art displayed from Papua New Guinea is from the Asmat and Sepik region, the exhibition also includes a large number of beautiful Gope (spirit boards) from the Papuan Gulf and several brightly painted Abelam sculptures and masks. Interestingly, a sign below the Abelam objects notes that they would have been seen by the “light of flickering fire.” This is the most information the exhibition provides about the ways in which the objects displayed were originally intended to be seen and used. Although most objects are accompanied by short blurbs explaining their ceremonial purposes, they still seem insufficiently contextualized.
Contemporary Pacific artists may make similar objects today as they did fifty years ago, when Michael C. Rockefeller collected, but these objects are often imbued with very different meanings and engaged with in different ways. By failing to historically and socially contextualize many of the objects on display, the exhibit does a disservice to the artistic traditions it showcases.
A plaque at the entrance to the exhibition notes that colonialism and Christianity have had a “profound impact” on arts in Oceania and have lead to their “decline and disappearance.” But what about hybridity, change and invention? The exhibition does not sufficiently address these issues, in part because it does not really explore the place that the objects on display have in the lives of contemporary Pacific people. Along these lines, photographs of contemporary people making or engaging with art objects would have been an excellent addition to the exhibition.
Although the number of objects on display from island Melanesia is dwarfed by the extensive selection of art from Papua New Guinea, the exhibit contains several remarkable pieces from Vanuatu and New Caledonia, including a collection of enormous tree fern sculptures from the Big Nambas of Malakula and door jamb carvings from a Kanak chief’s house. One of the most fascinating objects on display is a carved bamboo container from New Caledonia originally used to hold a mixture of powerful herbs believed to protect the wearer from harm. Though these containers were traditionally carved with scenes from Kanak myths, the container on display depicts encampments of French soldiers wearing tri-corner hats and riding horses into battle against Kanak. This indigenous colonial commentary seems particularly poignant given that the plaque accompanying the Kanak objects makes no mention of the fact that New Caledonia is still a French territory.
Claire Nicholas, Princeton University
24 January 2008
Metropolitan Episodes: the Michael C. Rockefeller Wing, New Galleries for Oceanic Art
The recently re-opened galleries for Oceanic Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art offer a wide spectrum of sensory impressions. The newly expanded exhibit of the permanent collection includes objects ranging from miniature, detailed and highly ornate textiles, jewelry and carvings to dramatic and arresting painted and sculptural pieces. The space is divided up into “five primary stylistic regions”, which, according to the museum’s website, represent the canon of Oceanic art: Polynesia, Micronesia, Melanesia, Australia, and Island Southeast Asia. The re-installed galleries include several firsts for the museum: a space devoted to the “indigenous arts of Island Southeast Asia” displaying richly decorated textiles, jewelry, and sculptural works from the Andaman and Nicobar islands, Indonesia, the Philippines, Taiwan, Brunei, East Timor and Malaysia (Herbert Cole’s 1982 review of the then brand new Michael C. Rockefeller Wing mentions this particular gap in the Met’s otherwise encyclopedic Pacific collection); and a limited injection of “women’s art” in the form of fiber arts such as Marshall Islands dress mats, Polynesian barkcloth and various textiles of Island Southeast Asia intended for use as clothing, aristocratic ceremonial banners, and serving as valuable exchange and gift objects.
However, the centerpiece Melanesian gallery remains the most visually stunning of the artistic regions. It is also the best-represented stylistic area in the Met’s Oceanic collection. The gallery itself is architecturally striking, and the verticality of the space lends itself well to the monumental dimensions of the numerous sculptures housed within. The placement of over 270 painted sago petioles fashioned in the style of a Kwoma men’s ceremonial house highlights the amplitude of the lofty ceiling, described by the museum as creating a “cathedral-like atmosphere”. The lighting from the slanted window-paned wall can be adjusted with the use of screened panels, lending a softness and tranquility to the gallery’s ambiance. Indeed, during my visits to the wing as a whole, this space in particular drew and retained high numbers of visitors strolling casually through the galleries.
Admittedly, my observations of the new galleries focused as much on the reactions of visitors as the objects themselves. I propose, therefore, to relate just a few fleeting impressions of other visitors’ interactions with the exhibit space and its objects. For a more conventional exhibit review, please see Ken Johnson’s New York Times art review “Pacific Overtures From Mystic Spirits”, November 16, 2007.
Another item on the cultural itinerary:
Lest we forget, the Met is a frequent stop along almost any New York City tourist itinerary. By extension, the objects within the museum constitute part of the site, the landscape of a very prestigious and “cultivated” locale. Better than bringing home a few postcards of renowned art objects is taking away your own photos. Though the professional quality of the postcard may far exceed any amateur attempt, the postcard may not adequately locate the object in the recognizable Metropolitan museum space. The postcard is entirely focused on the object of beauty, and the personal snapshot is partially a token of the visitor’s presence and the museum context (as background). These thoughts occurred to me after noticing I was not the only visitor taking photos in the galleries. One young man with a professional-looking digital camera carefully sized up the most visually arresting sculptural pieces of the exhibit in his viewfinder, adjusted the zoom ring with a precision rotation of the lens, then took the photo and consulted the resulting image in the digital display screen. Others were comparatively casual with their photographic collecting, scanning the room from behind the camera and snapping at will. The nine Asmat bis poles, collected by Michael C. Rockefeller in 1961 were some of the favorites, as well as the 28 foot long Asmat Spirit Canoe (Wuramon) displayed in front of a longer and less ornate canoe (collected by Michael C. Rockefeller) with dramatically arranged carved paddles listing at a slightly less than 90 degree angle to the boat’s side. In a sense, these visitor practices could be considered a secondary or second-order collecting practice, one resulting in digital or 35mm objects to be organized later as images in a scrapbook, shown at slideshows of “my trip to New York City”, or uploaded as screensavers and cellular phone wallpapers.
Making the unfamiliar familiar: The comments made by visitors to the gallery were as interesting, if not more so, than the objects themselves. One observed encounter progressed in the following manner: two women strolled carefully around a display case containing one of the most notable pieces in the collection, the New Britain Headdress Effigy (Hareiga), an object over 15 feet long suspended at an incline, identified by the museum website as the only example of its kind in the United States, recently restored and displayed for the first time in four decades.
After a few moments in silence, taking in the slender tubular length of the object topped by its bulbous, knobbed “head”, one woman pronounced the following analysis: “It looks like a dinosaur bone!” The pair moved on to the neighboring display case, behind which were three kavat masks from New Britain, constructed from a bamboo base structure covered with bark cloth, vaguely anthropomorphic and painted with black and red geometric symbols. “These look like a weird, wacked-out cartoon” and, in a more contemplative mode, “There’s something about the directness in the imagery of these things…I’m just fascinated by primitive art”. The other woman mused out loud, “What, is it sticking out the tongue?…Do they wear it on their head?…It’s like that night bird…an owl?…They have bush babies there, I think, maybe not”. The point of mentioning these comments is not to ridicule the speakers, but rather to emphasize that as much as the Met may want to foreground the supposedly universally comprehensible aesthetic properties of these objects, its mission is at least partially subverted by the perhaps more universal impulse of the visitor to relate to the object, and by extension, to its maker(s); to establish analogies, resemblances, something to connect with… to understand.
Indeed, though the answers to all this woman’s questions were neatly provided by the Met’s object description and accompanying in situ photo of the Baining night dance, she never stopped for more than a perfunctory glance at the label. Furthermore, if the principle objective of the presentation style – glass display case, invisibly mounted object, strategically angled lighting – is intended to bring out the formal qualities of the object, why not include some of the criteria on which basis the selection of the object as a Met-worthy piece was determined? Would this come too close to revealing the man behind the curtain?
Finally, the phrase regarding the “imagery of these things” and “primitive art” rings a little too formulaic, as if the visitor knows what they are supposed to say, think and feel about Oceanic art from the perspective of a well-established, if somewhat outdated, art historical discourse. Yet at the same time the comment seems to conceal a superficial engagement with the artwork, more of a classificatory exercise than a transcendent aesthetic experience.
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Through the eyes of a child:
During the final moments of my tour through the centerpiece Melanesian gallery, I noticed a young boy with his father, engrossed in the object label for the New Ireland Malagan funerary carvings. The malagan display is organized as a floating island platform with several sculptures mounted on neutral colored bases or poles according to their vertical or horizontal “orientation”. The object description includes a label with contextual information about the ritual uses of the pieces, and a black and white 1930s photo of a group of malagan sculptures in situ from the Museum der Kulteren Basel supplements the text. The boy in particular was fascinated with this photo. He paid little attention to the brightly colored three-dimensional objects placed before him, instead favoring a detailed examination of the photo. His questions to his father were directed at understanding the photo and its “contents” in relation to the objects on display. Meanwhile his father’s gaze was turned primarily towards the present and more “immediate” museum objects. The pair moved on to a case containing two door boards (jovo or tale) from New Caledonia.
Again the object label contained a textual description and a black and white photo of another set of door boards framing the entrance of a chief’s house. It’s true that at first glance the door boards in the photo bear a striking resemblance to the objects from the Met’s collection. The little boy apparently made this connection as well, and his main concern was to compare the differences between the display as a whole and the composition and visual elements of the photo. For example, he asked his father why there was a rock in the photo placed between the two door boards, but in the Met’s display this object was missing. His father carefully explained that the door boards in the photo and the door boards in the museum were not the same objects. He added that the photo was intended to show similar examples of the museum’s objects in their “natural setting”; this is how one might come upon these objects in their “home”.
Two things strike me about the texture of the boy’s immediate engagement with the Met’s photo-objects, intended presumably to contextualize the otherwise “bare” objects: first, his fluency with a visual literacy manifested certain material form, secondly, the “use” of the photos to make sense of the objects standing before him. The privileging of the photo object over a three-dimensional object with far more material “presence” surprised me and engenders certain questions about the visual and material forms through which particular generations or cultures come to know the world. Needless to say, in the current “information age”, children and young people are accustomed to learning and interacting with a wide range of “flat” images: schoolbooks, television, video games, movies, the internet. The issue then becomes what cognitive processes are sparked by these sorts of materials in contrast to the three-dimensional but apparently inanimate forms on display at the museum? This not only underlines the fact that a museum-viewer disposition is a learned mode of engagement; it may also indicate a qualitative shift in the relationship between perceptive and cognitive processes. The boy’s comparison between the objects “depicted” in the photos and the objects on display confirms the implicit relationship the curators hope to establish between the collection objects and objects separated by historical, spatial and representational distance.
If the Met claims to “represent” the canon of Oceanic art through its collection, it must demonstrate that its objects are exemplars of various aesthetic and formal categories. The photo-objects reinforce the classification process in two ways: the “resemblance” between elements of the photo-object and museum object implies a connection of “like kind”; secondly, the in situ quality of the scenes lends historical and documentary authority to the authenticity of these cultural products.

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One Response to Forum – the reopening of the Rockefeller Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

  1. Andrew Johnson human rights researcher February 14, 2008 at 3:18 am #

    Michael Rockefeller died while building relations with the indigenous people down-river from Ertsberg and the preparations by the Rockefeller mining company Freeport Sulphur. Although the world’s mine extracting West Papua’s vast gold, silver and copper reserves is now visible from space; more people can access the Rockefeller wing and learn about Melanesian cultures who help save so many American lives during the Pacific war.

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