Quick Curation: Making Object Links

The connections Museum Cultures students drew in this “quick curation” exercise show the many ways things carry meaning and the many paths we may find into the interpretation of cultural objects. 

Museum Cultures students view Pacific items at the Cantor Center (photo by Stanford University Archaeology Collections 2017)

Museum Cultures students recently paid a visit to view highlights from SUAC's sister collection at the Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts. There, they were introduced to a series of diverse items from across the Pacific world in the Cantor’s object study classroom. Each student was asked to choose one of those things that they felt resonated strongly with the item from SUAC they will be including in the class exhibit. The linkages here are my recollections and translations of student comments during class. They are used with permission. SUAC items that students are researching to include in our Pacific Links exhibit this spring are on the top/left. Cantor items viewed by students during their recent visit are on the bottom/right. For more information about individual items, hover your cursor over the image or search:


— Christina J. Hodge


Canoe Model, Samoa (13466) Canoe prow model, Solomon Islands (1959.3) - Cantor

The strikingly different material, form, and elaboration used on these two miniatures inspire us to consider the model makers’ motivations. Did they seek to create an anthropological model or tourist souvenir? We can use their physical qualities to think through this important question.

 Bird bowl, Solomon Islands (59.1) Canoe prow model, Solomon Islands (1959.3) - Cantor

These pieces exemplify the iconic style of Solomon island carving across different forms: incised lines accent the overall shape as they cut through a black pigmented surface; precious mother of pearl inlay highlights eyes and elaborates edges.

Hut Model, unknown (13457) Patchwork hat with embroidery, Indonesia (1971.74.6) - Cantor

This textural hut and bright hat seem to have little in common. Yet, in their appealing use of color and scale, both show the influence tourism had on the production of goods across the Pacific world. They also remind us that tourist items often enter scholarly collections.

Basketry fan, Samoa (7284) Basketry hat, Indonesia (1971.74.5) - Cantor

These everyday items epitomize aesthetic effects achievable through use of warp and weft in skilled basketry.

Pipe, Philippines (11949) Basketry hat, Indonesia (1971.74.5) - Cantor

In both these pieces, binary light and dark splints create striking geometric patterns that reward close looking.

Yam mask, New Guinea (93.1146) Yam mask, New Guinea (1965.2) - Cantor

SUAC’s pristine yam mask is highlighted with traditional mineral pigments. The Cantor’s has commercial acrylic paint, while its deformed and sooty surface are clear signs of use. Paired, they ask us to consider what makes an item valued in art and anthropology contexts.

Tapa cloth, Solomon Islands (94.1161) Bark painting, Australia, by Dick Ngulei-Ngulei Murrumurru c. 1965 (2005.15) - Cantor

Tree bark provided the raw fibers for this tapa cloth and the canvas for this board painting. Through their materials, both items retain symbolic associations with trees while accepting new significance through surface decoration.

War club, Aotaroa/New Zealand (13352) Hei tiki, Aotaroa/New Zealand (1997.140) - Cantor

This carved stone hei tiki pendant figure, with its characteristic curved limbs, pointed mouth, and round inlaid eyes, is reminiscent of the carved ancestral figures on  the blade and handle of SUAC’s finely carved wooden mere (club). These pieces elaborate on an iconic aspect of Maori makers’ culturally-appropriate styles.

Kiwi feather bag, Aotearoa/New Zealand (57.14) Hei tiki, Aotaroa/New Zealand (1997.140) - Cantor

Material expressions of color contributed to certain items’ prestige in Maori society. Nephrite jade was prized according to its depth of color and variegations, seen here on this hei tiki. Kiwi feathers, like those on this kete kiwi (kiwi feather bag), were also valued according to hue. Weavers incorporated feathers to create patterned effects of light and dark, like the subtle banding seen here.

Fish hook (broken), Marshall Islands (93.1023) Fish hook, Aotaroa/New Zealand (62.64) - Cantor

The complete fishhook of abalone shell has a brighter and more colorful shine than the broken mother of pearl hook. This distinction, plus the fact that it is complete, may be why the art museum kept the piece and did not transfer it to the Anthropology Department. This idea leads us to ask whether these different shells were also valued differently in the original cultures.

Board tusk arm bands, Philippines (54.130, 54.131) Head (nambugi), Vanuatu (1992.191) - Cantor

The use of curving boar tusks obviously unites these pieces. Both the arm bands and the figure also materialize significant moments of transformation and initiation: the arm bands for boys’ transition to adulthood, the funerary spirit figure for commemorations of death.

Shell necklace, Samoa (13393) Lime gourd and spatula, Papua New Guinea (1998.53.a-b) - Cantor

Shell work is featured on these items, despite their very different uses and the very different cultures that produced them. The centrality of shell—whole, pierced, carved, and burned for lime—is shared across the Pacific and even (as in Jane Stanford’s shell necklace) beyond.