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Student Post: A Review of the De Young Museum’s Exhibit of Papua New Guinea Art

The De Young Museum’s Oceanic Art gallery is prominently situated at the top of the main staircase, one of the first galleries visitors approach when entering the permanent collection. The exhibit takes up a large section of the second floor and is separated into two parts. The Jolika Collection, a permanent installation of art from New Guinea, takes up about three quarters of the gallery. The furthest quarter is dedicated to rotating exhibitions from the rest of the De Young’s Oceanic art collection. An exhibit of Maori art is currently in this space. The intended audience is a diverse general public. Due to its location in California, it is likely that most visitors come into the gallery without knowing much about the culture and art of New Guinea.

The “Big Idea” or argument of this exhibit is that these artifacts from New Guinea represent a dynamic society rich in culture and tradition. A second goal of the exhibit is to acknowledge the generous donation by Marcia and John Frieded, collectors of the of the Jolika Collection of New Guinea objects. The wall text and item descriptions provide some helpful context for the items, explaining that most are from the Sepik River region, but the gallery does not provide maps to orient viewers to the specific geographic locations of the peoples and art practices featured in the space.

Oceanic Art gallery, de Young Museum, San Francisco, California.The New Guinea cases are mostly organized by objects similar in form or design. For example, one case exhibits a collection of spirits boards, while another shows a collection of masks. Several objects are highlighted as “spotlight” objects and are presented in individual cases that allow you to view the objects in the round. One example of a spotlight object is a ceremonial spirit mask costume made of sticks and other pieces of wood (Accession Number 2007.44.17). Several visual themes emerge when moving through this gallery. Many carved and sculpted figures have emphasized eyes and navels. There is a focus on depiction of ancestors for protection or guidance. Finally, crocodiles or crocodile scale patterns ornament many objects. The ceiling and floor of the room are made of wood paneling, which emphasizes the widespread use of wood as a medium in sculpting the art objects in this room. The consistent emphasis of materiality and symbolism successfully reaches the target audience, clearly revealing distinctive elements of New Guinea art and culture.

Oceanic Art gallery, de Young Museum, San Francisco, California.Oceanic Art gallery, de Young Museum, San Francisco, California.One “miss” of the exhibit is that the display of items is cluttered. The exhibit would be more successful with fewer objects on display. Another challenge to the visitor is that the space is extremely dark. Although your eyes adjust with time, the lighting is distracting and gives the room the ambience of a cave, suggesting that these items—and the people who made them—are ancient and not representative of a living, dynamic society that practices ongoing traditions today. Additionally, the several contiguous panels of an 1804 French wallpaper by Jean Gabriel Charvet (Accession Numbers 77.6.1–20) featured at the entrance of the gallery are out of place. The location makes the installation difficult to view because visitors cannot step back to take it all in without running into other displays. There is no mention of the problematic relationship between the European maker’s fanciful representation of Pacific peoples in the wallpaper and the community-produced objects on display next door. Finally, I found that the division between the New Guinea space and the rotating exhibition space was not clearly defined. If not for information from a docent, I would not have been able to decipher where the New Guinea objects stopped and the Maori objects began without reading all the small labels.

Sepik River case at the Oceanic Art gallery, de Young Museum, San Francisco, California.The exhibit was most successful in providing viewers with a “first look” into peoples and practices of the Sepik River region of New Guinea. The organization of the objects highlights the rich customs and traditions of their makers. The message that I took away from the exhibition is that the people of New Guinea have a thriving culture very different from my own, and that I have much to learn about the people who created these objects.


— by Eliza Powers