Power and Taboo: Sacred objects from the eastern Pacific

28 September 2006 – 7 January 2007

Room 5

Admission free

The English word taboo is derived from Polynesian (the eastern Pacific) languages, introduced into our lexicon via Captain Cook’s journals. We use the word to mean ‘forbidden’ but the original Polynesian terms e.g. tapu or kapu have a more complex meaning.  They refer to actions and constraints by which the power of the gods is restricted to certain people, objects and places.  Drawing on the unparalleled collections of the British Museum, this exhibition will examine the concept of taboo in the region. It will focus on religious practice in the 18th and early 19th century, prior to extensive mission and other expatriate influence. Religion, at this time, encompassed all aspects of human activity, the success or failure of which depended on divine favour and having an active and appropriate relationship with the gods.  The gods were understood as powerful and unpredictable, capable of bringing life and wreaking terrible destruction: much religious work was devoted to keeping their power separate and contained.  A material manifestation of this principle was the wrapping of powerful objects in barkcloth, feathers and coconut fibre to contain and absorb dangerous power.  Whilst aesthetically powerful to Europeans, for Polynesians these objects symbolised tremendous spiritual and political power.

The island groups of eastern Polynesia are scattered across a wide ocean.  They form a triangle with New Zealand, Hawaii and Easter Island at its three corners and were populated from a shared homeland beginning approximately 1,500 years ago.  Thus although the distances between these island groups can be vast, their inhabitants share a common cultural heritage.  The exhibition will provide a sense of how people lived and survived in these landscapes. Society was hierarchical including chiefs, priests, warriors as well as ordinary people; they fished and cultivated crops. Ancestry was considered extremely important and genealogies were meticulously remembered.  Chiefly families in particular could trace their ancestry directly back to the gods. Thus the impetus to ‘wrap’ the gods extended to these individuals and chiefs were often seen enclosed in beautiful feather cloaks and helmets, examples of which will feature in the exhibition. Birds were closely associated with the gods and feathers, particularly red feathers, with sacredness. The exhibition will touch on the conversion of most Polynesian societies to Christianity in the late 19th century, but will also emphasise the continuity, strength and revival of traditional understandings in many areas of the region.

The exhibition will feature several famous examples of Polynesian material including the enigmatic A’a figure from the Austral Islands, the striking feather god head from Hawaii and an intricate nephrite tiki pendant from New Zealand. These objects have had a significant impact on the development of modernist art as they were studied and admired by artists such as Henry Moore and Pablo Picasso (who had a replica of the A’a sculpture in his studio). They also continue to inspire Polynesian artists, many of whom have produced work based upon this collection.  Other key objects include a unique 4m long god staff from the Cook Islands wrapped in layer upon layer of barkcloth, a rare tattooed fisherman’s god sculpture, and an extraordinary fibre god image from the Society Islands. Paintings contemporary to the period by William Hodges will evoke the landscapes in which these objects were produced, and a sense of the people who inhabited these islands will be provided by drawings and prints of Polynesians, in many cases holding or wearing objects identical to those on display.

For further information or images please contact Hannah Boulton on 020 7323 8522 or hboulton@thebritishmuseum.ac.uk.

Notes to Editors:

  • A book on art and divinity in Polynesia has been published by British Museum Press. ‘Pacific Encounters: Art & Divinity in Polynesia, 1760-1860’ by Steven Hooper. Price £25.
  • The exhibition will be accompanied by a series of events which complement the themes of the show. Special events include drawing workshops in the exhibition examining the continuing influence of the Polynesian collections on both indigenous and Western-trained artists. These events will take place on 29th September and the 8th December. For more information contact the press office.
  • Other Pacific related exhibitions elsewhere in the UK this year include an exhibition at the Sainsbury Centre at the University of East Anglia, an exhibition at the October Gallery in London, an exhibition called ‘Men of Polynesia" by Roz Laurie 'Spiri' in July-August in the Gallery Space at St Pancras Hospital, and Pasifika Styles at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge.