The islands of the eastern Pacific are known as Polynesia, from the Greek for ‘many islands’. They lie across a vast stretch of ocean from Hawaii in the north, to New Zealand in the south and Easter Island in the east. The western Polynesian islands of Fiji and Tonga were settled approximately 3,000 years ago, whilst New Zealand was settled as recently as AD1200.
In the past, Polynesians were skilled navigators and canoe builders, creating double-hulled vessels capable of travelling great distances. Their societies were hierarchical, with the highest ranking people tracing their descent directly from the gods. These gods were all powerful and present in the world. Images of them were created in wood, feathers, fibre and stone. One of the most important items in the Museum’s collections is a carved wood figure of the Hawaiian god, Ku-ka’ilimoko, which stands over two and a half metres tall.
Today, Polynesian culture continues to develop and change, partly in response to colonialism. Whilst traditional methods and techniques continue to be employed by skilled carvers and weavers, other artists have achieved international success in new media.
The Polynesian collections at the Museum date back to the earliest contact with European explorers and missionaries. The Museum’s Enlightenment Gallery displays many objects collected in this period, including intricately carved jade ornaments from New Zealand and wooden and whalebone clubs from Tonga.