Melanesia project

Melanesian art: objects, narratives and indigenous owners

Project team

Department of Africa, Oceania and the Americas 


Supported by

Arts and Humanities Research Council

The Leverhulme Trust
  • Commonwealth Foundation
  • Commonwealth Broadcasting Association

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Salome Samou from Santa Cruz Islands inspects a piece of fabric worked on a hand loom from her home island. The fabric is unfinished, and the piece demonstrates the working of the loom

The Melanesia Project explores the relationships between a wide range of indigenous art and artefact forms, socially-significant narratives, and the indigenous communities from which historic collections of Melanesian art derive. Focusing on the important but largely unstudied Melanesian collections in the British Museum, this project aims to bring new perspectives to both the study of indigenous art, and the understanding of ownership, heritage, and relations between museums and communities.

The project will assess approaches to art in anthropology, aiming to move beyond the current stand-off between meaning-oriented perspectives, and those building on Gell’s theory of ‘art as agency’, while acknowledging the continuing usefulness of both these paradigms. It will explore the scope for considering art objects as visualizations of social relations and processes, and as enactments of personal, social or historical narratives.

Through extensive consultation with traditional owners, the project will also document and interpret the range and variety of contemporary investments in historic collections.  

Indigenous individuals’ and communities’ perspectives will not only be acknowledged and foregrounded in our publications and other outputs, but will be a major focus for inquiry and reflection; the project’s findings will be disseminated in part through radio programmes and other media designed to reach those source communities in the Pacific.

The Melanesia Project is a joint initiative of Goldsmiths College, University of London and The British Museum funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, 2005-2010


Contributing to a significant new understanding of Melanesian collections, primarily but not exclusively those in the British Museum, research will focus on three interrelated themes:

Objects: to study the British Museum's Melanesian collections, providing new provenances, new contextual information drawn from archival work as well as recent ethnography, insights into technical and stylistic aspects, and collection histories.

Narratives: to contextualize the collections by analysing the relationship between objects and personal, historical and political narratives, illuminating their varied and changing significance and meanings for indigenous individuals and communities, past and present.

Indigenous owners: to explore the dialogues between museums and indigenous individuals and communities around the past and present significances of historic Melanesian collections, to generate more sophisticated understandings of what such dialogues and collaborations involve, establishing bases for future work, specifically around upcoming exhibitions.

Practically, the work will proceed through three main phases:

Technical and stylistic analyses of the collections in the British Museum, and documentation of collection histories. Compilation of pictorial resources and archive extracts. Identification of field sites and indigenous partners for consultation.

Fieldwork in Melanesia followed by the visit of indigenous individuals to the British Museum's collections. Synthesis and analysis of data.

Dissemination of research findings through scholarly publications, and major exhibitions in London. Preparation of public radio programmes and short educational films.

Project launch

The project was launched on 20 September 2005 with a one-day workshop which brought together researchers working in the Pacific Islands to discuss issues relating to the research of museum collections.

More about the project launch