PacificAnthropology.org is the home of the Field Museum's Regenstein Pacific team.

What is co-curation?


An aerial view of Majuro Atoll, taken from the team's Hawaii to RMI flight. Photo by Chris Philipp, 2019

Between October 8th and 16th of 2019, Regenstein Collections Manager Chris Philipp and exhibitions developer Ryan Schuessler traveled to Majuro Atoll, Republic of the Marshall Islands.


The Regenstein curatorial team maintains an initiative to reconnect with Pacific Islander communities whose ancestors made and used the items that the Museum cares for today. The Field Museum has worked in the Marshall Islands before: former curator Alexander Spoehr conducted fieldwork there in 1947, and the 1980s the exhibitions department purchased a Marshallese canoe from Jaluit Atoll and arranged for its shipment to Chicago for the new Regenstein Hall (where it can now be seen in "Traveling the Pacific").


In service to that goal, the trip had the following aims:

1) establish new connections with the Marshallese community in Majuro,

2) update individuals and organizations in Majuro regarding the Museum's partnership with the Marshallese community in Enid, Oklahoma (in particular, the exhibit rotation in development co-curated with 5 Enid High School students earlier this year)

3) ask for feedback and input from individuals and organizations for this exhibit rotation, and

4) extend an invitation to co-curate the 250+ objects of cultural heritage that represent the Marshallese currently in the collection.


Philipp and Schuessler were successful in making contact and discussing the Marshallese collection and initiatives with numerous organizations and individuals, including the Alele Museum and Public Library, the University of the South Pacific (USP) Marshall Islands Campus, The College of the Marshall Islands (CMI), and Waan Aelõñ in Majel (WAM) - "Canoes of the Marshall Islands". 65 contemporary objects for the Museum were acquired on this trip including a canoe model made by one of WAM's recently graduated students, 2 jaki-ed (fine mats) commissioned with the help of Dr. Irene Tafaaki of USP, and 3 sitting and sleeping mats organized through Professor Hermon Lajar of the College of the Marshall Islands. The canoe model and mats both represent continuity in Marshallese arts and a recently revitalized art form in the case of the jaki-ed. At USP, Philipp and Schuessler also gave a presentation on the Museum collection, co-curation, the upcoming exhibit rotation to first year students.


The Enid High School co-curators plan to include a representation of contemporary living culture in their upcoming show: as such, a selection of woven bags, head ornaments, and other handicrafts were obtained for consideration of inclusion in the upcoming exhibit rotation in the front of the Regenstein Halls of the Pacific.


An outrigger canoe outside the Waan Aelõñ in Majel (Canoes of the Marshall Islands) main office in Majuro. Pictured behind the canoe (L-R) are Alson Kelen, WAM director, and exhibitions developer Ryan Schuessler. Photo by Chris Philipp, 2019

Travelling back home via Hawaii, Philipp and Schuessler visited the Bishop Museum. The layover proved productive: the team learned about current methods for storing kahili (Hawaiian feather standards) in collections, and saw some of the most recent mats from the Marshallese weaving resurgence.


In October, Dr. Jonathan Jones (University of Technology, Sydney) visited the Museum to examine Australian material from New South Wales and Victoria. As both an artist and researcher, Jones has a special perspective on museum collections from this region, home to the communities to which he belongs (Wiradjuri and Kamilaroi.)

Dr. Jones explains: “Grounded in Indigenous research methodologies and epistemologies, this research involves each object from a collection being carefully drawn. [This] allows for a greater relationship with the object, a deeper understanding of the shape and design, and an ability to recognise the hand of each maker.” Noting that “Eighteenth and nineteenth century collections of Aboriginal Australian objects...were made at a time when little regard was given to Aboriginal artists or their communities of origin,” Jones aims to begin tackling the problem of poorly provenanced Australian collections from the last centuries.

During his 3-day visit, Dr. Jones was able to examine dozens of shields, clubs, boomerangs and other items. While time did not allow for him to make as many detailed sketches as he would normally prefer, Dr. Jones did photograph a number of items that will enable him to share the collections and his research with a broader audience. Dr. Jones’ report on the collection will also enrich the Field’s documentation as he will be able to add additional geographic and source community information to the record.

Below: Dr. Jonathan Jones measures, sketches, and takes notes about a shield in the Museum’s Collections Resource Center.


Above: Dr. Jonathan Jones measures, sketches, and takes notes about a shield in the Museum's Collections Resource Center.

Archaeology as a modern science only reached the South Pacific in the wake of World War II. Before then, everyone's understanding of Pacific prehistory was grounded on misleading European ideas about race and alleged racial migrations "out of Asia."  Recently, human molecular geneticists have begun to turn their gaze toward Oceania and its inhabitants. The results published so far leave a great deal to be desired--as Regenstein Curator John Terrell surveyed last year in Scientific American. In April 2019, Antony Funnell at the Australian Broadcasting Company interviewed Terrell about the use and misuse of human genetics. In particular, Funnell asked him to explain why he feels it isn't necessarily a wise idea to send off a sample of your spit to a commercial genetics laboratory in hopes of discovering the secrets allegedly hidden in your DNA about your personal ancestry and future prospects for a good, healthy life. Listen to the program here.

Header photo © FMNH. By James Balodimas