New exhibition highlights Stanford’s connection to Pacific cultures

Items from the Pacific region gathered by Jane Stanford and faculty members are on display as part of a new exhibition at the Stanford Archaeology Center curated and installed by students under the instruction of Christina Hodge, academic curator and collections manager for archaeology collections.

A Papua New Guinean mask, shell necklaces from Samoa and Hawaii, and a ceremonial club from New Zealand are among some of the antique pieces now on display in the new exhibition, Pacific Links: Currents of Material Connections, at the Stanford Archaeology Center.

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Video by Kurt Hickman

Both undergraduate and graduate students installed and curated the materials for a new exhibition at the Stanford Archaeology Center.

The exhibition showcases Stanford’s connection to the cultures of the Pacific region through Jane Stanford’s travels in the area and items she and faculty members collected or acquired as gifts.

A group of undergraduate and graduate students installed and curated the materials as part of the spring course Museum Cultures: Material Representation in the Past and Present, instructed by Christina Hodge, academic curator and collections manager of the Stanford University Archaeology Collections.

The course, which has been offered every spring for the past several years, offers students a unique opportunity to work directly with artifacts.

“What makes this class really special is that students aren’t just researching and writing papers on their own but that there is this public aspect at the end,” Hodge said. “Because there is an exhibit at the end, there is a responsibility to the objects and to the stories they tell and the cultures they represent that the students then take on and embrace.”

The course also stimulates research on the materials in the collection, which contains numerous items related to the Pacific region amassed since the late 19th century.

“The reality is a lot of artifacts are in storage more often than they’re on display, and they sit in boxes quite possibly for many years at a time without being seen,” said Austen Wianecki-Wang, a student collections assistant at the Stanford University Archaeology Collections.

Christina Hodge

Christina Hodge is academic curator and collections manager of Stanford’s Archaeology Collections. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

Hodge selected about 40 pieces for student consideration out of hundreds of items related to Polynesia, Micronesia, Melanesia, the Philippines and other parts of the Pacific region. Students then picked out the ones to be featured in the exhibition. They researched the artifacts, wrote detailed information labels for each piece, designed the displays and installed the objects in the lobby of the Archaeology Center.

Eliza Powers, an art history graduate student, said Hodge’s course introduced her to archaeology. She said she enjoyed handling the objects and working with other students to assemble a cohesive exhibition.

“Artifacts are great primary documents to learn from,” she said. “You can read about these cultures in a book, but actually seeing and working with the materials people use is a lot more powerful.”

Powers said she hopes to work in a museum and said the class gave her an understanding for the skills curators must have.

“There is so much thought that goes into making sure the objects are represented well and protected,” Powers said.

Esiteli Hafoka, a religious studies PhD student studying the religions and cultures of Tongans and other Pacific Islander groups, said she has always been critical of the way museum exhibits can contribute to the misrepresentation and commodification of colonized cultures.

Hafoka said she especially appreciated Hodge’s emphasis on authenticity and decolonizing museum spaces.

“I’m one of many who have been displayed and exhibited as a people and a culture,” said Hafoka, who is Tongan American. “So the critical nature of this course has been really great. We’ve been extremely critical about where the objects come from and aware of the unbalanced power dynamics between people like Jane Stanford and indigenous people of Hawaii.”

Hafoka chose to research and showcase a piece of tapa cloth, an item from the Solomon Islands used for clothing and decoration, and a Samoan kava bowl, a vessel used to prepare a beverage for ritualistic and non-ritualistic purposes.

The process taught her about the difficulty of explaining the history and purpose of the artifacts – as well as their connection to the colonization of the cultures in the area – in the limited space the information labels allow.

“This class made me understand the plight of the curator and of the people who are involved in the museum culture,” she said.