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Press release

New Galleries for Oceanic Art to Open at Metropolitan Museum November 14

Opening date: Wednesday, November 14, 2007
Press preview: Tuesday, November 13, 10 a.m. – noon

Following an extensive three-year renovation, The Metropolitan Museum of Art will reopen on November 14 its New Galleries for Oceanic Art, a completely redesigned and reinstalled exhibition space for the display of one of the world's premier collections of the arts of the Pacific Islands. Divided into three separate galleries in The Michael C. Rockefeller Wing, the 17,000-square-foot exhibition space will present a substantially larger portion of the Metropolitan's Oceanic collection than was previously on view.

The inaugural installation will feature more than 425 works from the five major artistic regions of Oceania – Polynesia, Micronesia, Melanesia, Australia, and Island Southeast Asia – allowing visitors to experience the full breadth of the region's diverse artistic traditions. The new galleries will mark the return of the Metropolitan's most renowned Oceanic masterworks, including spectacular works of sculpture from the Asmat people of New Guinea that were collected by Michael C. Rockefeller. Greatly enhanced through the generosity of a number of private and institutional lenders, the installation will also feature many previously unseen treasures from the Museum's collection as well as recent acquisitions.

Oceania is the collective term for the more than 25,000 islands of the Pacific, which are scattered across more than a third of the earth's surface. The region is home to more than 1,200 different cultures and hundreds of artistic traditions.

Gallery for Melanesian Art
The centerpiece of the new Oceanic galleries will be the spacious, sunlit gallery for Melanesian art, dedicated to works from New Guinea, Australia, and the islands of the southwest Pacific. Featuring a completely redesigned open floor plan, this grand gallery will include nearly 300 works, ranging from monumental sculpture to jewelry and personal accessories. Among the most spectacular works that will be on view are a magnificent group of nine ancestor poles (bis) from the Asmat people of New Guinea, together with the Museum's well-known Asmat canoe, which is more than 48 feet in length and capable of carrying up to 20 people. These and the other Asmat works on view were collected primarily by Michael C. Rockefeller in 1961.

At the center of the Melanesian gallery will be a soaring, boldly colored ceiling from a ceremonial house of the Kwoma people of New Guinea. More than 80 feet long and 30 feet wide, the ceiling is composed of more than 270 individual paintings, commissioned from a group of Kwoma master artists in the early 1970s. Space constraints in the previous installation allowed only a reduced version of the ceiling to be presented. Greatly expanded and raised to its full height, the new Kwoma ceiling imparts a cathedral-like atmosphere to the gallery; it will now be seen and appreciated in its full grandeur for the first time.

The Melanesian gallery also will mark the debut of a rare and newly restored work from the Museum's Oceanic collection, a monumental bark cloth effigy, more than 15 feet in height, from the island of New Britain. Portraying a powerful female spirit, this otherworldly figure, the only example of its type in the United State, has not been displayed in more than four decades.

The Melanesian gallery will also feature the return of the Metropolitan's monumental slit gong from the nation of Vanuatu. More than 14 feet in height, the gong, carved in the form of a powerful ancestor whose voice was heard as its resonant beats, is among the largest freestanding musical instruments on earth.

A section of this gallery will be devoted to the arts of Aboriginal Australia.

Gallery for Polynesian and Micronesian Art
Adjoining the Melanesian gallery will be the gallery for Polynesian and Micronesian art. Intimate in scale and atmosphere, and featuring newly designed casework and lighting, the gallery will be devoted to the sculpture and decorative arts of the islands of the central and eastern Pacific, including Hawai'i, Tahiti, and Easter Island. Highlights will include the Metropolitan's renowned figure from the island of Mangareva, southeast of Tahiti. The only example in the United States, it likely portrays one of the principal deities of the Polynesian pantheon and is among only roughly a dozen examples that survived the destruction of virtually all Mangarevan sculpture in the 1830s at the behest of Christian missionaries. The gallery will also include an exquisite group of wood sculptures from Easter Island and an intricately carved temple drum from the Austral Islands. Other cases will highlight the sumptuous personal ornaments and accessories created for Polynesia's chiefly elite, such as an ornate ivory flywhisk handle that belonged to King Pomare II of Tahiti, and a superbly carved treasure box and other works from the Maori people of New Zealand.

The Micronesian section of the gallery will present rare examples of the region's wood sculpture, including the Museum's renowned female figure from the nation of Belau and weather charm figures from the Caroline Islands. Consisting of stylized human figures with legs made from the razor sharp spines of stingrays, these potent charms were used to drive off approaching storms.

Gallery for the Art of Island Southeast Asia
An entirely new feature of the installation, will be the Metropolitan's first-ever gallery devoted to the indigenous arts of Island Southeast Asia, including sculpture, jewelry, and boldly patterned textiles from Indonesia, the Philippines, and adjoining regions. Highlights will include a monumental stone seat from the island of Nias. Carved in the form of a fantastic mythical animal, it served as the throne of a high-ranking noble. An extensive array of works from the Batak people of Sumatra will also be on view, including the unique animated puppets known as sigalegale. Created for the funerals of men who died without male heirs, the puppets served as ritual substitutes for their absent sons, able to dance and even weep in mourning for their departed fathers. The gallery will also feature a section dedicated to changing exhibits of the region's rich and varied textile traditions. There will also be areas devoted to the region's extensive traditions of jewelry in gold and other precious materials.

Oceanic Art
Oceania's diverse artistic traditions are typically divided into five primary stylistic regions: Melanesia (New Guinea and the islands of the southwest Pacific), Australia, Polynesia (the islands of the central and eastern Pacific), Micronesia (the islands of the tropical northern Pacific), and the indigenous artistic traditions of Island Southeast Asia (Indonesia, the Philippines, and neighboring areas). From the dense rainforests of New Guinea to the arid deserts of Australia, the spice-rich islands of Indonesia, and the widely scattered archipelagos of Polynesia and Micronesia, the peoples of Oceania have developed a myriad of artistic traditions in an astonishing diversity of forms and media. Oceanic art has a deep and ancient history, with the earliest Australian Aboriginal rock paintings dating back as much as 50,000 years. However, as a result of the perishable nature of the materials in which most artists worked, the vast majority of surviving works date from the 18th to 20th centuries.

Much of Oceanic art was, and remains, inseparably linked to the region's diverse indigenous religions, portraying the gods, spirits, ancestors, and other supernatural beings whose powers sustain the vitality of the community and the world.

In Oceania, male and female artists typically work in different media. Men work in harder materials such as wood, shell, and, more rarely, stone, creating figural sculpture as well as practical and ceremonial implements. Women, by contrast, excel in the fiber arts. The new galleries will include, for the first time, areas specially dedicated to the display of women's art forms such as Polynesian barkcloth and the rich and varied textiles of Island Southeast Asia.

The opening of the New Galleries for Oceanic Art will be accompanied by a publication featuring more than 200 highlights from the Museum's Oceanic collection. Entitled Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, it will be published by the Metropolitan Museum and distributed by Yale University Press. It will be available in the Museum's bookshops.

This publication is made possible by The Peter Jay Sharp Foundation and The MCS Endowment Fund.

Organization Credits
The installation is organized by Eric Kjellgren, the Evelyn A. J. Hall and John A. Friede Associate Curator of Oceanic Art of the Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

A variety of education programs will be presented in conjunction with the opening of the new galleries, which will also be featured on the Museum's Web site (

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August 1, 2007

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