‘Living with the Sea’

A student-led exhibition at the Penn Museum features objects from the rarely seen Oceanian collection.

Three woman stand behind museum objects
Ashleigh David and Erin Spicola frame Kia DaSilva as she talks about the mattang (navigational chart) in front of them. Students were able to access the objects to inform the exhibition planning process. (Pre-pandemic photo.)

For generations upon generations, the Melanesian, Micronesian, and Polynesian people have navigated between islands in their vast ocean home using only the stars, the birds, the clouds, and the currents. As ancestral knowledge grew, navigators became bolder, reaching the shores of Hawaiʻi, Rapa Nui (Easter Island), and finally Aoteaora (New Zealand) in migrational waves. Spread across approximately 30,000 islands in the Pacific, this diverse, ocean-oriented culture is the subject of a student-curated exhibition, “Living with the Sea: Charting the Pacific,” on view at the Penn Museum with components available online.

In the sixth year of the annual student-led exhibition internship, 2020 graduates Ashleigh David and Erin Spicola and senior Kia DaSilva spent last fall working alongside Museum staff to select a project that would connect to both the Provost’s “Year of Data” 2019-20 academic theme as well as the Oceanian collections. Together, the students and staff selected 13 objects from the Museum’s Oceanian collections, which encompasses nearly 28,000 objects, most of which are kept in storage, where the light, temperature, and humidity are controlled. 

This is the first exhibition dedicated to this material since the Polynesia Gallery was deinstalled in 2010, says Adria Katz, consulting scholar for the Museum’s Oceanian section. “For that reason, exposure of the Oceanian collection by a project like the ‘Living With the Sea’ exhibition is especially valuable, all the more so since it is being overseen by such talented and dedicated interns.”

“The sea is not just a physical resource, it’s a cultural base,” says DaSilva, who is from West Philadelphia and double majoring in Near Eastern languages and civilizations and music. The material culture of this region reflects the sea’s importance, as do its stories.

Three men in an outrigger canoe on a fishing trip
This drawing by Simon Peter Reresimae depicts men on a fishing trip. The illustration depicts the interconnection of humans with marine life, with birds above and flying fish below.

To tell one of these stories, the group collaborated with students in Joshua Mosley’s Mixed Media Animation class in the Fine Arts department to create a stop-motion video for the exhibition, says Anne Tiballi, director of academic engagement at the Museum. The Museum’s collection included “beautiful pen drawings,” collected by William Davenport during his fieldwork in the 1960s, which Mosley’s students used to illustrate one of the myths of the Soloman Islands, Tiballi says. “We reached out to Tony Heorake, director of the Solomon Islands National Museum, to make sure that the use of the drawings and retelling of the myth were respectful of the people of the Solomon Islands, and he wrote back with his approval and requested a final copy of the video for use as a teaching resource in schools on the Islands.”

The students did the bulk of their research last fall and completed the writing and editing over the spring semester. “We split up the general themes of the exhibition and then did three months of deep dive research,” says Spicola of Richmond, Rhode Island, who majored in anthropology and archeological science. “And then we had to cut that down to 30 words or less per object.”

Spicola did field work with Megan Kassabaum on the Smith Creek mound site in southwestern Mississippi and is beginning a master's program in museum exhibition planning and design this fall. She’s done her research. “In field-wide observations, people spend four to seven seconds in front of an object,” she says. As students, “we have been trained in academic writing. So to go back and put three months of research in more general language was a challenge.” 

Spicola centered her studies on a statue standing just under three feet high, Object 67-5-53. This male figure made of wood and plant fiber was carved by Karopungi of Star Harbor in the Solomon Islands and collected by Davenport in 1967. Spicola chose this object “because of the beautiful tattooing pattern,” she says. “We had to figure out connections to our lives and our worlds that would be common threads through the exhibition. One of those was tattooing. That’s an import word from Polynesia—tatau.”

Three smiling undergraduates in a courtyard
From left to right: Erin Spicola, Kia DaSilva, and Ashleigh David in front of the Penn Museum (pre-pandemic photo).

David, an anthropology major and theater and philosophy minor from Pacific, Missouri, did a work-study position in the Penn Museum’s public engagement office. “After spending so much time at the Museum, I thought it would be cool to leave something behind,” she says of working on the exhibition. David chose to focus on a ritual bowl (apira ni mwane) from Santa Ana in the Solomon Islands. The black-painted, footed bowl features elaborately carved aquatic motifs inlaid with triangular shell fragments, and was used by men in worship of the legendary figure Waumauma. Such ritual bowls were part of a ceremony used to pacify Waumauma, who was revenge-killed while fishing, becoming an “angry shark spirit,” David says. “In the Solomon Islands, if you are killed in a violent way, your spirit does not go to rest.” 

Another common thread was navigation, which DaSilva, a self-described “data geek,” worked on. “Data is the way that people make sense of the world, how information is collected and transferred across time, space, or populations,” she says. The exhibition features both a wood and shell mattang (navigational chart) from the Marshall Islands and wooden model outrigger canoe from Yap in the Caroline Islands. 

While the canoe was made in 1903, the Caroline Islands are also central to the modern history of navigation; it was here that the Polynesian Voyaging Society journeyed to persuade Micronesian palu (master navigator) Mau Piailug to teach wayfinding to a new generation. “Most people don’t have much exposure to Oceania beyond ‘Moana,’” says DaSilva. “We wanted our exhibition to be accessible to that audience.”

Modern Oceania is under threat from rising seas due to climate change, says DaSilva. “At current rates, the Marshall Islands will be need to be evacuated by 2050. The U.S. did atomic bombing in that area—Bikini Atoll.” During its military occupation of the islands, the U.S. executed 67 nuclear bomb tests from 1946 to 1958. With rising water levels, harmful chemicals are leaking into the water at abnormal levels, DaSilva says. “If radiation gets out, the fish are going to die and islanders are going to contract illnesses and won’t be able to sustain themselves,” she says. “The whole complex relationship will be destroyed.” 

Through the exhibition “Living with the Sea,” students look to convey the current realities of modern Oceania, “not just the idyllic 1960s ‘paradise in the Pacific’ that Davenport may have found,” DaSilva says. 

Living with the Sea” is on view through 2021. The Penn Museum is now open issuing timed tickets in three two-hour blocks per day, in accordance with physical distancing recommendations. Admission is free for Penn card holders. Highlights from the Oceanian collections are viewable online at https://www.penn.museum/collections/highlights/oceanian/.