University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology
Past Special Exhibition at the Penn Museum

The Polynesian Gallery was open from January 1982 through June 2010.

Polynesia (from the Greek for “many islands”) is a series of islands and island groups widely scattered across the central and south Pacific Ocean.

Gallery History

Most of these islands lie in what is known as the “Polynesian triangle,” formed by the Hawaiian Islands to the north, Easter Island to the east, and New Zealand to the south.

In the second half of the 18th century, at the time when the American colonies were declaring and winning independence from England, the explorer Captain James Cook made three voyages to the Pacific (1768-71, 1772-75 and 1776-1779). Cook was astonished to find that all the habitable islands in the vast area now known as Polynesia had been discovered and occupied, and that the people shared a common culture and closely related languages. The Polynesia Gallery focuses on the material culture of the Polynesian Islands from the time of European contact in the late 18th century into the 19th century, when most of the Penn Museum’s Polynesian collection was acquired.

On display in the main part of the gallery are objects of artistic, religious and social importance from the main Polynesian island groups: Fiji, Tonga and Samoa, the Polynesian outlier Nukuoro, the Marquesas, Hawai’i, New Zealand, Easter Island and the Society, Cook and Austral Islands.

A second series of cases, featuring everyday objects such as stone adzes, fishhooks and food pounders, traces the extraordinary migration of the Polynesian people and culture over a period of more than two thousand years, to every major island group in the central and south Pacific.

Western Polynesia (Fiji, Tonga and Samoa)

By the late 18th century Western Polynesian societies had achieved a high degree of political integration. In Fiji a few of the larger and more powerful chieftainships had established control over the many smaller and weaker ones. Tonga was unified under a single paramount chief. The Samoan Islands were still politically divided, but a plan for a unified government had been devised. Today Fiji, the Kingdom of Tonga, and Western Samoa are independent nations. Even though greatly changed, their governments have a direct continuity with the old Polynesian chieftainships.

This is one of a handful of small whale ivory figures collected in Fiji and Tonga during the second half of the 19th century. Some had holes in the back for suspension. Little is known about the function and significance of these little figures: they seem to have been objects of reverence, but not worship.


Nukuoro is a small coral atoll located in the Caroline Islands, about 1,500 miles northwest of Fiji. It is called a Polynesia Outlier because, although its culture and language are Polynesian, it lies apart from the main Polynesian islands and has been greatly influenced by the Micronesian culture that surrounds it. The elegant, simplified style of religious sculptures and everyday objects is an example of such influence.

This coconut grater stool has a projection at the front to which something sharp is lashed, for grating the open side of a split coconut. On this Nukuoran stool the cutting edge is a serrated piece of shell. It was made by Soses Tara and collected in 1964 by Vern Carroll.

Marquesas Islands (Te Henua ‘Enana)

The Marquesas Islands, divided by rugged mountains into steep-sided valleys, were populated by small rival tribes, which in the 19th century were always hostile and often at war with each other. In religion and art, however, the islands were unified. According to one version of the Marquesan creation myth, the god Tiki was the progenitor and ancestor of all men. Stylized representations of the human figure, also called tiki , are the most prominent feature of Marquesan art.

In the Marquesas Islands human figures ( tiki ) were carved in wood and stone for shrines and temples. This wooden tiki was collected in the 1870s by C. D. Voy from the island of Nukuhiva, near the Taipi Valley, the setting of Herman Melville’s 1846 novel Typee.

The best known Marquesan weapon is a long, heavy two-handed club called ‘u’u. Clubs of this type were not only effective in battle, but also served as symbols of status for warriors and chiefs. The carved designs, which are repeated on both faces of the club head, include three projecting tiki faces, the top two of which can also be read as “eyes”. Every ‘u’u has the same general design, but no two are precisely alike.

Hawaiian Islands

At the time of European contact in the 18th century the Hawaiian Islands were the most heavily populated and Hawaiian society the most stratified and theocratic in all of Polynesia. Hawaiians believed that that the gods were the offspring of natural forces, and humans were the offspring of gods. Those humans descended most directly from the gods were aristocrats ( ali’i ). The higher the rank, the more lavish the garments and ornaments.

Feather cloaks (‘ahu ‘ula ) were an essential part of aristocratic regalia in ancient Hawai’i. They were made and worn only by men. The feathers are red – the color of aristocrats and gods – and rare, highly prized yellow, tied in overlapping rows to a foundation of fiber netting.

Whale tooth necklaces ( lei niho palaoa ) were worn on ceremonial occasions by aristocratic men and women in ancient Hawai’i. They were also worn by men in battle. They were seen as embodying part of the essence and power ( mana ) of a man: when a leader was killed in battle his enemies took possession of his lei niho palaoa as well as his body in order to conquer his spirit completely. This necklace consists of a large hook-shaped pendant made of whale ivory, suspended on cords of braided human hair.

New Zealand ( Aotearoa )

According to Maori tradition, New Zealand ( Aotearoa ) was settled by a fleet of seagoing canoes. A tribal group might refer to itself as a waka (canoe), meaning that the members of the group were descended from the crew of a particular, named canoe. The Maori war canoe ( waka taua ) was not only a vessel used to transport warriors, but a sacred symbol of the village that built it. The waka taua was also seen as a manifestation of the collective body and spirit of the ancestors and of the power ( mana ) transmitted from them to the community.

This carved bow piece for a Maori war canoe is of a style that features two large pierced scrolls and, at the front, a human figure with tongue protruding and arms thrown back. Sticking out the tongue was (and is) a Maori gesture of defiance. This bow piece was collected on the North Island of New Zealand, near Wellington, by C. D. Voy in the 1870s.

Greenstone pendants ( hei tiki ) were, and are, treasured Maori ornaments. Their value derives from the hours of labor required to carve the hard material and from association with the ancestors through whose hands the carvings have passed, from generation to generation. This hei tiki is said to have been acquired in New Zealand in 1777, on Captain James Cook’s Third Voyage, by a midshipman on the ship Discovery.

Easter Island (Rapa Nui)

The tradition of religious sculpture on Easter Island is represented most famously by the giant stone statues erected on terraces along the coast and left lying on the slopes near the quarry where they were carved. Small portable wooden figures, both male and female, were also produced on Easter Island throughout the historical period. Their original significance has been forgotten, but some think the male figures, with their prominent ribs, represented starving characters in an important historical myth.

Portable male figures ( moai kavakava ) were apparently used in private or household rituals. They were also sold and traded to Europeans as early as James Cook’s visit to Easter Island in 1774. This is a particularly fine example, probably carved some time early in the 19th century. Whether it was made for ritual purposes or trade to Europeans cannot be determined.

Central Polynesia (Society, Cooks and Austral Islands)

In the 19th century, after European contact, carving and sculpture in Polynesia changed dramatically. It was possible to do things with iron blades that could not have been done with tools of stone, shell, or the teeth of sharks and rats. Some traditional objects, most notably adzes and paddles from the Cook and Austral Islands in Central Polynesia, took on new forms created specifically for trade with Europeans. Released from the restrictions imposed by traditional non-metallic tools, carvers produced adzes and paddles with extravagant carved designs.

At a gathering of war canoes in Tahiti in 1774 Captain James Cook observed that some of the warriors wore handsome breastplates ( ta’umi ) covered with feathers and shark’s teeth. Subsequently, many such breastplates were ceremonially presented to European explorers and traded to sailors. This particular ta’umi found its way to Alaska, where the Tlingit named it the Raven Cape and adopted it as a ceremonial object. In 1923 Louis Shotridge acquired it for the Penn Museum.


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