The first art from the South Pacific entered the Brooklyn Museum in 1900. From that group of one hundred wooden figures and shadow puppets from New Guinea and the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) the collection has grown to nearly five thousand pieces. The cultures included in the Pacific Islands collection stretch from New Zealand to Hawaii and from the Nicobar Islands in the Indian Ocean to Rapa Nui (Easter Island) off the coast of Peru. Today this is one of the largest and most important collections of Oceanic art in the United States.
The range of art objects produced in the region is enormous, as is the wide variety of materials used to make art, including coconut fiber, feathers, shells, clay, bone, human hair, wood, moss, and spider webs. Many of these materials were believed to possess spiritual powers that the artistic process could enhance.
The collection includes tapa cloths, jewelry, decorated weapons, and ceramic bowls, but the preponderant emphasis is on ceremonial sculpture, especially from Papua New Guinea. The Sepik River region of New Guinea, as well as New Ireland and Vanuatu, are especially well represented.
Melanesian art is often described as expressive and exuberant, tending to emphasize and exaggerate the human form. The collection has a large number of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century masks used in funeral ceremonies in New Ireland, which combine human, snake, bird, and fish elements. One of the most recent Oceanic acquisitions is a nearly life-size nineteenth-century effigy figure from Vanuatu (made of fiber, bone, and spider webs) that has somehow managed to survive in the United States for more than a century.
The islands of Polynesia, including Hawaii, New Zealand, the Marquesas Islands, and others, are also represented. Among the holdings are an early and very beautiful door lintel from the North Island of New Zealand and a large number of fine works from the Marquesas Islands. Much of the Maquesan collection was acquired from the famous explorer Thor Heyerdahl.