Oceania – at the Royal Academy of Art, London


29 September – 10 December 2018


The Royal Albert Memorial Museum is very fortunate to loan a very rare Pacific costume to the Oceania exhibition at the Royal Academy of Art in London later this year.


Oceania marks 250 years since Captain Cook’s to the South Pacific, and celebrates the dazzling and diverse art of the region of Oceania, from the historic to the contemporary.



The year is 1768, and Britain is in the throes of the Age of Enlightenment. As a group of artists agrees to found the Royal Academy, Captain James Cook sets sail on a voyage of discovery in search of terra australis incognita – the unknown southern continent, as Europeans called it. What Cook and his crew encounter on arrival is a vast number of island civilisations covering almost a third of the world’s surface: from Tahiti in Polynesia, to the scattered archipelagos and islands of Melanesia and Micronesia.


The indigenous populations they met came with their own histories of inter-island trade, ocean navigation, and social and artistic traditions. This spectacular exhibition will reveal these narratives – celebrating the original, raw and powerful art that in time would resonate across the European artistic sphere.


Through more than 250 compelling works ranging from shell, greenstone and ceramic ornaments, to huge canoes and dazzling house facades, we explore important themes of voyaging, place making, encounter and union. The exhibition draws from rich historic ethnographic collections dating from the 18th century to the present, spanning treasures from the ancient past through to work by Lisa Reihana, a contemporary artist of Maori and British descent from New Zealand.


What is being borrowed from Exeter?

This major exhibition will include a Tahitian mourner’s costume – or heva tupapau. This extraordinary costume was acquired Francis Godolphin Bond, who served as First Lieutenant on the Providence during the Second Breadfruit Voyage. The ship arrived in Tahiti in 1792 and Bond was presented with a mourner’s costume as a prestigious gift. Long after his return, Bond donated this to the museum in the Devon & Exeter Institution. However, the museum was short-lived as it wasn’t as popular as the Institution’s library. This costume was therefore transferred to the Royal Albert Memorial Museum soon after it was open to the public.


Tahitian mourners costume
Heva tupapau (Chief Mourner’s costume)

This Costume was worn by the Chief Mourner in a ceremony marking the death of a high-ranking chief in 18th-century Tahiti. The Chief Mourner was usually a relative of the deceased chief and would be accompanied by a group of attendants with soot-blackened and painted skins. He would roam around the district with a sword edged with sharks’ teeth, and the sound of his pearl clappers would warn people to get out of the way. If anyone got in the way of the Chief Mourner and his group they might be injured or killed – the mourners were seen to be mad with grief and not responsible for their actions during this time! The number of mourners a chief had and how long they mourned for depended on the wealth of the family of the deceased person.