Style leaders: Pasifika Styles, University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology - Museums Association

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Style leaders: Pasifika Styles, University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

An exhibition celebrating Maori and Pacific Island art and culture from New Zealand has brought a quiet university museum to life, says Jane Weeks
Jane Weeks
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'Museums are that kind of hush-hush, clean, untouchable tapu (forbidden) kind of space. You wanna touch everything, but you can't. It's a thing I'd like to explore.' New Zealand artist Wayne Youle's comment encapsulates the spirit of this exhibition at the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

It would be hard to imagine a more 'hush-hush' place than this site, but Pasifika Styles has succeeded in suffusing this normally fusty museum with colour, vibrancy, passion and wit.

This exhibition brings together the museum's 18th and 19th-century Oceanic collections and the latest in contemporary arts. It features the work of 30 Maori and Pacific Island artists from New Zealand, including Francis Upritchard, a finalist in the Beck's Futures contemporary arts prize. The show is the product of a collaboration between Amiria Henare, a curator at the museum, and Rosanna Raymond, a New Zealand-Samoan artist based in London.

Britain holds the most comprehensive collections of Polynesian artefacts in the world, yet exhibitions are rare. Now, just like buses, six have come along at once. Pasifika Styles is part of a two-year programme of Maori and Pacific Island art and culture, which has included exhibitions at the October Gallery, the British Museum and the Cuming Museum in London, the Captain Cook Birthplace Museum in Middlesbrough and the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in Norwich. There are also drama, comedy, theatre and dance events.

Pasifika Styles fills the museum's mezzanine floor, which overlooks the Oceanic collections. You know it is going to be fun from the first piece of work: Dad's Chair by Niki Hastings-McFall features a chair, a lamp stand, an ashtray and a painting festooned with brilliantly colourful textile flowers. But this show isn't just offering a good time.

The art on display runs the full gamut from witty to beautiful to challenging to overtly political. If your knowledge of the Pacific is derived from the works of Somerset Maugham, Robert Louis Stevenson and Paul Gauguin, or the musical South Pacific, be prepared for a shock. There is rage in these works too: at racism, at stereotyping of minorities, at land grabbing, at cultural ownership - although, as one of the artists remarks with wry humour: 'Anger doesn't market well.'

Some of the artists have developed their art from traditional Maori and Pacific craft techniques such as basket weaving, carving, and tattooing, while others have chosen to use photography, new media and modern materials; some, like 'cultural magpies' as one artist describes it, select from the two.

In their installation, The Living Room, Tracey Tawhiao and Ani O'Neill have created a living room with a comfy sofa and vibrant wallpaper festooned with newspaper cuttings; inside the fireplace is a £5 note, with the Queen's head hand-painted with tattoos. You could spend hours peeling back the cultural layers.

For me, the most successful works were those directly influenced by the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology's historic collections: Jason Hall's witty The Do-it-yourself Repatriation Kit, a suitcase filled with plastazote, with spaces carved out for a tiki ornament and a hammer, but only the hammer in place; Chris Charteris's reworking in Perspex of a wasekaseka, a piece of armour traditionally made of bone or wood; and Wayne Youle's site-specific installation Jack (haki) in a Box, where a Victorian museum display case has been filled with what appears to be museum storage boxes, dismissively labelled 'other people's stuff'. Listening through headphones, you hear persistent knocking and the anxious panting of the objects inside trying to get out. Disturbing.

The weakness of this exhibition lies in the text that accompanies it. The labels have been written by the artists, and while some give fascinating insights into the artist and their work - Michel Tuffery notes 'I don't go to church. My church is just going to the galleries' - others are terse and fail to put the works in context. As a result, the impact of some works, such as The Living Room and Dad's Chair, is lessened because we lack the necessary cultural references.

Pasifika Styles encourages you to think about cultural ownership and repatriation, not by overtly demanding the return of objects, but by subtly delineating the cultural hinterland from which these artefacts come, and highlighting the fact that they still have a valid place in contemporary society. This cooperative project has clearly inspired the artists involved. Photographer and videographer James Pinker says: 'I love museums, despite the fact they are an anachronism. Without them, we would be a sad and empty lot.' How true.

Jane Weeks is a museum consultant

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