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Grant Helps Met Provide Online Access to Rare Documentary Photographs Featured in Current Coaxing the Spirits to Dance Exhibition

September 24, 2007

LOS ANGELES—The Papuan Gulf region extends for some 300 miles along the south coast of the independent nation of Papua New Guinea, from the Fly River in the west to Cape Possession in the east. With fewer than 100,000 inhabitants, large parts of the inland rainforest remain nearly uninhabited, but the region’s history is rich with sacred art traditions that have produced some of the world’s most elaborate sculptures.  Representing spirits in the form of masks, figures, and ancestor or spirit boards, many of these sculptures were used to cajole and coax supernatural beings to attend to human needs.

Now, thanks to an $84,000 grant from the Getty Foundation to The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, a significant part of an archive of rare photographs showing art and cultural traditions from Oceania over a span of 200 years has been researched and organized, and soon will be available to the public online. 

“The Getty Foundation is delighted to help make this extremely important photographic archive at the Metropolitan Museum of Art accessible to the public. The archive is a significant resource for research in art history, anthropology, ethnology, and the history of collecting,” said Deborah Marrow, director of the Getty Foundation. 

An exciting result of the ongoing research and organization completed on the Met archive has been the ability to clarify the original context of many of the works from the Met’s own collection featured in the photographs. By linking digitized images of the photographs to images of the relevant objects in the Met's collection, the understanding of the cultural significance of those objects has been expanded.

“The support of the Getty Foundation enabled the Metropolitan Museum to hire two full-time staff for one year to assist with cataloguing and researching parts of the history of our photograph collection of Pacific art and culture. This support assisted our catalogue preparation of 19,000 photographs of art, many seen in their original cultural context.  The research enabled us to match photographs of artists with their sculptures and clarify the photographic moments,” said Virginia-Lee Webb, research curator at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The full archive of nearly 40,000 photographs of Oceania in the Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas includes photographs of art, architecture, and ethnographic objects from these regions, taken by a broad range of international travelers from the 19th through the 21st centuries, including photographers, scholars, artists, collectors, dealers, and missionaries. 

Highlights include a photograph of a sculpture from Lake Sentani by Man Ray.  Other rare works include photographs of Asmat artists from western New Guinea with their carvings – some now in the Metropolitan Museum’s collection – as well as vintage portraits of the indigenous Maori people of New Zealand and albumen prints of Samoa.

An exhibition of powerful and graphically elaborate sculptures, in conjunction with some of the rare historical photographs from the Papuan Gulf area of the island of New Guinea drawn from the archives, is now on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Featuring sacred objects as well as photographs, Coaxing the Spirits to Dance: Art of the Papuan Gulf, on display through December 2, 2007, demonstrates how deeply embedded art was in the region's social life in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The exhibition is the first in-depth investigation of these art traditions in 45 years.

The images and information from the archives are expected to be available to the public online at in late 2007.

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Melissa Abraham
Getty Communications

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