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Curatorial Practices in Liminal Spaces:
Reshaping Purposes and Pathways from the British Museum
by Alice Christophe

(Re)opening and (Re)framing a Space

The Benioff Oceania Programme at the British Museum was established in 2020 with the intention to engage in and reshape the research, stewardship and curation of collections from the Pacific islands of Hawaiʻi and Rapa Nui currently physically at the museum [1]. The British Museum cares for one of the largest assemblages of cultural treasures from these islands outside of the Pacific region. Today, the scale, scope and nature of this assemblage (Harrison & al., 2013) represent a significant responsibility for the museum staff who composes and shapes this institution. Most importantly, the existence of these collections in London constitutes a complex and often traumatic reality for associated Indigenous communities, and a very tangible embodiment of a forever-present “past”, and a “future” that is always-already “present” (Heidegger, 2008; Scorch, Kahanu, Mallon, Moreno-Pakarati, Mulrooney, Tonga & Tengan, 2020).

The ways in which hundreds of mea kahiko (“ancient things”) and mea makamae (“precious things”; Pukui & Elbert, 1986) of Hawaiʻi and taoˈa (treasures) of Rapa Nui became “collection objects” in London are numerous, complex and contested. Members of communities of practice and cultural advocates both here and there – including those involved in the Benioff Oceania Programme – are each and together positioning themselves in relation to the trajectories of such “objects”, their presence here, their absence there, and their existence in-between. This article neither wishes to represent the voices of those involved, nor suggest that there is only one way to relate to diasporic Pacific treasures located in London. It is hoped  that the myriad of relationships (cultural, genealogical, spiritual, etc.) that bind community members to their treasures – and to their ancestors and descendants through them – can be further unpacked and shared in the future, through terms, channels and practices that best serve community needs and aspirations (see, for instance, Christophe & Keawe, 2022).

It is still early days for this programme, which was established in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, and it would not be appropriate to present key outcomes or to propose a detailed account of the work in progress in this single-authored paper. For the time being and as a means to support our collective work moving forward, my aim for this article is to reflect on the intentions, museological frameworks and curatorial principles that were set out from within the walls of the British Museum in London, and that laid a foundational layer (and not, in fact, the foundation) for the work of the programme early on. In this piece, the displacement of cultural objects from the Pacific to Britain is not regarded as contextual or anecdotal. Rather, and while honouring the initial and continued intention of their Indigenous makers, users, and caretakers, cultural treasures here now are envisioned as having become structurally diasporic. Though they are physically here and now, they have charted in their paths a space between their homelands and the foreign lands they inhabit. While existing within and behind the scenes of the British Museum, they continue to be thought of, spoken about/to and heard, see/seen and experienced physically or through images, as well as recreated and called back by people, here, there and by those who move in-between (Basu, 2017). 

This article, and the Benioff Oceania Programme, draws inspiration from the work of Pacific scholars and artists who have reframed perspectives on trans-Oceanic spaces (for instance, Wendt, 1976, 1999; Hauʻofa, 1994, 1998, 2008; Hereniko & Wilson, 1999; Tengan et al., 2010; Teaiwa, 2005, 2020; Brownson, 2012) to advocate for shifting the understanding of the liminal space charted through the displacement of cultural treasures. This space, I argue here, is not neutral or empty space, but relational and generative space that can be activated to enact change, and to support processes of reconciliation and healing (Tuhiwai-Smith, 1999; Lonetree, 2012; Basu, 2017; Driver, Nesbitt & Cornish, 2021). 

Though this piece attempts to capture reflections that shaped the programme early on, it does not wish to suggest that work undertaken to date has indeed revolutionised the stewardship of collections from and for Hawaiʻi and Rapa Nui at the British Museum. The reader will be as aware as I am of the incremental and intergenerational nature of change, and of the many hands needed, here, there and in-between, to support the transformation of museum purposes and practices. Thus, it is with respect for those who have laid foundational layers before us, and those who will continue to do so after us, that I offer this preliminary reflection.

Shifting Spacial and Museological Paradigms

Amongst the diasporic Hawaiian cultural treasures under the physical care of the British Museum in London is a piece of kapa (barkcloth) – possibly a malo (loincloth) fragment – made of wauke fibre (paper mulberry bast [2]), soaked and beaten into a long and narrow cloth by its makers, and patterned with red and black pigments. The exact trajectory of this kapa piece from the Hawaiian Islands to London is not known. Past and recent research by scholars and practitioners suggest that it could have been made and subsequently collected in the late 18th to early 19th century (McKinney, 2014). No information or archive that would enable us to shed light on the circumstances of its collecting or the original intentions of its maker has been located to date [2022]. In 2021, Kanaʻe Keawe – a Hawaiian artist versed in a wide range of cultural practices including but not limited to kapa and pahu (drum) making – was invited by the programme to research Hawaiian diasporic treasures at the British Museum. Traveling the thousands of miles between his home in Hilo (Hawaiʻi) and the collections at the Museum, the artist was hosted in London for several weeks [3]. During a research session in the Museum’s textile storage facility, we examined the aforementioned kapa piece.

Hawaiian Kapa (barkcloth), possibly a malo (loincloth) fragment, Oc,HAW.19. Photo credit: The Trustees of the British Museum.

Looking up-close, it is the pattern that first caught our eye. Although, from afar or from a photograph, it looked like a black piece of barkcloth with skinny red bands arranged into a triangular pattern, this cloth was instead composed by its maker(s) as a red piece with large black triangles. In a fashion that will come as no surprise to contemporary kapa artists, the red motif that, to the untrained eye, first seemed to define the composition, is an under layer created by pigmenting the fibre red. By contrast, the seemingly “negative” space of the black pattern is created through a thick overlay of black pigments. In other words, what first appeared as empty space is, in fact, pigmented and full. The red motif acts as an underlaying supportive tissue, the boundaries of which are defined by the fully pigmented surfaces that first seemed empty.

This observation – one of the many recorded that day – is not shared here for the sake of making the reader (and the author) squint, but to trigger a reflexive experience of liminality as it has often occurred within the programme. This composition could also perhaps be used as a segue to “weave into” (or, more appropriately in reference to kapa, to “beat into”) this article and into this practice the renewed perspectives on trans-Oceanic spaces proposed by Pacific scholars such as the Sāmoan poet and writer Albert Wendt from the 1970s onwards (Wendt, 1976). This scholarship challenged Western and colonial geographical narratives to re-present the Pacific Ocean not as empty space, but as full and connective space binding and defining island shores. It emerged at a time of great self-empowerment for Pacific Indigenous communities – a moment when, in Hawaiʻi, the master navigators Nainoa Thompson and Ben Finney were notably (re)learning long distance Ocean voyaging from Mau Piailug of Satawal (Caroline Islands) (Finney, 1994; Howe, 2006).

These happenings and the transformative scholarship that arose following them have been discussed and expanded upon in multiple bodies of work (for example, Hereniko & Wilson, 1999; Howe, 2006; Jolly, 2007; Tengan et al., 2010; Christophe, 2016; Scorch & al. 2021). Though, as this article investigates scholarship addressing liminality, the words of the Tongan anthropologist and epistemologist Epeli Hauʻofa prepared for a conference in Hilo (Hawaiʻi) the 1990s and redefining the geography of Oceania bear repeating: «There is a world of difference between viewing the Pacific as “islands in a far sea” and as “a sea of islands.” The first emphasises dry surfaces in a vast ocean far from the centres of power. […] The second is a more holistic perspective in which things are seen in the totality of their relationships» (Hauʻofa, 1994 p. 152-53). 

Here, Hauʻofa operated a shift of ontological and geographical paradigms, debunking in the same wave the strategically divisive and fundamentally racist French mapping theories of the 19th-century that had produced cartographic and curatorial representations of Oceania as separated into the three “zones” of Micronesia, Melanesia and Polynesia (Dirlik, 1992; Jolly, 2007; Tcherkézoff, 2008; Christophe, 2016). In the same movement, the conceptualisation of the “Va” by Albert Wendt (later spelt “Vā”) in relation to trans-Oceanic spaces provided a fertile ground and a generative space for Pacific scholars and artists, here, there and for those who move in-between: «Va is the space between, the betweenness, not empty space, not the space that separates, but the space that relates, that holds separate entities and things together in the Unity-that-is-All, the space that is context, giving meaning to things» (Wendt, 1999 p. 402).

Though these words found echo well beyond museological spaces, they progressively affected and transformed museum and curatorial narratives from the early 21st century onwards, shedding new light on the profound entanglement between the practice of mapping and that of curating (Christophe, 2016). Notably, exhibition spaces and processes developed across the Pacific region (including in Hawaiʻi), and reaching as far as Taiwan and later Europe, redefined the Great Ocean as a “Blue Continent” (Hauʻofa, 2008), a space where liminality is full and relational (see, for instance, Howe, 2006; Lee, 2007; Mallon & al., 2012; Brunt & al., 2018). 

While this movement inspired new museum displays about/in Oceania and guided exhibiting processes towards a trans-local and relational framework, its impact on structural museum practices as experienced, enacted, and theorised by communities of practice has yet to be fully grasped. In other words, as museographies continue to shift, museologies addressing museums as intersectional spaces maintain a strong focus on institutional spaces themselves, conceptualised, for instance, as ‘contact zones’, ‘third spaces’, places of ‘encounters’ and ‘frictions’, and as ‘borders’ (see, for example, Pratt,1992; Clifford, 1997; Karp et al., 2006; Isaac & al., 2019). 

While advocating for positional and directional practice, the framework of the Benioff Oceania Programme suggests that connective museologies can continue to be established by decentering a focus on institutions themselves. While looking inwards into one’s “own space” (Scorch, Kahanu and Meyer in Scorch & al., 2020 p. 13) and holding one’s place accountable for the position it occupies here and there, we argue that outwardly reshaping and mobilizing within the in-between can open space for processes of healing and reconciliation. 

As a means of gathering theoretical threads back to a core, this section concludes here with an excerpt from Pukui’s definition of the term “piko” in ‘ōlelo Hawaiʻi (Hawaiian language; or “pito” in Rapanui reˈo), a term sometimes used for “centre”, and that holds multiple meanings, including that of “a navel”, but also the “umbilical cord” between navels (Pukui & Elbert, 1986).

Developing Curatorial Principles

While the aforementioned meaning of “piko” emphasises a spatial and liminal bound, this term also sheds light on a temporal experience of liminality as it embodies the link between the individual, their “forebears [and] descendants, even those yet unborn” (Pukui, Haertig & Lee, 1972: 182). As such, this definition of piko provides an inspiring framework for the programme, which suggests that there is no time like the present to carry forebears into the future.

Starting in March 2020, a set of curatorial principles and intentions were established to guide and develop the framework of the Benioff Oceania Programme. These principles were inspired by the aforementioned scholarship, by past research (Christophe, 2016), and by previous work at the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum (Honolulu, Hawaiʻi) (see, for instance, Christophe, 2020). Early on, such guiding principles were also shaped by teachings from and (digital) conversations with Julie Adams (Oceania Curator, British Museum), Gaye Sculthorpe (Head of Oceania, British Museum), Leah Caldeira (Co-steward and Member of Keaukānaʻi), N. Haʻalilio Solomon (Co-steward and Member of Keaukānaʻi), Hina Kneubuhl (former Member of Keaukānaʻi), Adrienne Kaeppler (former Curator of Oceanic Ethnology, National Museum of Natural History, Washington DC), Dennis Kanaʻe Keawe (Co-steward and Cultural Practitioner) and Mario Amahiro Tuki (Co-Steward of Rapanui taoˈa). Though the purposes of the programme are still being refined as this network expands and as the work continues, this section will attempt to capture these preliminary principles in the hope that they can provide opportunities for further collective reflection.

Framing a reflection on liminal curatorial practices at the British Museum comes with pre-existing parameters, biases and asymmetries (Osorio-Sunnucks & Cooper, 2022), which cannot be ignored nor changed overnight. Though these parameters inevitably shape practice, it is also through practice that museum practitioners and co-stewards of cultural treasures here, there and in-between can support and influence change and decolonize museum spaces (see for example, Tuhiwai-Smith, 1999; Lonetree, 2012). Evidently, while museums are powerful and hegemonic catalysts of contested forever-present “pasts”, they are composed of and supported by communities of actants (Latour, 2005) who, through their presence, actions and aspirations now, shape and affect co-constructed “futures”. 

Emphasising the need for co-constructed futurities is an important point to raise from an institution that is constantly and rightfully scrutinised for the ways in which it embodies and perpetuates colonial and imperial legacies. While acute and self-aware critics are essential to moving museums forward, they can also become self-replicating prophecies when they give museum practitioners nowhere to go. In a domino effect, such critics affect the ability of museum practitioners to mobilise into liminal spaces and to look outwards to communities by and for whom space should be made. In this regard, one path chosen by the programme can be summarised in the words of Mario Amahiro Tuki, Co-steward of Rapanui taoˈa (treasures): if we want to avoid being defined by colonial trauma, we must take charges of the hurts. Then we can move and heal with and beyond them” [4]. How this process can be supported is a key focus of the Benioff Oceania Programme. 

Grounded in the teachings of our initial network of actants the following preliminary principles were established to guide the Programme: 

  • Here and now, Hawaiian and Rapanui collections in London are diasporic cultural treasures, and embodiments of their people from forebears to descendants. 
  • Stewarding these collections is stewarding associated Indigenous communities, their needs and their aspirations; it must be done by them, with them, and for them.
  • Curating and mobilising collections is positional and directional work, as well as genealogical and intergenerational practice; 
  • Process is product;
  • No one process fits all. 

Based on these principles, goals were outlined to activate and (re)shape a liminal space between the Museum, Hawaiʻi and Rapa Nui, and to open pathways for sharing the stewardship of diasporic treasures while addressing cultural and colonial trauma and seeking reconciliation and healing. 

The Benioff Oceania Programme aims to reshape, enhance and deepen knowledge of the Hawaiian and Rapanui collections by developing and implementing innovative research and stewardship processes leading to knowledge building, and by collaboratively integrating Indigenous languages, sources and voices into this practice. It repositions and redefines communities associated with these collections as both co-stewards and a key target audience of collaborative curatorial work. To do so, the programme seeks to reach out to, collaborate with and seek advice from members of associated communities to establish meaningful processes and experiences of learning, caring, and sharing about and through collections. Through this work, we aim to unravel, amplify and empower collections histories relevant to associated communities and constructed by and together with community members. This is notably enabled by transforming methods and purposes relating to collections imaging, and digital access to better serve associated communities, contemporary makers and artists in particular. Altogether, the programme supports reflexive, aware, and diverse approaches and methodologies, critically interrogating colonial legacies, specifically with regards to community relations, knowledge building and sharing, scientific analyses/sampling, data collecting and acquisitions.

Towards Transforming Purposes and Practices

Moving with intention, the first months of the Benioff Oceania Programme were dedicated to researching collections physically at the British Museum, while working directly and remotely with community members of Hawaiʻi and Rapa Nui to define research methodologies and purposes. In this context, conducting and decolonizing “collections research” was regarded as an important practice by all parties involved. Beyond, what constitutes “collections research”, the mechanisms and sources through which it is undertaken, as well as the intentions that underline this practice became a recurring topic of reflection. By the same token, “decolonizing” such a practice was not envisioned as an end goal of the programme, neither was it used by all parties involved. Rather this perhaps catchall concept was seen as an overarching label that imperfectly described means to practice-based aims shaped here, there and in-between. 

The network initially assembled to undertake this work was composed of the aforementioned parties. It also included the diasporic treasures existing in London, as well as members of the BM staff that work directly and indirectly with them. The methodologies that unfolded from collective reflections were both localised and trans-local, but always grounded in the initial intentions of the programme. Though the restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic – limiting international travels and expanding the role of Zoom as a primary interface – inevitably shaped the approach it can be argued that they only amplified existing realities for diasporic treasures and associated communities. As gatherings took place in-between homes, offices, gardens, and collection storages, the liminal spaces between these places as well as the processes and technologies enabling practices of mobility and translation were acutely felt. 

Precisely, the work undertaken early on focused firstly on disarticulating and, secondly, on beginning to reconstruct, the curatorial technologies and practices that systematically perpetuate colonial legacies. Initial (and continued) focus was on three areas of systemic practice, reevaluated towards sharing stewardship and healing. As a means to close the reflections proposed in this article and to support future sharing by other parties involved, these initial points of action are here preliminary outlined:

  • De/Re-constructing Museum Taxonomies, Hosting Indigenous Knowledge 

The programme engages with the reconstruction of museum taxonomies to centre and host Indigenous knowledge, languages and aspirations. This practice is envisioned both as a means to support resilience through research, but also as an act of resistance as it values forms of knowledge that had previously been erased through layers of systemic museum cataloguing (Sousa-Santos, 2014; Modest & Lelijveld, 2018). In 2021, Keaukānaʻi, a Hawaiian Language and Sources Research Group was formed by N. Haʻalilio Solomon, Hina Kneubuhl and Leah Caldeira, with the author of this article, to support this endeavour and peel off the aforementioned layers. Keaukānaʻi (from “ke au”, the current; “kānaʻi”, smooth, calm, of the sea) is named after a gentle maritime current that flows across the Hawaiian archipelago. This current can be called upon for protection and to assist in the journeys of people, gods, and other items and entities as they flow between and back to the Hawaiian Islands. Dedicated to nurturing a flow of knowledge back to Hawaiʻi and between Hawaiʻi and Britain, the group is composed of Hawaiian language speakers and linguists and Hawaiian language sources and taxonomy specialists. The work of Keaukānaʻi is to be articulated and shared both locally and trans-locally, including through the British Museum’s online database. 

  • Re-imaging Collections, Perpetuating Practice

Photography is research. Collections images reflect the lens through which image makers see the world and understand materiality, as well as their motivations for imaging objects. Working closely with cultural practitioners from its inception, the programme seeks to reframe and repurpose collections imaging practices and collections images themselves. New photography and curation of photographic selection for sharing here, there and in-between is undertaken with the intention to support the perpetuation of the practices associated with the cultural treasures depicted.

Throughout 2020-21, Dennis Kanaʻe Keawe (Co-Steward and Cultural Practitioner) collaborated with the programme to transform the understanding of Hawaiian pahu (drum) collections through the lens of the practice of pahu making. In early 2022, we set out to create our first “community book” with then designer Frøya Crabtree. This community book was defined as a visual resource shaped through the artist’s unique lens into the collections and designed primarily (but not exclusively) for cultural practitioners and pahu makers. Together with renewed photography of both collections and practice, it also incorporated blank pages and spaces-to-be-filled by users as future contributors. Finally, the album was envisioned as a printed resource (rather than a digital experience, for instance) that could be physically sent to Hawaiʻi from London, to exist and, hopefully, to circulate and transform here, there and in-between.

  • Expanding Collections Care, Constructing Co-Stewarded Futures 

Expanding the notions of care and stewardship is vital to redefine research, and knowledge building, and to make space for communities associated with the diasporic treasures under the care of the museum (Adams & Christophe, 2021). Starting in 2021, the programme sought to establish community working and advisory groups dedicated to the cultural, physical and spiritual stewardship of specific diasporic cultural treasures located at the British Museum. Communities of practice are invited to join hands here, there and in-between to reframe all aspect of collections stewardship, understood in a the broad sense of the term, and inclusive of documentation, photography, database and archival recording, storage, handling and access methods and protocols, physical conservation/treatment, and exhibition and mobility needs, mechanisms and protocols. This work, which is ongoing, has opened new horizons for curating collaboratively and within liminal spaces. 


This article has demonstrated the necessity and aspiration by the Benioff Oceania Programme to continue to reshape curatorial practices and purposes at the British Museum, and to mobilise within liminal spaces. The concept of liminality was approached here through the lens of Indigenous scholarship that has established the in-between not as empty space, but as full, relational and generative space. The bodies of work examined also hinted at temporal readings of liminality as embodied through a definition of piko/pito, a concept that provided an impetus for taking action here and now. By considering Hawaiian and Rapanui collections physically at the Museum as diasporic cultural treasures, this article and the programme advocate for decentering a focus on museum institutions themselves, as well as for developing connective museologies and renewed stewardship models, interrogating colonial legacies and seeking reconciliation and healing. 

As a means to close this article, I return to the piece of kapa (barkcloth) that provided the grounds for the reflection outlined here. During the aforementioned research session, after having inspected the surface pattern, Kanaʻe Keawe and I gently flipped the cloth. In the intimacy of this practice, the artist closely examined the ways in which the fibers were felted and the direction into which they were beaten, forming hypotheses about the plant species, the size of the shrubs, and the type of tools employed by the maker(s). While a focus on the patterned side gave a general visual impression of a continued composition, this “reverse” side – which would have been kept closest to the body when and if worn as a loincloth – showed that the cloth (in its current state) was composed not of one, but of three pieces, stitched together through a well-known technique in Hawaiian kapa making. These stitches – running perpendicularly to the long edges and becoming increasingly visible on the patterned side once documented on the “reverse side” – may perhaps act as reminders of the segmented, labour intensive and accumulative nature of space making. To me, it also most definitely suggests that it takes the knowledge and care of communities of practice to bring pieces together and to turn seams into patterns. 


[1] The geographical focus and scope for the Benioff Oceania Programme were defined before the author of the article further developed the Programme’s vision.
[2] Although a former scientific analysis suggested that this piece is made of māmaki (Pipturus albidus), research into the materiality of this kapa by Kanaʻe Keawe confirms that the fibre used is likely wauke (Paper mulberry).
[3] In this occasion, Kanaʻe Keawe gifted a lapaiki (drum) carved by him and inspired by a Hawaiian drum in the collections. The artist presented his piece to the Museum’s Director, and in honour of Lynne and Marc Benioff who support the Benioff Oceania Programme, during a ceremony on October 8, 2021 (Christophe & Keawe, 2022).
[4] Mario Amahiro Tuki in conversation with Alice Christophe on 24/03/2022, British Museum, London.


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Dr Alice Christophe is the Benioff Curator of Oceania (Benioff Oceania Programme) in the department of Africa, Oceania and the Americas at the British Museum (London, UK). She was formerly the Collections Manager for Ethnology at the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum (Honolulu, Hawaiʻi), where she co-curated several exhibitions and supported community-centric collection projects and initiatives. Alice trained in Oceanic Art History and Museology at the École du Louvre (Paris, France) before undertaking a Ph.D. in Art History and World Art Studies at the Sainsbury Research Unit (University of East Anglia, Norwich, UK). Her Ph.D. thesis investigates the role of Pacific museums in establishing, strengthening and reactivating trans-Oceanic networks through exhibition making. Her current research interests include Pacific museology, collection trajectories, and museum stewardship and healing methodologies.