Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History: Traveling the Pacific

The Pacific Ocean is the largest body of water on the planet, at its widest stretching about 11,000 miles across — almost half the diameter of the earth. This is just one of the fun facts that lead into the Field Museum’s exhibit “Traveling the Pacific”.

The focus of the exhibition is the islands, of which there are 20,000-30,000 — a firm count is hard to determine, since many of the islands are too small to be seen from space — another fun fact from the lead-in.

We enter the exhibition proper past a reconstruction of a lava flow from the ongoing eruption of Kilauea, on the Big Island of Hawai’i. This includes a news report on the destruction of the Wahaula Visitors’ Center, torched by a lava flow.

The next room is centered on the creation of the islands, most of which are the result of undersea volcanoes. (The exceptions are New Zealand, New Caledonia, and New Guinea; the first two split off from Australia about 70 million years ago; the latter still has an underwater connection.) To the right is a series of displays recounting the legend of the Hawai’ian fire goddess, Pele, who came from the northwest searching for a place where she could house her family in their spirit forms — fire, smoke, lava. She finally settled on the Big Island. This actually reflects geologic fact: the Hawai’ian Island chain stretches to the northwest, in the direction of travel of the Pacific Plate. This section includes samples of different types of lava — “Pele’s hair”, a fibrous form; spatters; and the different rocks left by slow and fast flows.

In the center is a display showing the life stages of a volcanic island, from its formation as the Pacific Plate passes over a hot spot in the earth’s mantle, then an eroded island a million years later, then, after another five million years, a fringe reef, and after another 25 million years a coral atoll, and finally 50 million years later, a guyot, which is completely under water. Next to this on the left is a wall display showing the various tectonic plates of the Pacific region, with known hotspots noted, and an interactive section demonstrating the mechanism of tectonics — what makes the plates move.

Across this room is a section discussing the ways plants and animals adapted to island life — once they managed to get there — and how the advent of humans affected them. mostly by introducing predators and competitors that the native flora and fauna was not equpped to deal with.

One of the major elements in the formation of the Pacific islands, after volcanoes, is coral The next area shows different types of coral, with notes on their points of origin, and how they contribute to the formation of the islands. There’s even an aquarium with a model coral reef, complete with fishes.

Next is a large diorama of an atoll, followed by a station noting the kinds of plants and animals that adapt well to island life, followed by another diorama, on one side the coast of a coral island, and on the other an outrigger canoe.

Sure enough, this is followed by a section on canoes, their construction, and navigation. When one considers the importance of sea travel to the peoples of the Pacific islands, it’s no surprize that this section is fairlly detailed. There are examples of the “charts” the islanders used to note the patterns of ocean swells and other aids to navigation. This section contains a video station with two short films, one on the Gogotala tribe of the lowlands of southwest Papua (New Guinea) and the role of canoes in daily life and in religion. The other is titled “The Navigators” and shows how the islanders use swell patterns, cloud patterns and the like to find tieir way across the vast expanse of the Pacific. This section also includes a small station of the settlement of the islands, from people in New Guinea 40,000 years ago to the settlement of New Zealand by 800 C.E. (This discussion has more questions than answers — needless to say, the archaeological record is sparse.)

Next is a section on the Huon Gulf, on the north shore of New Guinea, ca. 1910. There are artifacts and descriptive signage giving a picture of life in the Pacific Islands, detailing men’s and women’s activities and rituals. We then pass through a section giving a sampling of a marketplace in Papeete, Tahiti.

Exiting the main exhibition, to the left is a Maori meeting house (please take your shoes off before entering), and, a little way to the right, the Regenstein Halls of the Pacific. This one shows artifacts illustrating the life of several groups of islanders, from Polynesia, Vanuatu, Melanesia, New Ireland, New Britain, and the Gulf of Papua.

It’s an intriguing exhibition — one stands in awe of the ability of those who settled the islands to find their way across, in some cases, several thousand miles of open ocean. And the Halls of the Pacific provides a good sample of the daily life of the inhabitants of the various groups and a view of their ceremonies and rituals. It’s well worth spending an hour or so.

About Robert Tilendis

Robert M. Tilendis lives a deceptively quiet life. He has made money as a dishwasher, errand boy, legal librarian, arts administrator, shipping expert, free-lance writer and editor, and probably a few other things he’s tried very hard to forget about. He has also been a student of history, art, theater, psychology, ceramics, and dance. Through it all, he has been an artist and poet, just to provide a little stability in his life. Along about January of every year, he wonders why he still lives someplace as mundane as Chicago; it must be that he likes it there.

You may e-mail him, but include a reference to Green Man Review so you don’t get deleted with the spam.