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‘Rising Tide: Art and Environment in Oceania’ Exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland

This week, we take you on a virtual visit to one of your favourite places in Edinburgh, The National Museum of Scotland. Our exploration takes us on a sea-faring journey that is poignant, educational, and filled with hope. So, join us as we cross the extensive waters to the Central and South Pacific via Edinburgh, and learn more about ‘Rising Tide: Art and Environment in Oceania’.

‘Rising Tide’ Exhibition

Throughout the vast and diverse region of Oceania, humans have shared a unique and profound connection with the water that surrounds them. For centuries, the people living in the Central and South Pacific have relied on the ocean not only for sustenance but also for spiritual and cultural enrichment. The rhythmic lapping of the waves against the shores has provided a soothing backdrop to daily life, while the crystal-clear waters have offered a gateway to a world teeming with vibrant marine life. This connection to the water in Oceania is not just physical but also deeply spiritual, symbolising a harmonious relationship between humans and nature that has endured the test of time.

However, we live in a time of incredible uncertainty and turmoil- faced with the horrors of climate change. As a result, there are some who face an entire shift or even disappearance in their culture and way of life. Yet the people that make the Central and South Pacific their home have shown an incredible sense of perseverance and resilience.

The Wee Walking Tours family (whose members speak English and Finnish) has a great deal of respect for this resilience. In fact, while there is not an exact translation into English, there is a special word in the Finnish language that captures the type of agency that the Pacific Islanders show- sisu. And it is this resilience, sisu, that is a central theme of the National Museum of Scotland’s current exhibition, ‘Rising Tide: Art and Environment in Oceania’.

Sea levels are rising faster in Oceania faster than anywhere else in the world and it is these rising tides (hence the exhibition’s name) the people must fight against. However, the resilience that I mentioned above can be encapsulated with the following quote from the campaign group, 350Pacific- “We are not drowning, we are fighting.”

Many of the indigenous natural resources that the Pacific islanders use to create cultural objects are at risk due to climate change, and they have had to get creative in how they sustain their culture. For example, many of us know the unfortunate fact that much of the world’s oceans are filled with garbage including plastics and ghost nets (discarded plastic fishing nets). However, Pacific Islanders have used these items to both create cultural artefacts and call awareness to the dangers of these items to marine life.

One of the most poignant parts of the ‘Rising Tide’ exhibition is the installation, Bottled Ocean 2123, done by artist, George Nuku.

Nuku is of Māori, Scottish, and German descent. As you enter the installation, you must imagine you are “100 years into the future. The ice caps have melted, the planet is flooded and plastic permeates all life on earth.” Nuku “asks us to redefine our relationship with single-use plastic and treat it as taonga (treasured) material. Bottled Ocean transforms the plastic that we use and throw away into Māori cultural treasures”. Overall, Nuku’s art- and the ‘Rising Tide’ exhibition as a whole- highlights our impact on the environment and the cultural resilience of the Oceanic peoples.

‘Facing the Sea’ Gallery

After you have a chance to explore the ‘Rising Tide’ exhibition, we highly encourage you to head over to the ‘Facing the Sea’ gallery as you can continue your exploration of life in Oceania. Significantly, this gallery is the only one in the UK dedicated to the cultures of the South Pacific.

It is important to note that the Museum doesn’t just display the artefacts without context as they make sure to tell the stories- good and bad. Therefore, the history of the British colonisation of the Pacific is an important aspect that must be confronted when exploring this gallery (and many others for that matter).


For example, the Museum highlights the history of James Cook’s three voyages to the Pacific which laid the groundwork for the eventual colonisation of Fiji and the Solomon Islands. And they point out that there were many Scottish people (e.g. travellers or missionaries) eager to exploit these opportunities. Therefore, the “objects that they collected while living in the Pacific reflect different local encounters. Items were traded, gifted, sold, surrendered, taken or looted”.


One of my favourite artefacts in the ‘Facing the Sea’ gallery is one that I find incredibly ingenious- a coconut fibre armour! According to the Museum, “traditionally, warriors on Kiribati resolved disputes through formal duels” and needed something effective to protect them from the “shark tooth weapons used in combat”. However, there are few natural resources in this region, and the locals had to work with what they had. This resulted in armour created from coconut fibre and it’s one of the most unique artefacts I’ve ever come across.


Tusitala: Robert Louis Stevenson and Samoa


Of course, this gallery would be remiss if it didn’t feature one of the most famous Scots to have lived in the South Pacific- Edinburgh’s very own- Robert Louis Stevenson (RLS). Stevenson’s love of adventure didn’t just play out in his classic stories, such as Treasure Island. What some of you may not know is that he lived real-life adventures and travelled around the world.

Stevenson eventually ended up in the South Pacific and the island of Samoa; he fell in love with the location and people and moved there with his family (his wife, children, and his mother). In fact, he endeared himself to the locals and they gave him the nickname, Tusitala- which means teller of stories. He lived the last four years of his life in Samoa and is buried there. Pictured below are just a few of the items from his time there (related to this, if you're interested in seeing more artefacts and pictures from RLS' time in Samoa as well as his life in general, be sure to check out The Writers' Museum here in Edinburgh).


Well, that’s going to do it for this sea-faring virtual voyage. While some of the topics we discussed this week are heavy, we hope you come away with a sense of hope and resilience that the Oceanic peoples have shown over the centuries. We highly recommend you visit the National Museum of Scotland including the powerful ‘Rising Tides’ exhibition which is on display until 14 April 2024. You can check the Museum’s website for more information on how to best plan your visit.


And, if you’ve enjoyed this visit to the National Museum of Scotland, be sure to check out our past articles on two of their newest galleries as well as past exhibitions on Typewriters, Viking-Age Treasures, and Tyrannosaurs.


Until next time- Explore & Discover!


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