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Living Environments in the South Pacific

Pacific Ocean as far as the eye can see, in addition to countless islands and the Australian land mass – all of this is Oceania, also referred to as the South Pacific. With an exhibition that has been designed in the form of a fictitious map, the Übersee-Museum invites its visitors to embark on a scouting expedition on this continent. 18 thematic islands grant insights into the ever-changing relationships between man and nature as well as everyday life in Oceania – in the past and today.

Those navigating through the water and island world of the exhibition will discover the biodiversity in a coral reef or deep-sea research. “On shore” visitors will get to know interesting facts, giving an entirely different meaning to the word “family”, on life with the ancestors or a wedding on the island of Manus. Impressive exhibits clearly demonstrate the relationship of the people of Oceania with one another or with the inhabitants of other continents. They tell stories dating back to the colonial times, and also about the trade routes between Bremen and Oceania.

We thank our partners

Routes to Oceania

In 1884 the German Reich founded first colonies in Oceania. The cultivation of coconut and oil palm, trade with birds of paradise feathers as well as phosphate mining all heralded the promise of economic gains. A decisive prerequisite for success was mail steamer connections in the colonies. However, this came to an end with the First World War – just as the German colonial administration in Oceania.

Writing Desk of Hugo Schauinsland

Bremen, End of the 19th Century

This workplace belonged to the founding director of the Übersee-Museum: Hugo Hermann Schauinsland (1857-1937). For 40 years the zoologist steered the museum’s destiny and significantly contributed to turning it into what it is today. His goal was to build up a diversified collection of exhibits that would succeed in making the Übersee-Museum competitive and would secure it a position among the most important museums of ethnology and natural history in Germany.

Bust of H. H. Meier

Bronze, 20th Century

He opened new paths abroad: In 1857 Hermann Heinrich Meier founded Norddeutscher Lloyd in Bremen. In 1886 it took the imperial mail steamship service to East Asia and Australia and in the following period, developed it into one of the largest shipping companies worldwide. With the expansion of the coastal transport network between the islands of Oceania, the company established a significant foundation for its colonisation.

Skins of Birds of Paradise

Embellishments for ladies’ hats in Europe: In the 19th century, apart from copra, the dried fruit flesh of coconuts, the feathers of the birds of paradise were the most important export product of Oceania. In the northeast of New Guinea, which was formerly Kaiser-Wilhelms-Land, hunting of birds of paradise was a lucrative business for decades. In 1914, however, the German colonial administration introduced controls so as to secure the animal populations.

Crate with Ethnographica

Headdress for initiands (Bougainville, Papua New Guinea), dance shield (Solomon Islands) and leaf apron (East-Bougainville, Papua New Guinea), Headdress (New Ireland, Papua New Guinea).
Early 20th century

Following the routes of Norddeutscher Lloyd: The inventories of the Übersee-Museum that date back to the early 20th century are closely connected to the history of this shipping company. For the most part, when embarking on their collecting journey, the director, Hugo Schauinsland, and Ludwig Cohn, zoological assistant, followed their shipping routes. Karl Nauer, the captain of the Lloyd steamship, also acquired objects in Oceania on behalf of the museum.


“Living fossils”: The tuatara is the last representative of the so-called “beak heads” – these are reptiles that already existed 200 million years ago. Their present-day habitat is limited to some islands off the coast of New-Zealand. There the tuataras are under strict government protection. This display case was designed according to the instructions of Hugo Schauinsland, who caught these animals on Stephen’s Island in 1896.

Stereo Photos on Phosphate Shipping on Angaur, 1910

Highly coveted fertiliser supplement: In the 19th century, the growth rates in European agriculture called for increased utilisation of phosphate-containing fertilisers. In 1908 – following the discovery of phosphate deposits on the Island of Angaur, which belongs to the Palau Islands – the Deutsche Südseephosphat AG was founded in Bremen. With virtually 90,000 tons of shipped phosphate, production reached its peak in 1913.

In the Net of Kinship

Kinship is of great importance in Oceania. The members of a “community” trace their common bond back to a mutual ancestor or place of origin. These social structures are based on kinsman like organisations which become apparent for instance during exchange ceremonies within the context of a wedding. The relevant parties then comply with agreed commitments and thus confirm the social order.


Admiralty Islands, Papua New Guinea, before 1912

Nuptial gifts on Manus: When people got married on this island, relatives of the bride and bridegroom would adorn the bride. To do this, they used clothing and jewellery, bags, as are on display here, or banknotes. Thus adorned, the bride would stride to the groom’s homestead. Here the gifts from the bride’s relatives were distributed among the relatives of the groom – and vice versa.

Model of Sago Packages

Staple food on Manus: Sago starch comes from the marrow of the sago palm. When dried, it is used as flour, for instance for round flat bread. This model shows sago starch filled in leaves and tied up into large bundles. These bundles are then hung in pairs over rods, as a means of transportation. On the occasion of a wedding, the bride’s relatives hand over hundreds of these parcels to the bridegroom’s relatives.

Limestone Calabash

Admiralty Islands, Papua New Guinea, before 1957

Ingredient for betel bites: When arriving at the groom’s homestead, the bride would be carrying a calabash with her, like the one on display. Limestone chalk was stored in it, which, together with the seeds of the Areca palm and the leaves of the betel, is processed into the so-called “betel-bites” that have a mildly stimulating effect. The limestone chalk is removed from the vessel with a spatula.

Feast Apron

Admiralty Islands, Papua New Guinea, approximately 1900

Valuable clothing: These feast aprons, which are made of seeds, feathers, animal hairs, glass beads and polished “slices” of cone snails’ shells (Trochus conus) date back to approximately1900. The latter is also known as snail shell money. Apart from its use as a festival apron, the shells, when strung up to chains, were also used as belts or leg jewellery. They belonged to the gifts the groom’s relatives gave to the relatives of the bride.

Coconut Oil Containers

Admiralty Islands, Papua New Guinea, approximately 1900

Noble essence: In the past, coconut oil was used for refining meals, for personal care or for a number of different rituals. Plenty of time and energy was needed to manufacture it. When celebrating a wedding, the oil was presented as a gift, in containers made of over-modelled coconuts. As with the snail shells or dogtooth money, it was among the gifts made by the relatives of the groom.

Dogtooth Money

Admiralty Islands, Papua New Guinea, approximately 1900

Teeth of significance: Just as snail shell money or coconut oil, dogtooth money is among the traditional objects of value handed over to the relatives of the bride by the relatives of the groom. Today, however, on the occasion of a wedding, these objects are only rarely seen. The dogs’ eyeteeth, which are still valuable to this very day, are decorated in delicate incised patterns and have a hole drilled into them. Today, they are incorporated into new jewellery items as decorations.

Living with the Ancestors

In Oceania, the world of the living is closely linked to the world of the ancestors. In this mortal world, ancestors are always present and their influence can be observed everywhere. The living have an ambivalent relationship toward them: On the one hand, they mourn the death of their loved ones and honour their memory – on the other hand, they dread the ancestors, trying their best to gain their goodwill and avert negative influencing.

Hareiga Mask

Baining, New Britain, Papua New Guinea, Early 20th Century

Ready to dance: In the past, on the occasion of the Taro harvest, the Baining of New Britain organised coming-of-age celebrations and festivities, into which the ancestors and spirit beings were also incorporated. The so-called day dances represented the culmination of these festivities – with the presentation of the Hareiga masks as the highlight. Many men were needed in order to raise the masks. The last time these masks were seen was at a celebration in 1927.

Malangan Carving

New Ireland, Papua New Guinea, approximately 1900

Bequeathing rights: In commemoration of their deceased, the inhabitants of the Island of New Ireland held the so-called Malangan ceremonies. For this, the bereaved had special carvings made. By presenting them during the ceremony, as well as by means of speeches held especially for this purpose, the rights of the deceased were bequeathed to the living. The festivities represented the conclusion of a long period of mourning.

Log drum

Sepik, Papua New Guinea, approximately 1900

Messages – also from the hereafter: Log drums from the banks of the Sepik in Papua New Guinea are used in a number of different manners. They serve as musical instruments or for communicating messages. In addition, during ceremonies, the drum signals were also considered the “voices of the ancestors.” By using wooden strikers, the side wall is struck, at a position located close to the slit and the drum body thus starts vibrating.

Mask Costume

Asmat, West-Papua, Indonesia, before 1965

Passage between the worlds: Costumes like these are worn by the Asmat in the Indonesian part of the Island of New Guinea during their jipae festivities. During these celebrations, the spirits of the deceased are invited with the purpose of bidding them farewell into the world of the ancestors. To make the farewell easier, the living use mask dances and delicious food to ensure a jovial and peaceful atmosphere.

Ancestral Figure

Admiralty Islands, Papua New Guinea, before 1912

Ancestor with character: Inhabitants of the Admiralty Islands believe that the deceased become ancestors who, just like the living, have their own personalities. What is more, they have special powers. Generally speaking, the ancestors – frequently represented in the form of figures, as can be seen here – use these powers to protect their descendants. However, if they treat them without respect and neglect their obligations toward them, they can also harm them.


Siar, Astrolabe-Bay, Papua New Guinea, approximately 1900

Fallen into oblivion: Such sculptures presumably embodied the ancestors and stood concealed inside of ceremonial or men’s houses. They were the central focus of ceremonies. Already around 1900, at the Astrolabe-Bay of Papua New Guinea, the place of origin of these exhibits, figures like these no longer existed. Colonialism and missionary work had led to the rejection of rural cultural lifestyles.

Oceania and "around"

Never isolated: The population groups of Oceania have always practised active exchange with one another, and this has continued to this very day. In the course of their travels, the people took along plants, materials, devices and knowledge on these items’ utilisation and significance. Examples of traces of these influences can be found, among others, in the great variety of different artistic forms of expression. Here the regional peculiarities, but also elements that link all artistic forms, are recognisable.

Pirogue boat from the Solomon Islands

Vella Lavella, New Georgia, Solomon Islands

Holds without one single nail: Boats like these were used for military expeditions until the end of the 19th century. The boat offered space for up to 30 warriors. The construction of boats like these took years – with stone tools, up to nine years were needed, and with tools made of iron, introduced by the Europeans, up to two years were needed. The planks stick together by means of lacing. The spaces were sealed with a kind of putty.

Dancing Shield

Bougainville, Solomon Islands, Early 20th Century

Dancing equipment for the man: Such shields were used at the start of the 20th century in the south of the Island of Bougainville, which, geographically seen, belongs to the Solomon Islands. With the clearly visible, rectangular hand, a dancer could hold the shield. Adult men danced with these shields on the occasion of initiation ceremonies that celebrated the official initiation of boys into the community of men.

Clove Boat as a Souvenir

Molucca (Maluku), Indonesia, approximately 1890

A special souvenir: Until the late 18th century, cloves and mace or nutmeg only grew on the Moluccan Islands. Already long before the Europeans discovered this archipelago in the 16th century, the island inhabitants already traded their spices with the Arabs, Chinese, Malayan and Indians. In the 19th century, model boats like these, or baskets made of cloves, were manufactured as souvenirs and found their way to Europe in this form.

Plank Bed Legs

Mangon, Lou Island, Admiralty Islands, Papua New Guinea, before 1912

Well bedded: Figures like these, or also stylized fish, served the purpose of legs for plank beds on the Admiralty Islands, around 1912. They were stuck into the frame of a plank bed by means of tenons. Most commonly, the four legs had uniform motifs. People slept on the plank beds – or they were used during ceremonies. Here, for instance, on the occasion of a wedding ceremony, the bride was carried to the groom’s house on a plank bed.

Woven Mat

Caroline Islands

Made of banana and hibiscus: In the past, weaving was done on numerous islands of Micronesia. The different people developed own weaving traditions, yet they all used the same plant fibres. The arrival of whale catchers, dealers and missionaries during the 19th century, saw the onset of the demise of artisan work. Today, only the women of the outer islands of Yap, in the Western Caroline Islands, still weave.

Korwar Figure

Geelvink-Bay, West Papua, Indonesia, approximately 1900

Mediator between the worlds: The korwar figures represent ancestors, but not only that. They also serve the purpose of communicating between the living and their deceased. The figure represents the medium through which the advice and help of an ancestor is requested. In addition to this, via the korwar figure, the deceased can receive a number of sacrifices from the living. This exhibit from the Indonesian part of the Island of New Guinea is dated at approximately 1900.

Deep-Sea – Further than the Moon

It is a matter of fact that, to this very day, people know more about the moon than they do about the deep-sea – the dark areas of the oceans, starting at a depth of 300 metres. These areas are inaccessible for humans due to the high pressure. Yet, already in 1858, research has confirmed that a great variety of organisms do actually live there. They live off the nutrients that sink from the surface.

Deep-Sea Lander

Bremen 2003
Item on loan from the Max Planck Institute for Marine Microbiology, Bremen

Unmanned on an exploring journey: This deep-sea lander is used for work in depths of up to 6,000 metres. It has been programmed to sink down to the ocean bed, where measurements are made, after which it then surfaces again, following an acoustic signal from the mother ship. The bottom part of the construction contains a battery, the steering unit and measuring tools. The yellow containers on top serve the purpose of buoyant elements.

Sediment Traps

Bremen 2003
Item on loan from GEOMAR Kiel

Information from the top: A sediment trap collects particles that sink down from the ocean’s surface. It is placed in the desired depth with the help of a cord, and anchored to the ocean floor with a weight. A number of different materials trickle through a funnel into the acrylic glass tubes of the trap. Since they can be exchanged automatically, researchers can establish which particle sinks when and how fast.

Black Smoker

Place of finding: North Fiji Basin, Pacific, 2,000 m depth, 1998
Item on loan from the Mineralogical Institute of the Free University of Berlin

Hotspot on the ocean floor: The phenomenon of the so-called black smokers in the Pacific Ocean was only discovered in 1977. Under certain geological circumstances a hot liquid with a temperature of approximately 300°C escapes. Metallic sulphur compounds, which are poisonous for most organisms, are released in the process. Despite this, the black smokers are surrounded by a rich variety of fauna.

Black Right Whale

Pacific Ocean, Antarctic Ocean

Feed for many: Most of the deep sea inhabitants’ food comes from the upper layers of the ocean. Filter feeders collect small food particles from the current. Sediment feeders get their share from the ocean floor. Scavengers use a chemical system to sense where their food is. Ultimately, everyone benefits from the carcass of a black right whale that has sunk down to the ocean floor, and whose skeleton can be seen here.

Giant Sea Flea

The largest among its peers: Marine sea fleas can be found worldwide, as is the case with Eurythenes gryllus. It has a length of 7 cm and lives close to the ocean floor – as a scavenger. Here it hovers inertly and thus only uses very little energy. It waits until it smells rotting carcasses. Once it has discovered a carcass, the giant sea fleas can digest large quantities of carrion within a short period of time.

Whale Baleen

Dental prosthesis of a slightly different kind: Instead of teeth, some whale species have a lot of this baleen hair in dense rows in their upper jaws. They function like a fishing net, where the prey gets caught when the whale swims with an open mouth. In doing so, swarms of little crabs, fish, squids or also plankton can be caught.

Life in a Coral Reef

Coral reefs are among the habitats with the largest biodiversity. And, what is more: They take on important functions regarding coastal protection of tropical islands in addition to providing the local population with nourishment. By means of individual scenes from the reef, visitors can clearly recognise the importance of the interplay between different organisms in building up and maintaining this important ecological system.

Brain Coral

Community of mutual benefit: Hard corals such as these on display here are nocturnal animals. They live in a symbiotic relationship with minute algae. They provide the corals with nutrients and for this enjoy their protection. Hard corals form large colonies that only grow slowly and become hundreds of years old. Because the pattern on their surface is reminiscent of a brain, they are also known as brain corals.

Daisy Parrotfish

Construction material supplier: Parrotfish live in tropical oceans, mostly in coral reefs. They live on algae and corals. When “grazing” a reef, they use their powerful teeth to grind up living and dead corals. This coral material is excreted again, and in the process this contributes to densification of the reef. It fills up chinks and chasms and thus has a stabilising effect.

Brindle Bass

Carnivore with own territory: The brindle bass originates from the Indo-Pacific region. With a length of up to three metres and a weight of up to 400 kilograms, it is the largest bony fish living in coral reefs. These rogues inhabit caverns and live off crustaceans or fish. Young marine turtles and small sharks are also on their menu.

Diadematidae Sea Urchins

Protection in the group: Diadematidae sea urchins also live in the Indo-Pacific. Here, they are preferably found close to rocks or coral reefs in a depth of up to 30 metres. By day, they hide in caverns and crevices, or: to protect them against their natural enemies, they huddle closely together. Thus they form an impenetrable prickly forest. Only once night has come, they go foraging and feed off algae.

Three-Stripe Damsel

Fear of loss: Damsel fish species like these live in small groups, inhabiting individual branch coral colonies in the Pacific. Even when searching for small food particles, they rarely move further away than one metre from “their” coral colony. Their bond to it is so large that they even try and clamp themselves into the branches when the coral – for instance for an experiment – is lifted out of the water.

Ocellaris Clownfish

Tit for tat: Anemone fish live in a close protective community together with sea anemones. They protect the anemone fish from their natural enemies with their nettling tentacles. In return, the anemone fish chase away possible natural enemies of the sea anemones. By the way: The sea anemones recognise the fish as “their” friends, as, little by little, they absorb their odourants into their own mucous layer.