PieAm: Many Islands, Many Stories

Brenna Barrett
10:50am |
While the ‘new museum smell’ has yet to fade from the Pacific Island Ethnic Art Museum [PieAM], its origins stretch back to the 1970s, when Dr. Robert Gumbiner made his first visit to Guam.

Brenna Barrett, Executive Director of PieAM, talked about his early days in the Pacific Islands, the scope of the collections, and plans for the institution’s future.

Sander: What brought Dr Gumbiner to the Pacific Islands?

Brenna: Dr. Robert Gumbiner first went to Guam in the mid- 1970’s for FHP. FHP was his privately owned health care company, a pioneer in the field at the time because they started pre-paid medical. From Guam he branched out and started doing clinics in other islands. Some of these were so remote it took 6 months by cargo ship to reach.

He has built sea walls, bridges and then in the late 1980’s started the Ethnic Art Institute of Micronesia (EAIM). As people can imagine, he is quite well known and, if you ask someone in Guam or the other islands if they are going to the doctor/hospital, they will say, “No, I am going to FHP”. Obviiously it has become an integral part of the community, and way of life in the islands.

The goal of EAIM was to revitalize the lost arts, traditions and cultures. It continues till this day, and was the foundation for PieAM. The reason for PieAM landing in Long Beach is because of Dr. Robert GUmbiner’s close ties the city, accessibility, relationship with the ports, and the large concentration of Pacific Islanders that currently reside in Southern California.

Sander: How has EAIM worked with indigenous populations to preserve their cultural heritage?

Brenna: EAIM has created a training program, really a life-long commitment to artists in residency programs. In addition, it is much more covering the cultural implications, historical signifigance, and village set-up. There are amazing stories of the items being “found”. For example there was a food bowl that was taken off-island during the German occupation period and, when it was brought back, the carvers started their apprentiship program to re-create this bowl. Then the bowl, the stories, the oral traditions were shared and the bowl was used in daily life in the villages.

In addition, EAIM has gallery space, a store to support the artists (soon to be PieAM’s online e-commerce site), classes, cultural demonstrations, cultural tours, lectures and hands on activities for youth and adults.

Sander: One of the unfortunate trends taking place all over the world is a kind of cultural globalization that weakens the connection people have to traditional ways of living. Have young people in Micronesia embraced their cultural traditions, and recognized their intrinsic value?

Brenna: EAIM was based in Yap, in the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM). Yap is one of 4 states in the FSM. Yap is known as one of the most traditional islands. In the last couple of years you do see the internet, and facebook, slowly making its ways into the population. But there is a huge aspect of daily life that is still traditional, and a huge base of support on the island to keep it this way.

Currently there are 2 flights a week to reach the island. With less than 3,000 annual visitors, most from neighboring islands, Yap as well as many other islands will continue to retain its cultural traditions.

Sander: Can you talk a bit about the scope of the collection?

Brenna: The original collection was comprised of over 1000 pieces from Dr. Robert Gumbiner himself, personally. In addition, The Robert Gumbiner Foundation also had a collection close to 1000 pieces. The third is the EAIM collection, which is being shared with PieAM.

Since the planning of this museum has begun we have also been honored to add 19 other collections. These have ranged from quite large to quite small in donation size. They also encompase all three of the regions in the Pacific Islands (PI): Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia. This is the only museum of its kind that covers all 3 regions in the Pacific. The collections encompass everything from carvings to weavings to film footage to books to photos

The most valuable collection at the museum as been the community, and what the community has entrusted to PieAM. For example, with our first exhibit we did a 100% community driven exhibit, Walk-In. This is multi dimensional, looking at the living arts: the dancer as an artist, the healer as an artists, and the mother through a creation story as an artist.

The most valuable piece of this is the audio tour; Sharing Story. This is the beginning of the resource library where you can hear community members share their story as it has been passed down for generations to come. This is a 5 year old boy, a grandmother, a hip hop artist sharing their art from the Pacific Islands.

Sander: Are there plans to help local Pacific Islanders learn traditional art making techniques through PieAM?

Brenna: Yes. We have four components to our educational programming.

1) Our educational classes that will launch this January. This is an aggressive 16 courses per quarter covering all topics relating to PI culture in the PI sphere of art, business and community.

2) Our educational events. We have our first spoken word event, Pasifika Voice 2010: The New Wayfinders. It will take place on December 4, 2010. This is a very contemporary event of 14 headline artists, live art taking place with JPPacificOriginals, music and dance from Kontiki and Nonisina, as well as a contemporary art display from Chuck Feesago. All in all an amazing event. I encourage people to check it out at: www.pieam.org/spokenword.

3) Our educational school and community tours. We are inviting groups into the museum for tours and add-on lectures, hands on activities, and classes.

4) We are engaged in community outreach. All of our exhibits are built to travel. We can take them to office buildings, festivals, art walks and other community events. This is truly bringing the art to the people.

5) Soon, we will have on-line resources for youth, educators, and parents. We’ll also have online activities such as facebook educational programs.

Sander: Are there plans to digitize the collection, and create a virtual museum?

Brenna: Yes, that is part of our future plan to make this a world wide museum, accessible to everyone. I think you will also see that with our upcoming events. For example Pasifika Living Arts will be the first weekend of May 2011. This is a 3 day celebration to highlight not only the lviing arts but to document them as well. This will also be done with live web-streaming and social media interaction to open this up to the world. In addition, this is a great way to celebrate the month of May as Pacific Islander Heritage Month!

The Pacific Island Ethnic Art Museum is located 695 Alamitos Avenue on the triangle between East 7th Street, Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue (MLK Ave.) and Alamitos Avenue. The museum is open from Wednesday through Sunday from 11 AM to 5 PM. There is a $5 admission for adults, and $3 for students and seniors. Children under 12 are free.

Support our journalism.

Hyperlocal news is an essential force in our democracy, but it costs money to keep an organization like this one alive, and we can’t rely on advertiser support alone. That’s why we’re asking readers like you to support our independent, fact-based journalism. We know you like it—that’s why you’re here. Help us keep hyperlocal news alive in Long Beach.