Museums are, without a doubt, important institutions in any society. They are repositories for knowledge and objects of value all over the world. Some view museums as a place to find solace, cultural reflection, and inspiration. Others compare them to schools and view them as educational institutions where they can learn about their past, culture, and tradition.
Museums are seen as keepers of the past, as they manage artifacts that were used by groups who have, in the main, passed on. Visitors believe that their elders have left behind a legacy for the new generation to carry on the culture and tradition of a people.
Even though museums may be compared with other institutions, such as schools, it has been argued that they can provide services to the community that other institutions cannot.1 This article will highlight how museums in Oceania are adapting to the ongoing COVID-19 situation in order to be accessible to visitors. Since indigenous people are known for the art of storytelling and gathering together to impart knowledge, virtual museums and podcasts are effective digital media to reach communities with key climate change information. Two examples from Fiji will be discussed:
firstly, the Fiji Museum, and secondly, Talanoa With Dr. T, a podcast created by Dr. Tarisi Vunidilo as an information-sharing platform for families both in Fiji and around the world.
The Fiji Museum – Virtual Museum Screen capture. © virtual.fijimuseum.org.fj
According to Hirini Mead, there are two types of indigenous museums.2 The first is a single-purpose building that tells a people’s story from prehistory to modern times. The other is a multi-functional tribal cultural center with various functions and purposes, known as a marae in New Zealand. For instance, the Ngati Awa Tribe in New Zealand expected a library, research center, community hall, and an events center to be built alongside the main building, which will serve as a museum. Another example is the custom houses in the Solomon Islands, which have become a repository for culturally valued and historic artifacts, and also serve as ceremonial locations for religious and cultural practices.3
Today, we have “virtual marae” and “digital custom houses” where young and old, urban and rural dwellers can learn about their culture and heritage through virtual storytelling. Virtual museums and podcasts established in Fiji are two effective ways of ensuring that traditional knowledge as ICH is utilized in situations such as the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Way Forward During the COVID-19 Pandemic
In response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, museums and cultural centers around the world closed, while many communities enacted various precautionary measures such as implementing “lockdowns” and “social distancing” to combat the spread of the disease. Community gatherings have been strongly discouraged, which can have an impact on the sharing of knowledge among families and tribes.
In light of the stringent rules implemented in the Pacific, virtual museums have come into existence. Families in lockdown, if they have a stable internet connection, can access these virtual museums and related collections. Such facilities have enabled many to access archival materials, photographs, and audiovisual records related to indigenous knowledge of overcoming disasters. The Fiji Museum, for instance, has a “virtual museum” platform where online visitors can view selected artifacts and exhibitions. They can also post about these artifacts on their social media accounts. As a result, people have begun to share personal stories and memories regarding these artifacts, and online talanoa or storytelling spaces have been formed among Fijians both in Fiji and abroad. Such virtual spaces for storytelling are vital at this time since COVID-19 regulations stipulate social distancing and discourage gathering in groups. These virtual gatherings create opportunities to discuss indigenous knowledge-sharing, which leads to meaningful discussions around island life and everyday issues that islanders face such as sea-level rise and climate change.
Museums, then, are both spaces of empowerment and repositories of valuable indigenous knowledge. Oral histories related to land, ocean, and sky are kept in these institutions. The Fiji Museum, for instance, has found the benefit of sharing collections digitally is twofold: firstly, virtual visitors have been able to explore and enjoy cultural knowledge through the exhibitions; and secondly, the ensuing online discussions have added value to the displays created for visitors. Museum staff have an increased interaction with this online space.
Map of the Fiji Islands, showing the locations of the main islands on which evidence of Lapita-eraoccupation (approximately 3050-2500 BP) has been found. Lapita sites on the main islands Viti Levu and Vanua Levu have names underlined. The inset map shows the Lapita sites known in southwest Viti Levu. © Nunn, Patrick. (2007). Echoes from a distance: research into the Lapita occupation of the Rove Peninsula, southwest Viti Levu, Fiji.
Another example that can serve as evidence of what virtual spaces of sharing and learning can result in, is Talanoa With Dr. T. The author and content creator, Dr. Tarisi Vunidilo, established this online program in April 2020, shortly after COVID-19 began to spread rapidly around the world. In an effort to reach Fijian children in Fiji during the first global lockdown period, Dr. Vunidilo organized storytelling sessions in the iTaukei (indigenous Fijian) language via her Facebook page and YouTube channel. This program has amassed over 40,000 followers via Facebook and subscriber numbers are continuing to grow.
Dr. Vunidilo features in her videos guests who have inspirational stories to share, intended to empower Fijian people during these stressful times. Due to the increased pressure and impact of climate change and sea-level rise in Fiji, particularly the outer islands, Dr. Vunidilo has invited climate change experts as well as academics and environmentalists to share their research data on her platform. Moreover, these guests speak the indigenous iTaukei language (Vosa Vaka Bau), which has enabled relevant climate change messages to reach Fijian homes across the country.
One example is Dr. Rosiana Lagi of the University of the South Pacific, a climate change advocate in Fiji who has appeared twice on Talanoa With Dr. T. In one video, she highlighted traditional knowledge that holds that it is possible to predict hurricanes by observing the over-fruiting of breadfruit.
In the past, when elders noticed this phenomenon, they took this as a sign to expect a hurricane, and urged local communities to prepare for imminent disaster. Dr. Lagi has expressed