Missionaries & Idols in Polynesia is an exhibition documenting the London Missionary Society from 1792 to 1825 showing its formation to its initial ‘success’ in Polynesia. Many of the objects have not been on public display since the 19th Century.
'The first Europeans to follow the European explorers of the 18th Century into the South Pacific were missionaries. They were sent by an Evangelical Christian organisation called The London Missionary Society, whose aim was to bring the word of the Bible to all peoples — ‘to illume a dark and sinful world’. Their first target was the island of Tahiti, an island of extravagant beauty, inhabited by a people of astonishing sophistication. The missionaries settled down, learned the language, and stayed for decades. Although their aim was to Christianise the islanders and eradicate the traditional religion along with its pagan idols, they ended up recording a good deal about Polynesian culture and even saving a good number of the very idols they came 12,000 miles to destroy.
Along with historical graphics and archives, the exhibition shows some of the idols and artefacts which the missionaries brought back; in the words of missionary Rev John Williams, it puts on view an historical ‘ocular demonstration’ of the LMS.
However questionable the missionary endeavour the writings and collections included in the exhibition show that the missionaries were also agents of cultural preservation.
The exhibition includes loans of previously un-exhibited objects from the British Museum, National Maritime Museum, Cuming Museum, Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology Cambridge University, SOAS University of London and private collections to be shown together for the first time.
Guest curator, David Shaw King, is a biochemist at the University of California, Berkeley and author of Food for the Flames: Idols and Missionaries in Polynesia.