More than a roof over one’s head

Buildings from Oceania

The houses in the exhibition of the Ethnologisches Museum in the Humboldt Forum are from various regions of Oceania. Depending on their source community, they display diverse techniques of construction. The buildings also reflect the structure of society or the cosmic order. They served as abodes for people, ancestors, spirits, or deities and housed cult objects, valuable items, or food stores. They often stood on land that linked the inhabitants to their ancestors and that continues to form the basis of social identity to this day. The gallery offers an impressive perspective of the houses of Palau and Papua New Guinea. The bai, the Palau meeting house, resembles the ones in Palau in many respects, despite its reduced scale. Villages in Palau used to have several meeting houses – for the council of chiefs and the clubs of men of the same age. The women’s clubs usually met in dwelling houses. Due to the drastic interventions in local power relations by the German and, later, Japanese colonial governments, the men’s clubs lost much of their power.
In 1907, the doctor and ethnologist Augustin Krämer came to Palau and had a bai built for the Ethnologisches Museum in Berlin. This house was first shown to the public in 1908. Sixty years later a floor and roof truss were added. In the summer of 2022, a team from Palau headed by Patrick Tellei put a new roof on the meeting house in the Humboldt Forum. The cult house of the Abelam in Papua New Guinea, an imposing addition to the group of magnificent buildings from Oceania in the Humboldt Forum, is a replica. With its impressive painted gable and its two initiation chambers, it provides insight into the architecture and significance of the Abelam cult houses, which are no longer built today.

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Room 220 – Buildings from Oceania

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