by Suzanne Fischer

Objects from a collection

From Boom Spring 2015, Vol 5, No 1

“Facing West from California’s shores, / Inquiring, tireless, seeking what is yet unfound, / I, a child, very old, over waves, towards the house of maternity, the land of migrations, look afar, / Look off the shore of my Western Sea—the circle almost circled…”

Walt Whitman’s searching verses on the Pacific gaze were made concrete at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915. The words, inscribed on a piece of monumental didactic sculpture, the Arch of the Setting Sun, in the spectacular Court of the Universe, in the fantastic sudden city, proclaimed that San Francisco, and America, had risen, and was rising.

Bilum (string bag) from late nineteenth century Papua New Guinea. Collection of the Oakland Museum of California, Museum Purchase, Dr. John Rabe D.D.S. Collection.

“Pacific” was the key term in the exposition’s name. The fair presented a vision of an increasingly unified Pacific region under the control of American economic and political power.

“We may see in [Whitman’s] lines,” wrote a guide to the fair’s inscriptions, “the poet speaking as the personification and representative of the Aryan race—the race which, having its origin in Asia, has, by virtue of the spirit of conquest, the desire to be forever ‘seeking what is yet unfound,’ finally reached the Western edge of the American continent, whence ‘facing West from California’s shores,’ Aryan civilization looks ‘toward the house of maternity, the land of migrations’ from which it originally sprung.”1 “The circle almost circled” was the new frontier of American conquest. Of course, San Francisco’s Pacific connections didn’t begin in 1915. California had been part of a coherent Pacific region for hundreds of years, as a place that facilitated exchanges between indigenous people of the coasts and Pacific Islanders, a launching point for trade with Asia, a link in the global chain of whaling and sealing, and, increasingly throughout the nineteenth century, a magnet for migrants from the Pacific Islands and Asia.

For fair organizers, “Pacific” mostly meant Asian. (The conceptual erasing of the Pacific Islands in the rush to get to Asia has been described by historian Bruce Cumings as “rimspeak.”) They saw China and Japan as critically important to America’s prosperous Pacific future—and to the success of the fair. Because the fair was mostly locally funded, organizers personally invested in its success. They campaigned against California’s anti-Japanese Alien Land Law, worried that it would stop Japan and China from participating in the fair. Although the law passed in 1913, both countries still participated in the fair in great numbers. Japan and China not only created official pavilions encouraging trade, but also encouraged merchants to exhibit their wares in the main palaces. San Francisco’s Chinese American communities enthusiastically joined in the festivities; the fair was such a heterogeneous, multivalent, expansive space that despite its imperial tone, they found room to celebrate their cultures and argue for inclusion as equals in the grand narrative of global destiny.

Despite the Asian emphasis, other peoples of the Pacific attended the fair. “Pacific” could also mean Latin America, especially with the fair’s focus on the Panama Canal. Argentina’s pavilion, for instance, highlighted the nation’s modernity and growing political power.2

America’s new oceanic colonies—Hawaii, the Mariana Islands, and the Philippines—were also on display. Strategically valuable to the United States both for their own natural resources and as waystations for ships crossing to Asia, they also served as emblems of the country’s new role in the world as an empire with overseas territories. These colonies had been recently acquired: in the Spanish-American War of 1898, and, in the case of Hawaii, through a cabal of American businessmen and politicians that overthrew Queen Lili’uokalani.

The cultures of these oceanic colonies were displayed in frankly exploitative contexts. For example, Hawaiian culture appeared in three different places at the fair: the official territorial pavilion, a cafe and music venue in the Palace of Horticulture, and a concession on “the Zone,” the fair’s midway. Like other world’s fairs, the Panama-Pacific included “ethnographic village” exhibits, which included a Hawaiian Village as well as a Samoan Village and an Australasian (Maori) Village. (Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote of the New Zealand Building: “We saw the ugly native islanders that used to be the cannibal tribes in Australia and New Zealand.”3) The territorial government objected to the Hawaiian Village Zone concession. Territorial officials worried that its emphasis on the primitiveness of Hawaiian culture, and especially its highly sexualized version of the hula, undermined the official territorial government’s goals of promoting tourism and establishing Hawaiian culture as assimilable, romantic, and nonthreatening.4 The third venue, the pineapple-company-sponsored Hawaiian Gardens, featured Hawaiian music and helped start a national craze for the ukulele. These venues, although focused on promoting specific messages about Native Hawaiians and about white American imperial power, nevertheless also gave dancers, musicians, and artisans space to preserve and celebrate traditional aspects of their cultures. They also gave many fairgoers their first personal exposure to Pacific cultures.

Maori artisans from the Rotorua area made this patu paraoa (whalebone club) for exhibition at the New Zealand pavilion at the Panama-Pacific International Exhibition. Collection of the Oakland Museum of California, Museum Purchase.


Facing the Pacific was a key orientation for both the fair’s organizers and visitors. The fair was a pivot—not a point at which everything changed, but a point at which longstanding, evolving messages and relationships crystallized for a world audience. This centennial vantage point is a golden opportunity to evaluate the consequences of “the circle almost circled” for Californians and our Pacific neighbors.

This Marquesan porpoise tooth peue ‘ei (headdress) was made around 1885. Collection of the Oakland Museum of California, Museum Purchase, Dr. John Rabe D.D.S. Collection.


Waseisei whaletooth necklace, probably from Fiji, late nineteenth century. Collection of the Oakland Museum of California, Museum Purchase, Dr. John Rabe D.D.S. Collection.


Model canoe from Samoa, around 1900. Collection of the Oakland Museum of California, Gift of Mrs. Howard L. Osgood.


This kava bowl was made in Samoa in the late nineteenth century. Collection of the Oakland Museum of California, Museum Purchase, Dr. John Rabe D.D.S. Collection.


Fishhook and cordage from Pulusuk Island, Micronesia, 1910s. Collection of the Oakland Museum of California, Gift of Cdr. Kearney.


A shell trumpet from Manus, Papua New Guinea, early twentieth century. Collection of the Oakland Museum of California, Gift of Lt. Cmdr. C. T. Budney.



1. Porter Gamett, The Inscriptions at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition (San Francisco: The San Francisco News Company, 1915), 10–11.

2. Abigail Markwyn, Empress San Francisco: The Pacific Rim, the Great West, and California at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2014), 52.

3. Laura Ingalls Wilder, October 14, 1915, West from Home: Letters of Laura Ingalls Wilder, San Francisco 1915 (New York: Harper and Row, 1974), 105.

4. Markwyn, 58–59.

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