James Finch

Reframing Oceania is an AHRC funded Collaborative Doctoral Partnership with the British Museum investigating the museum’s collections of archives, objects and images relating to the nineteenth-century colonial Pacific. The aim is to identify new narratives and to consider how histories of the colonial Pacific could be (re)constructed and publicly presented.

This project will go beyond research focused on specific places, object types or individual collectors to address inter-relationships and broad themes relevant across the Pacific. It will promote new perspectives on the distinctive histories of Pacific Islanders and their relationships with other parts of the world, particularly Britain. The emphasis will be on the period c.1820-1920, paying particular attention collection methods and indigenous agency across the colonial Pacific. 

By considering how this research may help reframe interpretations of Pacific history, it will explore the ways in which Pacific Islanders in recent years have re-activated and represented their histories through collaborative projects with the Museum. The project will examine how the ensemble of resources relating to the Pacific collections can generate new narratives of colonial history in the British Museum. 

Aims of the project: 

  • To identify individual Pacific Islanders’ lives represented in the collections of Pacific objects, images, and associated archives in the  British Museum.
  • To investigate what the objects and images in the collection can tell us about the nature and impact of British colonialism in the Pacific.
  • To investigate how the collections reinforce and challenge exciting knowledge paradigms of Pacific peoples and highlight indigenous agency evident within the collections.
  • To use the findings to present new narratives of colonial Pacific history within the British Museum and identify what narratives are currently missing.

While studying at the University of East Anglia’s Department of Art History and World Art Studies and the world leading Sainsbury Research Unit, James developed an interest in the visual arts (contemporary and historical) of Oceania. In 2015/16 James took part in an academic exchange with the University of Auckland, Aotearoa New Zealand. While attending Auckland University James had the opportunity to engage with Pacific art and history first-hand, both on and off campus.

Research interests: collecting and history of collections, museum collections and archives, material culture studies, British colonial and imperial history, contemporary Oceanic art and artists.


Supervisors: Prof. Margot Finn (UCL) and Dr Gaye Sculthorpe (British Museum)
Title: 'Reframing Oceania: towards new narratives of the colonial Pacific in the British Museum, 1820-1920'.
Expected completion date: 2023