Artist Jason "JP" Pereira leads an art walk of an exhibition at the Pacific Island Ethnic Art Museum that's composed of a collection of pieces inspired by deaths at the hands of COVID-19, Sunday, May 22, 2022. Photo by Brandon Richardson.

One of the first things you see inside the Pacific Island Ethnic Art Museum is the frame of a wooden house set up in the middle of the museum’s small gallery. The house’s interior is adorned with stones, traditional cloths and other distinctive pieces that come from islands you probably didn’t even know existed.

But possibly the most unique thing about it is the set of words carved onto the ground of the museum floor, just in front of the house’s entrance: “ask permission.”

Those words aren’t directing visitors to the curator or the staff, but to the ancestors who made the objects on display.

No, museum-goers don’t literally have to ask permission. But the message asks visitors to take a moment to show respect and appreciation not just for the piece itself, but for the work put into it long ago and the life of the materials that went into its creation.

This approach and appreciation for the museum’s artifacts—which the facility calls its “ancestor pieces” as a sign of respect—is what defines the small museum at 695 Alamitos Ave., directly across the street from the Museum of Latin American Art.

The PIEAM is small and can be easy to miss if you aren’t looking for it. But that is fitting, in a way, considering the areas the artwork represents. Pacific Islanders generally trace their families back to Polynesia, Micronesia, or Melanesia, as well as a few major islands outside of those chains. Many of those islands are small enough for your eyes to skip right past on a map or a globe.

There are some well-known and larger places, like Papua New Guinea, that are considered Pacific islands, but most of the 1,778 islands are small, like the Crown Islands and Guam, where current museum director and curator Fran Lujan was born. The average size of the Pacific islands, according to the Asia Oceania Geosciences Society, is 171 square kilometers, smaller than Catalina Island.

This has led to many islands being overlooked or entirely forgotten, Lujan says, and the PIEAM’s mission is to ensure that these islands are represented and their traditions are not forgotten.

“No one is too small to count,” she said.

Dana Rodriguez, 39, and her daughter, Natalia, walk through the Pacific Island Ethnic Art Museum sculpture garden Sunday, May 22, 2022. Photo by Brandon Richardson.

The PIEAM was founded by Dr. Robert Gumbiner, the namesake for Gumbiner Park that is directly adjacent to the museum. Gumbiner was an avid traveler who made his way to the Pacific islands in the 1960s and became more involved with the island of Guam through business in the ‘70s, where his appreciation for the culture of the islands grew.

He established a precursor to the PIEAM—the Ethnic Art Institute of Micronesia (EAIM)—on the island of Yap in Micronesia in 1994. The museum had a similar mission to its Long Beach successor: to highlight and revive the traditional art and dance of the Pacific islands. Gumbiner was truly passionate about the subject; he also had a private collection of works occasionally put on display in Long Beach.

That laid the foundation for the PIEAM. Gumbiner oversaw the initial designs of the Long Beach museum until he died in 2009. The museum opened in October 2010, and Lujan became its curator in 2019.

The PIEAM highlights communities in the Pacific islands through the promotion of their art and traditions. As the only museum in the continental U.S. to be entirely dedicated to the preservation and amplification of Pacific island art, Lujan feels a unique duty to share her heritage in the most genuine and appreciative way possible.

“When I die, I know my ancestors will ask me, ‘Did you share us?’,” Lujan said.

While she initially came to the United States for graduate school, she ended up staying longer than expected when her parents got sick. Though she has enjoyed her time in Long Beach, her heart has stayed with her homeland.

“I probably would be back on the island if it weren’t for my grandchildren,” Lujan said. “I am always a guest here.”

The museum offers both ancestor pieces and more contemporary pieces, many of which are made by resident artist Jason Pereira. One of the most striking ancestor pieces is a large sail made by the women of Polowat Atoll—an atoll that is part of the Chuuk state in the Federated States of Micronesia and is about 27 times smaller than Catalina Island.

But other pieces of art, like recreations of traditional pieces such as the tivaevae—traditional quilts made in the Cook Islands—and works inspired by the islands done by Periera, who is Samoan, also do an admirable job paying tribute to the islands and their traditions.

Natalia Rodriguez, 3, walks through “Lalai: Lullaby,” an art installation by Roldy Aguero Ablao, at the Pacific Island Ethnic Art Museum Sunday, May 22, 2022. The installation includes dozens of paper gaosali flowers, which Ablao says are coastal flowers given by a person to someone they care about. Photo by Brandon Richardson.

For a small museum like the PIEAM, COVID has been a difficult obstacle to navigate. Even today, as most places have foregone pandemic regulations, the intimate nature of the museum makes strict precautions necessary. Groups of 10 or more are still required to wear masks, no matter what a person’s vaccination status is.

And during the height of the pandemic, the museum had to adapt its material to an online platform.

“We really learned how to use QR codes,” Lujan said.

The result was “Pasifika Transmissions,” an exhibit featuring nine artists indigenous to one of the many Pacific islands. These artists each used a different ancestor piece, ranging from a sling stone from the Mariana Islands to a pahu—a drum-like instrument originating from several Polynesian islands—to inspire their own work.

Treated as a distance-learning program, the artists each recorded a video where they discussed their experiences working with and being inspired by each of these pieces, which was shared on YouTube.

COVID-19 itself is also an especially pertinent topic in the Pacific Island community, so its impact has also been a common theme in recent museum programming. Data from the National Institutes of Health shows Pacific Islanders were the most likely population to contract COVID-19 in 15 states, with the numbers being highest in California. The museum’s response to this has been pushing programming to encourage people to get vaccinated and to promote healing and wellness overall.

“People have been working hard to tell everyone to get the vaccines, but there is just something empowering about looking at a piece of art,” Lujan says.

Part of this effort comes in the form of their currently running exhibit: “Toe Fo’i,” which means “The Return” in Samoan. The exhibit is centered around the traditional idea of artists as healers, which plays into an overall story about COVID.

One of the pieces, an exterior installation from Pereira, tapped into the world of microbiology. Pereira added his own Pacific island inspiration to create a series of art pieces adorning the outside courtyard that is “a visual story of holistic wellness and resilience,” according to the exhibit’s description, in response to the pandemic. He named the collection “Hoʻokahi,” which is the Hawaiian word meaning “to make one.”

Inside the museum, a memorial wall has been set up for visitors to pay tribute to those who have died from COVID-19. Names are written on a piece of paper that is folded into a butterfly and placed on the wall as a way to remember those who have been lost.

While it has been an arduous path through the pandemic for the PIEAM, Lujan and the museum are already planning for the future. They are still working on the details for upcoming exhibitions, but the mission stays the same: to honor and represent not only her ancestors, but the history of people of all the Pacific island nations.

“I live my legacy and honor my ancestors every day,” Lujan said.

“It’s everything to me.”

Christian May-Suzuki

Christian May-Suzuki is a reporter at the Long Beach Business Journal.