Barbara Wavell ’76

Preserver of Micronesian History

By Jill Gable ’89

Barbara Wavell

The flight from Winter Park to Micronesia is 13.5 hours, but one doesn’t need to travel so far to experience the culture. Just a few miles from Rollins is a manmade tropical island that Barbara Wavell ’76 calls home. Population: 3 humans, 2 dogs, 2 cats, and hundreds of carved sculptures of men and women—along with baskets, hand fans, and carved boards—hailing from Palau, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, and Kiribati.

“The material culture of Micronesia is a living history,” Wavell said. “Each artifact, statue, or weaving is a testament to a particular time and place. Each object in the collection is numbered and cataloged, recording as much information as possible about the historical context within which it was acquired, thereby helping to preserve and share pieces of history which might otherwise have been lost.”

Wavell has spent most of her life in Central Florida (her father, Bruce B. Wavell, was a professor of philosophy at Rollins until his retirement in 1982), but these objects remain a constant source of connection to the string of islands in the Pacific Ocean.

Her journey officially started in 1974. While still a student at Rollins, Wavell came across a man who would capture her interest and passion for many years to come: a monkey man carved from wood. Little information was available regarding the figure or the carved storyboard that she brought home that day.

That single statue launched more than 20 years of research and led to her recent book, Arts and Crafts of Micronesia: Trading with Tradition, which was published through Bess Press and funded with a $20,000 grant from the Federated States of Micronesia.

When she started researching the creations, Wavell wasn’t sure where they were from, but the behavioral studies major was intrigued. There was limited information available, and most of the significant references were in German and Japanese. Undaunted, she plunged into the assignment.

Along the way, Wavell discovered why so much of the research was in German and Japanese.

She learned that Germany bought Micronesia from Spain (it was originally “discovered” by Magellan in 1521) in 1899, as the Germans were interested in developing their own colonies and had already established trading posts there. During a series of expeditions from 1908 to 1910, Augustin Kramer and other German scientists documented and collected Micronesian material culture. The islands were awarded to the Japanese by League of Nations in 1919, when Micronesia was completely closed off to visitors. When the United States defeated Japan in 1945, Micronesia was managed as a Trust Territory. In fact, the majority of Wavell’s 1,000-piece collection was brought to the U.S. by servicemen or Trust Territory administrators as souvenirs between the 1940s and 1970s.

As a result of her research and extensive collecting, Wavell has produced a catalog in conjunction with an exhibition at the Maitland Art Center. Portions of her collection have also been exhibited at the Museum of Arts & Sciences in Daytona Beach and the University of Central Florida Libraries. And she’s delivered numerous lectures on the topic.

“This research project has been a lifetime milestone for me,” Wavell said. “I have developed many friendships with anthropologists who specialize in Micronesian research as well as missionaries and administrators who lived in Micronesia for many years. I have traveled to Seattle, Cambria (California), Chicago, Paris, and Salem (Massachusetts) to present papers and meet with people who have traveled to Micronesia.”

Although her home houses a large collection of Micronesian art and Wavell has accumulated vast knowledge of Micronesian culture and art history, she has been to Micronesia only once—in 2004 for the Ninth Festival of the Pacific Arts. Her tireless research, purchasing, and collecting activities are instead centered in her own tropical paradise, which she shares with her husband, Kane Lamberty, and daughter, Lindsey.