Karen Jacobs
  • Room Sainsbury Centre

Accepting PhD Students

Personal profile

Areas of Expertise

Oceania; Pacific art and anthropology; clothing and female tattooing;  museum studies and museum anthropology; collecting and history of museum collections; contemporary Pacific art; art and climate change; colonial studies; urban youth culture; West Papua; Fiji.

Key Research Interests

Karen Jacobs’ research is interdisciplinary, combining art-historical, anthropological and museological approaches and focuses broadly on Pacific arts and specifically on the dynamic processes by which persons and objects are interrelated. Most of her research was conducted in the framework of funded international research projects. She is currently Principal Investigator in the British Academy-funded project (Re)Defining Culture: Engaging urban Fijian youth in sustainable employment opportunities in the cultural heritage sector (2020-22), which is part of the Youth Futures Programme, supported under the UK Government’s Global Challenges Research Fund. Better known under its working title Urban Pathways: Fiji. Youth. Arts. Culture, the project examines what culture constitutes for Fiji’s urban youth and the implications for sustainable employment opportunities related to cultural heritage (https://fijiyouthculture.wordpress.com/; https://www.facebook.com/fijiyouthculture; https://www.instagram.com/urbanpathways.fijiyouth/).

Previously, she was co-investigator in the AHRC-funded research project Fijian Art: political power, sacred value, social transformation and collecting since the 18th century, a collaborative 3-year project (2011-14) that aimed to unlock the potential of the outstanding collections of Fijian art, material culture and associated photographs and archives held in museums in the United Kingdom and abroad, and its follow-up AHRC-funded project Fiji's artistic heritage: impact and engagement in Fiji (2016-17). Her particular focus was on fibre skirts (liku) and the associated female tattooing (veiqia) as worn by indigenous Fijian women in the nineteenth century. She was involved in a range of exhibitions during these projects.

In 2012-13 she was the Principal Investigator of the AHRC-funded Networking Grant Who Cares? The material heritage of British missions in Africa and the Pacific, and its future, was established as a partnership between the Sainsbury Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Cambridge, and National Museums Scotland, Edinburgh, which each hosted a workshop, and the Museum Ethnographers Group, which hosted a webpage for the project. The aim of the project was to form a network of researchers, curators, representatives of UK-based missionary societies and of heritage organisations in Africa and the Pacific. During the three workshops, the network explored the contemporary issues that arise around material that derives from British Christian missions in Africa and the Pacific.

Jacobs’ research in the Kamoro region in West Papua focuses on cross-cultural encounters to expose the diversity of ways in which Kamoro culture has been communicated and constituted through the analysis of cultural representation. Particular emphasis is given to the creative and pragmatic adaptation by the Kamoro people to different forms of contact. The annual Kamoro Arts Festival, a forum for public relations, self-representation and cultural politics in a politically delicate climate, was subject of fieldwork in West Papua (2000, 2001, 2002 and 2005). More recently the focus has shifted towards patronage and corporate collecting, which was the subject of fieldwork in 2011.



Karen Jacobs is Associate Professor at the Sainsbury Research Unit for the Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas, University of East Anglia. She has worked on various international research projects, focusing on the Kamoro region in West Papua, on Polynesian Visual Arts, the Arts of Fiji, and material heritage of British missions in Africa and the Pacific. Her research resulted in a range of exhibitions and publications. Exhibition projects include Pacific Encounters: Art and Divinity in Polynesia 1760-1860 (Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, 2006; Paris Museé du quai Branly- Jacques Chirac, 2008), Art and the Body (Fiji Museum, 2014) and Fiji: Art and Life in the Pacific (Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, 2016-17). Book projects include This is not a grass skirt (2019), Collecting Kamoro (Jacobs 2012) and Trophies, Relics and Curios? Missionary Heritage from Africa and the Pacific (Jacobs, Knowles & Wingfield 2015). 

Website: http://www.sru.uea.ac.uk/people/academic-faculty/karen-jacobs

Postgraduate Research Opportunities

I am interested in supervising research students in areas of Pacific arts and museum collections, missionary heritage and museum politics. I have extensive experience supervising PhD project to completion and alumni have taken up curator posts, academic or post-doctoral positions globally. Previously supervised projects covered collection-based studies, cultural festivals, contemporary Pacific art, museum display ethics, theory of collecting, clothing and textiles, anthropological expeditions, the relationship between contemporary Pacific artists and museums, the decolonisation of museums of ethnography, the historical and ongoing relevance of museum collections to communities and photography and have covered geographical areas such as Papua New Guinea, Australia, Fiji, Marquesas Islands, Vanuatu, Aotearoa New Zealand, Hawai‘i, UK and Europe.

Expertise related to UN Sustainable Development Goals

In 2015, UN member states agreed to 17 global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all. This person’s work contributes towards the following SDG(s):

  • SDG 11 - Sustainable Cities and Communities
  • SDG 13 - Climate Action