Specialises in the arts of the Pacific region and North America. His main interests cover the relationship between Polynesian material culture, chiefship, valuables and exchange, ethnohistory, cultural property, ethnographical museums, the art market, publishing, book production and design. He completed his doctorate in social anthropology at the University of Cambridge, having conducted fieldwork in Fiji.
His publications include Art & Artefacts of the Pacific, Africa & the Americas: the James Hooper Collection (1976), The Fiji Journals of Baron Anatole von Hügel, 1875-77 (1990), the three-volume Robert & Lisa Sainsbury Collection (1997, Yale University Press, editor and part author); Memorial Images of Eastern Fiji: materials, metaphors and meanings. In: Herle, A. et al. (eds.), Pacific Art: persistence, change and meaning. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press. pp. 309-323 (2002) and Pacific Encounters: art and divinity in Polynesia 1760-1860, British Museum Press (2006).
The 'Pacific Encounters' publication accompanied a major exhibition of the same name which was shown at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in May-August 2006, itself the culmination of a the Polynesian Visual Arts Project. In 2008 the exhibition was re-presented at the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris as 'Polynésie: arts et divinités 1760-1860', co-curated by Steven Hooper and Karen Jacobs. The Paris exhibition closed in September 2008 with a ritual led by UK-based Polynesians Rosanna Raymond, Maia Jessop and George Nuku, and by members of the French Polynesian community in Paris. After a circuit of the exhibition, a poem by Rosanna Raymond and celebratory dances by the French Polynesians, a plexiglass hei tiki (neck ornament) made by the artist George Nuku was presented to the Musée du quai Branly to embody the continuing link between the museum and the descendants of the artists who had made the historical treasures featured in the exhibition. The Delegation Polynésie Française afterwards hosted a reception for visiting Polynesians and all those involved in the making of the exhibition, attended by Sarah Dennis, New Zealand ambassador to France.
Professor Hooper is currently researching and writing articles and a monograph on Polynesian and Fijian art history and anthropology as part of the AHRC-sponsored Fijian Art Research project. An exhibition resulting from the project will open at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in Spring 2016.