National Museum of Australia

Home > Audio on demand > Collecting for a Nation > Australia's official Papuan collection > transcript

Australia’s Official Papuan collection: Sir Hubert Murray and the how and why of a colonial collection

Paper presented by Sylvia Schaffarczyk, PhD student, Australian National University
Collecting for a Nation symposium, National Museum of Australia, 21 March 2006

SYLVIA SCHAFFARCZYK: Hidden away in storage at the National Museum of Australia is an ethnographic collection called the Official Papuan collection. It was acquired over 26 years by more than 50 people and comprises over 3000 objects from all over an area that was once called the Territory of Papua but which now makes up the southern half of the country that we now know as Papua New Guinea.

How did the Official Papuan collection come to be part of the National Museum of Australia’s collections when the charter for the Museum is to record Australian social and cultural history? At first glance, a collection of ethnographic material from Papua New Guinea hardly fits this description. Part of the answer involves Australia’s brief history as a colonial power. In 1883, the Premier of Queensland rather forcefully urged the British Government to annex New Guinea, and they refused. During 1884, however, they gave in to pressure from the combined Australian colonies and formed the protectorate of British New Guinea. In 1906 the Papua Act was proclaimed and Britain handed over to the newly federated nation of Australia the responsibility and costs of running the newly named Territory of Papua. On the map, Dutch New Guinea pretty much stayed the same during the period that I’m talking about; British New Guinea became Papua, and German New Guinea after the First World War became the Territory of New Guinea.

The story of the Official Papuan collection is part of the story of what happened next. In this talk, I’ll briefly introduce you to the Official Papuan collection, how and why the collection was conceived, how it was collected and by whom, and why it came to be part of the collections at the National Museum. I’ll then consider the significance of the collection for the Museum in reflecting the shared history of Papua New Guinea and Australia.

The Official Papuan collection is also known as the Sir Hubert Murray collection, for its founder. Serving for 32 years and dying while still in office, Sir Hubert Murray was the first and longest serving Australian Governor of the Territory of Papua. He was well known for his interest in, and application of, anthropological and humanitarian principles to his administration of Papua. Some researchers suggest that this interest in anthropology only extended so far as Murray found it useful for the control of the Indigenous population. While in hindsight many of his policies can be considered conservative and paternalistic, they were considered acceptable and even enlightened at the time. Despite this, it’s due to the importance that Murray placed on anthropology that this collection exists at all.

Why did Murray start the collection? Firstly, for the area in which Murray lived, it was the kind of activity in which a governor and gentleman of his education and standing in the community was expected to engage. There was also a popular theory at the time that considered that Indigenous populations of most colonies were rapidly disappearing, and that it was the duty of those ‘in charge’ to salvage what was left of Indigenous culture before it became too late.

Nicholas Thomas has proposed that colonial administrators collected and displayed objects in order to reflect the idea that their administration of their colony was civilised and successful. If you could display the material culture of a recently colonised Indigenous group in an appropriately ordered and civilised manner then, by corollary, the administration’s control of the people who manufactured those objects was in a similar condition, even if day-to-day occurrences might have suggested otherwise. The display of such collections was also meant to show that these newly pacified people had too become part of the new regime. However, as the collection was never exhibited while Murray had control of it, it’s hard to know whether this was his intention, if he ever was to display it.

When Murray arrived in British New Guinea in 1904 to become the Chief Judicial Officer, he soon realised that Papuan people perceived and acted in the world differently to Europeans and that he needed a better understanding of them and their society. This idea stayed with him when he became Governor of Papua in 1908. It was serendipitous then that in late 1904 he met an English anthropologist, Charles Seligman, who was conducting ethnographic fieldwork in the colony. Murray accompanied Seligman on his investigations at Hanuabada outside Port Moresby. This was probably the catalyst for his serious interest in anthropology and its potential as an administrative tool.

In 1907 Murray took the first steps in his partially formed plan to use anthropological research and its outcomes as his tool for administration. He wrote to the Australian Minister for Home and Territories for permission to turn his personal collection into an official one, and to establish an ethnological museum in Port Moresby to house it. He gained permission to carry out both requests but for financial and other reasons, which I’ll reveal soon, the museum never eventuated in the form that he originally envisaged. Instead, it became something like a storage depot for his objects as they made their way elsewhere. The various reasons that Murray provided to the minister for the creation of the collection can be ultimately summarised as ‘salvage’. He argued that many of the old ways of the Papuans were passing out of use and that, in the interests of science, it had become urgently necessary to make collections of what remained. These arguments reflected the persuasive views of another anthropologist whose work Murray read and who became an enormous influence on his interpretation of anthropology. This was Professor Alfred Court Haddon, an anthropologist at Cambridge University. He believed that it was both an ‘imperial and a scientific responsibility to make records of primitive cultures’ before their inevitable disappearance under the corrupting onslaught of Western civilisation, and he lobbied both Murray and the Australian Government to do something about it.

Let’s look at how the collection was acquired. Murray was responsible for the early shape of the collection. More than anything his contribution was opportunistic and haphazard. He appears to have collected things that provided interest to him at the time and only if he thought that people were willing to give or trade the objects with him. Given that he was the governor, he may have been thinking they were parting with their things a little too easily. He occasionally had to confiscate objects as part of his work as judge and for the most part such objects were destroyed as part of court proceedings. However, there are some items in the collection that are labelled as court exhibits. Most of these court exhibits were weapons used in homicides, such as a spear. A kaiaimunu or wickerwork figure associated with men’s houses was a victim of the only punitive patrol that Murray participated in. It was removed from a Purari man’s house as a part of punishment in 1908.

When it comes to the rest of the collection, Murray had at his disposal an army of collectors in his patrol officers and resident magistrates. He provided them with funds to buy objects in what amounted to just a shopping list of things to collect. There was not much other guidance provided to the patrol officers in terms of instructions on how and what to collect, until the part-time appointment of the first government anthropologist, WM Strong, in 1920. As a part of an activity known as the collective anthropological investigations, Strong provided forms with questions on specific Indigenous activities, which the patrol officers were required to fill out in detail. These documents show that they took a lot of effort in their reports and the drawings that they provide are really detailed: they have measurements and all of the names for each joint in different buildings or the types of patterns that were on some of the objects. Most of the reports themselves are quite comprehensive, even if people today would consider some of their observations to be a little bit skewed.

Even with Strong’s guidance, the Official Papuan collection began to grow and to change. It was now influenced by the individual inclinations of various patrol officers and not just Murray. The standing orders among the constantly changing duties of the patrol officers were to make and maintain peaceful contact with the Indigenous people and to introduce them to the idea of their new government and its wishes and expectations. In most cases the interaction required to collect objects was a positive means of doing this. The collecting activities of these officers created a suite of unique collections within the Official Papuan collection. The following examples of patrol officers SD Burrows and Leo Austen and the second government anthropologist, FE Williams, show some of the diversity in the Official Papuan collection.

SD Burrows was a patrol officer between 1913 and 1920 who appears to have taken the order to collect to heart. He contributed over 100 objects to the collection, including cane cuirasses, various types of stone-headed clubs, arrows, necklets, food containers, waistbands, grass skirts and fire-making apparatus. Some of these objects were collected in 1914 while he was a member of the party stranded for five months on the government vessel Elevala on the Morehead River. The material collected from the Elevala contrasts with most other objects in the Official Papuan collection, as it is a sample of sedentary collecting in a collection where most objects were collected while travelling. When he resigned Burrows kept over 300 of the objects that he had amassed and, following his death, his mother donated them via Mrs Gordon Canning to the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, in 1933. Thus, the Burrows’ collection adds another dimension to the Australian-Papuan colonial experience. While Murray wanted the collection in either Papua or Australia, Burrows’ family instead chose to maintain links with Empire and donated his personal collection to a British institution.

Leo Austen started in the Papuan Service in 1919 as a temporary patrol officer. He participated in two important patrols in 1921-22 and 1922-23 to the Star Mountains. One of the stated purposes of the first patrol was to ‘obtain information as to the customs and habits of the natives and to collect curios’ and was one of the first European contacts with that area. During the early twentieth century, patrol officers used a range of collecting practices, but the use of force was uncommon or at least not openly admitted to during Murray’s administration due to his strong stance against violence. On the contrary, descriptions of patrols frequently mentioned overtures of friendship made by the officers with particular regard to objects as Austen describes on 18 January 1922 in his report on the Star Mountains patrol:

At 11.25 [am] we anchored off some native houses and went ashore. Inside were many stuffed heads, sago bags, fish nets and other odds and ends ... I did not touch anything in the shelters but left one or two old tomahawks in the hope of making friends with the people upon my return.

However, Austen also describes a very common means of collecting that might be considered less courteous. On 8 November 1922 he reports that they broke camp at 7.30, and left behind in the shelter a half-axe in payment of a shield that they had removed from a deserted house. While it was by far not the worst action committed in the name of collecting, the incident illustrates that, despite the best intentions of most patrol officers to make peaceful and respectful contacts, sometimes the desire to collect prompted some rather less ethical practices.

Austen saw the collection of objects and ethnographic information as a serious aspect of his job and an important part of his future career. In part, he was encouraged by Professor AC Haddon who was by this time playing the role of anthropological mentor to many of the patrol officers, including Austen. He encouraged them to publish their findings and to correspond with him on matters of anthropological interest. In this way Haddon was receiving valuable information and objects for his own research, and anthropology in Papua was brought to the attention of the British Academy at regular intervals.

While not a patrol officer, Francis Edgar Williams was important to Murray’s policies and the Official Papuan collection. He was trained in anthropology at Oxford University and employed by Murray specifically for his qualifications. He was first employed in 1922 as an assistant to Strong and in 1928 replaced him as the first full-time government anthropologist. Williams found collecting itself a burdensome part of his work, which is unusual in an anthropologist, and appears to have only collected as he felt necessary. Most of what he did collect represents ‘everyday objects’ in that they were largely not ceremonial: cassowary quill and pig tail earrings, arm band ornaments, fishing paraphernalia and lots of other things. Ironically, despite his advance in his third report Collection of Curios that the preservation of native culture was to collect the least vulnerable objects, many of those he collected were quite likely to disappear first, including coconut containers, bone and stingray spine needles and fishing equipment which were all rapidly being replaced by their ‘more efficient’ modern counterparts. As a result, Williams’ collection provides a record of the more ephemeral material culture collected in 1920s Papua.

Another important aspect of Williams’ work was his photography. His photographs helped to place the objects that he collected into context. For example, on 13 April 1922 he photographed nine women holding fish traps at Nomu on the beach near the mouth of Purari River. He did not collect any of the fish traps, probably because of their size and their usefulness to the villagers. On 26 April, however, he collected two piraui or fishing line floats. These appear to have been common objects and were probably fairly easy to replace and therefore ideal to collect. They were also really small and light. The records indicate that the floats were the first two objects that Williams collected in Papua.

As early as 1914, Murray and his officers had collected so many objects that he was forced to find a new home for them. Haddon also had convinced Murray that a museum was too expensive to maintain in Port Moresby and would be under-utilised by those who needed access to it most. Of course, these people were European students and researchers in anthropology. After some negotiation, Murray settled on the Australian Museum in Sydney as the new home of the Official Papuan collection. His correspondence with Robert Etheridge, the curator, reveals that Murray offered, and Etheridge accepted, an inducement in the form of a relatively rare cane cuirass and the right for his museum to retain duplicates of Official Papuan specimens in return for storage space.

Thus, between 1915 and 1930, 12 shipments of objects were sent to the Australian Museum in Sydney. WE Thorpe, the ethnological curator of the museum, carefully checked each object and listed them neatly and methodically in a large ledger that is now called the ‘Thorpe register’. Given the enthusiasm shown by various institutions for examples of Papuan curios and therefore the competition for good specimens, Thorpe was surprisingly fair in his selection of objects and apparently only kept around 125 objects.

By 1927 the Australian Museum was running out of space for its own collections, and Murray was once again forced to seek a new home for his collection. Murray contacted Sir Colin MacKenzie, the director of the Australian Institute of Anatomy in Canberra, and they agreed that the institute would become the next home of the Official Papuan collection. The collection had until this point never been exhibited. When it arrived in 1933 MacKenzie wrote to inform Murray that the whole collection was now displayed and ‘available to scientists who wish[ed] to obtain an intimate knowledge of the culture of the Papuan natives’. It seems that the ethnographic gallery was not all that big, so the display of 3000 objects, along with what was already displayed, must have been something to see. On that point I have not been able to track down any photographs of these displays. I have seen lots of the zoological displays and lots of the outside of the building. If anyone knows where photos of the ethnographic collections, particularly of the Papuan stuff, is stashed away, if you could let me know that would be great.

No further additions were made to the Official Papuan collection after its move to Canberra in 1933. It is not entirely clear why collecting appears to have slowed at this time, except that in anthropology generally, objects were becoming less important to research, and so too they probably became less important for Murray. The orders given to the field officers of the Papuan Administration were probably not withdrawn until some time after Murray’s death in 1940. What was collected continued to be accumulated in Port Moresby until a suitable occasion arose to dust it off. The first such occasion was the 1938 Sydney Exhibition in honour of the 150th Anniversary of New South Wales. Some of these objects ended up in the Australian Institute of Anatomy and others went to the Australian Museum.

The contents of the Institute of Anatomy were subsumed by the National Museum of Australia when it was established by an Act of Parliament in 1980. The Captivating and Curious exhibition which opened at the National Museum in December 2005 allowed a brief outing for just one of the eharo masks from the Gulf of Papua. But other than this, little of the main collection has been on public display since it was at the institute.

Like many contemporary ethnographic collections, the Official Papuan collection reflects the personal interests and areas of expertise of those who contributed to it. Its acquisition was guided by Murray and influenced by Haddon and Seligman. It was intended to stay in Papua New Guinea and belong to the Papuans, but instead it resides in Canberra where, by merit of its home in the National Museum of Australia and context, it is also meaningful to Australians. This presentation has provided some examples of the diversity of objects, range of people and means of collecting used in the acquisition of the Official Papuan collection, to demonstrate the significance of the collection as a part of the major collections of the National Museum of Australia.

The collection is not simply a representation of what could be collected in Papua before World War Two, it provides us with a view of Australians as colonists and forms a tangible representation of their morals, ethics and aspirations of Australians in Papua in the first half of the twentieth century. While the collection in the National Museum might not meet Murray’s expectations for it, its history demonstrates that, what began as a story about objects, is becoming a story about the entangled histories of the people of Australia and Papua New Guinea.

Date published: 13 September 2007