Join us each month as one of the Museum's curators, conservators or other expert staff share their deep understanding of an object or exhibition.
We are publishing Object Club videos online while the Museum is temporarily closed. Our current offering is Dr Anna Edmundson of the Australian National University on the Official Papuan collection. Anna was previously a curator at the Museum.
Anna Edmundson: Welcome to the Friends’ object club. I’m Anna Edmundson from the Australian National University and I’m going to be talking a little bit today about objects that have been selected from the National Museum’s Papuan Official Collection. These objects were selected as part of an exhibition called Uncovering Pacific Pasts: Histories of Archaeology in Oceania and this is a really unique exhibition in that it involves over 30 collecting institutions around the world; all gathering together to create what is in essence a mega exhibition.
At the National Museum, they’ve been working with the Australian National University to create a display that features a number of objects that come from Papua New Guinea in what was once the Australian territory of Papua.
Now, the Australian territory of Papua is, as some of you may know, started in 1906 when the Australian government took over the colony of British New Guinea and their first Lieutenant-Governor was a man called JHP Murray who was a very interesting character, in that he had very forward vision, ideas about how to preserve both intangible and tangible Papuan heritage.
And, even before he officially became the Lieutenant-Governor, he started collecting objects that were what he considered rare and in danger of no longer being produced. And at the point that he was made the Lieutenant-Governor, he wrote to the Australian Government asking to make an official collection in which the government itself and the Government’s patrol officers would start collecting on behalf of both the Australian nation and also on behalf of Papuan New Guinean people.
John Hubert Plunkett Murray to Alfred Deakin 1907:
I have the honour to report that I have made a first attempt to establish, on a small scale, a museum for the collection of ethnological and other objects of interest in Papua
Over time this collection ended up being over 3000 objects and is considered both in Papua New Guinea and in Australia to be an absolutely iconic collection; a snapshot of a particular period of time which is the early 20th century.
So, why would you be using these objects for an archaeological exhibition? Well, one of the reasons is that up until 1959, there was no archaeology in Papua New Guinea, at least in the sense that we know it. And up until then, it was the duty of the Government anthropologists to do things like archaeological excavations and to collect well beyond the idea of living culture, well into prehistoric cultural materials.
I am first going to talk about a particular object which is known as the Boianai stone. This is a really unusual object of which I think there is only maximum five in the world. When Europeans first came across the presence of these large carved stones, they had no idea what to make of them. And even today, we don’t entirely know what they were used for. When they talked to local Papuan New Guinean people, the people themselves did not know who had made them or what the ancient uses were for.
And these stone objects became part of a larger debate about what was called ‘megalithic culture’; mega — meaning large and lithic — meaning stone. Megalithic culture in the area of Papua New Guinea. One of the interesting things about these stones is that they noticed these carved curvilinear patterns on them … and they were aware that these patterns also appeared in different places in the world. For example in South East Asia and right across the Pacific. But because of the time in which they were studying these objects, there was a real Eurocentric bias. People weren’t quite able at the time to understand that there were wide cultural networks and trading links across the world that had nothing to do with what they considered to be the epicentres of culture.
Walter Mersh Strong ‘Annual Report of the Territory of Papua’, 1921:
Many anthropologists hold that around, sat BC 1000, there was race located in Egypt which used to traverse the sea of the Pacific in search of gold and other wealth, and that such wanderers settled in Papua.
So a number of people in the 1920s believed that the origin of megalithic culture in the Pacific was Egypt and the idea was that the Egyptians once wandered the Pacific or traversed the Pacific oceans in search of gold; and all the old large stone tool technologies in the Pacific had been brought by ancient Egyptians and this was known as ‘The People of the Sun’ theory, which was basically an idea that we now call ‘diffusionism’; the idea that all the major cultural traits in the world could be traced to a single origin. And for the Europeans of the time, they thought that Egypt was the great civilisation; the ‘mother’ civilisation that had fed into all other civilisations.
In addition to these carved stones, they also found very large stone mortars and pestles and a number of those were found on the gold fields in Papua and so as a result of this, one of the major scholars behind the people of the sun theory, William Perry, decided that the large stone mortars and pestles were used to grind quartz to extract their gold. The government anthropologist of Papua at the time, Walter Mersh Strong, he disagreed with this opinion and his opinion was that the large stone mortars were used to process ancient grains. However Strong, as well as Perry, believed that it was the Egyptians that had brought the grain to Papua and that these objects belonged to an extinct race of people who no longer lived there.
In actual fact, many years later, modern archaeological techniques have proved definitively that large stone mortars, pestles and the carved stones such as the Boianai stone were made by the ancestors of Papuan New Guinean people.
The large stone mortars we now know were used to process forest fruits and this was around three hundred thousand BC. But at the time, they didn’t know that. And the government anthropologists were very interested in finding out more about this megalithic culture. So one government anthropologist known as F. E. Williams made three major excavations in what was then the Territory of Papua and one of the places that he went to was Boanai, the place that we have the stone from.
He went to Boanai which was also a mission station and talked to the locals to get permission to do an archaeological dig there. The locals at first said yes and he began the excavation, but very soon after he started, they became agitated and they went to the missionary and asked if he would intervene on their behalf and stop the excavation.
Luckily for us, Williams did stop immediately, and this was one of the turning points for Williams in beginning to understand that intangible heritage was just as important as tangible heritage. Over the course of his career, Willliams progressively began to understand that collecting objects was no longer ethically viable if it endangered the continuation of cultural traditions.
So one of the things that Williams is famous for is working in the village of Orokolo on the Papuan gulf, looking at a particular ceremony known as the Heveke ceremony and this was a ceremony that lasted over 20 years in time, for a complete cycle of festivals and ceremonies and was about the initiation of young boys and teaching them how to become responsible social citizens.
As part of this very long, engaged and protracted education, if you like, there were a number of ceremonies that involved masking or masking activities and embodied in the masks and their designs were particular ideas about both the history of the cultural group but also social laws about how to behave and how not to behave.
So, in a sense, the masks were the equivalent of mnemonic devices, that would impress upon these young men and upon the wider community who was engaged in watching the ceremony what to do, and what not to do, to become a productive citizen. Williams himself, interestingly, only collected four masks in his entire life. And this was a tiny proportion of the masks that had been made.
Francis Williams, ‘The Collection of Curios’, 1923:
From the anthropological stand-point, the ceremony is the thing, and … the interests of science would be best served by preserving, not the ceremonial object, but the ceremony itself.
One of the theories about why Williams collected so little, was because that he began to understand that collecting was not necessarily useful for a cultural group. So instead he began to try and convince the Government to start creating a museum that was more about sharing ideas and technologies and inspiring older people to teach younger people the techniques about various productions. In this sense, Williams was absolutely ahead of his time.
Today, the Official Papuan Collection is being cared for by the National Museum of Australia but in close collaboration and conversation with the National Museum and Art Gallery of PNG. There will be a time, probably in this century, hopefully sooner rather than later, when the collection will be returned to Papua New Guinea. But at the moment, both institutions are working closely to ensure that the significance and heritage, conservation and preservation of these collections is being done with the utmost care.
And I think that is a really nice point to end this conversation. Thank you very much for listening.
Recent object clubs have looked at an ancient stromatolite, a geological record of the earliest life on Earth. We've also looked at Azaria Chamberlain’s dress and how the story of a family became the story of a nation.
Object Club usually meets on the last Friday of each month from 10.30am to noon and on the first Thursday of the month from 5.30 to 7.30pm.
Explore more objects on the Uncovering Pacific Pasts website
Image of Sir Hubert Murray, about 1913, National Library of Australia, nla.obj-136767198
In our collection