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Panel 24: Museums and Pacific environments


Hilke Thode-Arora, Michaela Appel

Session presentation

Museums are places where material aspects of Pacific environments have been assembled for the purpose of documentation and preservation, mostly in the form of artefact and photo collections. Always spaces of an entangled past and present; Western museums often reflect interethnic and colonial relations of the past, whereas Pacific museums sometimes have to find an appropriate place among the multiple voices of the local social fabric.
It is against these backgrounds that collections play an important role for Pacific communities to reconnect with their material heritage, parts of which can only be found in museums nowadays due to historical or climatic reasons. Especially in times of rising environmental hazards and ensuing migration, the role of museums as places of documentation and preservation is gaining new momentum.
Our panel invites papers which contribute in any way to this broad field of museums and Pacific environments, for example of:
•Western and Pacific museums’ roles in documenting, preserving and reviving Pacific heritage, thus maintaining cultural continuity,
•artefacts and their contexts in specific Pacific environments: natural and social, past and present.
Papers on the materiality of artefacts or the history of collections are as welcome as papers on Pacific communities engaging with museums or the role of specific artefacts in Pacific environments past and present.

Paper submissions are closed

Accepted papers

The humanness of remains: Indigenous Australian hair in museum collections

Anne Louise Faithfull (Deakin University)

In the 19th and 20th centuries, samples of hair from Indigenous Australians were collected alongside skeletal remains and placed in museums as embodiments of difference, but the social lives of these remains parted upon accession. Skeletal remains exemplify common constructions of ‘Human Remains,’ but understandings are less clear with hair. While some museums consider hair to be a human remain, others explicitly do not, and others still make no mention of it in their policies, suggesting that hair is perceived to be somehow less-human than bones. Yet this conflicts with many Indigenous Australian understandings and cosmologies where hair is not instinctively seen to be less-meaningful than other body parts. This paper will focus on how hair collected from Indigenous Australians is understood in museums and how these understandings intersect and diverge with those of skeletal material. Using the widespread view that bones are human remains as my point of departure, I will examine museum and government policies to explore how ‘human remains’ are described and delineated, and explore the cultural and corporeal ways in which perceptions of hair differ from those of skeletal remains. Though they may be locally constituted and contested, multifaceted and unsettled, I suggest that a teasing out of the meanings given to hair and bones can provide insight into understandings of the space/s occupied by ‘human remains’ and how museum materials are distinguished, defined and redefined.

Asmat carvings, reality and hyperreality: meaningful challenges in contemporariness

Roberto Costa (Macquarie University)

During my very first accidental encounter with Asmat art at the Papuan Pavilion of Taman Mini Indonesia Indah (Eng.: Beautiful Indonesia in Miniature Park) in Jakarta, I was impressed by the aura surrounding the shack where an Asmat carver was chiselling away artefacts. I sensed an energetic dissonance with the general atmosphere of the TMII, an edutainment Suharto’s regime-sponsored project where fiction and reality are fused to create a peculiar form of "hyperreality", between Disneyland and an ethnographic museum. Some of the more traditional Asmat objects displayed originally liaised between life and death, between immanent and transcendent worlds. However, since the recent Western discovery of this art, such objects have become exoticised, hunted by traders in primitive art and merely appraised in their aesthetic appearance. In the hyperreality of TMII the carvings intend to assume yet an additional meaning, as representing the Asmat as one of the many distinct ethnic groups of the archipelago. But how do Asmat see them? How do carvers through their production reconcile the nature of the object, their cosmology and history with consumerism and external political ideological logics?

From Maker to Museum and back: tracing processes to elucidate social relations

Erna Lilje (Stichting Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen )

Existing scholarship around ethnographic museums has a great deal more to say about the people of the collecting society than it does about the people who made and used the artefacts they hold. This is unsurprising since research that relies primarily upon documentary sources are mostly, if not always, reliant upon material authored by the collecting society. Fortunately, items of material culture have a direct connection to the people that made and used them. If we take seriously the notion that all past actors had agency we must make the most of these indigenously ‘authored’ sources. This paper takes as it example fibre skirts from Central Province Papua New Guinea to demonstrate how an artefact-centred methodology, that engages today’s cultural experts, can enhance museum scholarship by providing an insight into the ways in which indigenous people negotiated a period of rapid social change brought about the colonial project.

"South Sea-Caryatids" as decoration objects – the sculptural representation of Maori and Fijians in the Natural History Museum in Vienna

georg schifko

The mezzanine level of the Natural History Museum Vienna displays a decoration program consisting of paintings and caryatids that at the time of its creation complemented the objects exhibited in those rooms. Halls XIV und XVI, which originally housed the museum’s ethnographic collection currently magazined at the Weltmuseum Wien, are decorated with caryatids showing representatives of various indigenous people. Unfortunately, no records exist as to the specific ethnicity of the depicted persons. In many cases there are, however, indications that make it possible to assign a specific ethnicity to the sculptures.
The purpose of this talk is to show that it is possible to determine the ethnicity of at least some of the caryatids from the objects they carry. Specifically, it was possible to identify the Maori in hall XVI on the basis of a tewhatewha club and the Fijians on the basis of a totokia club. It is to be hoped that this article encourages further discussion of these sculptures from an ethnographic-iconographic point of view and will lead to the certain identification of all depicted ethnic groups.

Creating Conversations

Michel Tuffery (Aotearoa - New Zealand)

Museums are places where material aspects of Pacific environments have been assembled for the purpose of documentation and preservation, mostly in the form of artefact and photographic collections.
As a Pacific person, as an artist and cultural practitioner who exists from outside an institution, my role as an artist is to collaborate with the institutions and curators. From a Pacific mindset, Museums are a Western concept, with many from Island of origin not understanding the role these institutions play. It is against these backgrounds that collections do play an important role for Pacific communities, enabling them to reconnect with their material heritage.
it is the community that matters. It's an important distinction for an artist who really is acting as a conduit through conceptualising collaborative and meaningful nurtured projects in creating the vehicle for ongoing conversations to continue.
It is equally my role as an artist to Tala’aga o Taonga (translates to talking object) to bring these artefacts out, "to extend the surrounding stories of these objects which were once contemporary in themselves, by reawakening sound, giving new life to historical images and text again through motion, not just have them static and fading into obscurity sitting in Museums but actually being woken up and talked to again".

Listening to the Voices of the Ancestors: Research on Aitutaki ta’unga in European museums

Nga Kitai Taria (Aitutaki Punarei Culture Center)

Michaela Appel (Museum Fuenf Kontinente)

Our research into the female ancestor figure from Aitutaki in the Five Continents Museum in Munich revealed that the carved patterns and tattoos on her body are an expression of the traditional foundation values of the culture of Aitutaki.
These values revolve around the fact that the people of Aitutaki saw themselves as the caretakers of the environment. They learnt to understand the signs and calls of nature which allowed them to survive for more than a 1000 years. In this context the fertility of the environment and of humans was absolutely crucial as it was essential to create heirs to the throne and to ensure that the traditional knowledge of the ancestors was transmitted in an uninterrupted line.
There were various means to convey knowledge from one generation to the next in a society without written tradition: carved patterns, tattoo patterns or painted patterns on bark cloth together with oral tradition, music and chants.
Two hundred years after missionary enterprises and in the face of far-reaching environmental changes, it is time to listen to the voices of the ancestors again. In our presentation we will interpret the patterns on Aitutaki ta’unga in European museums and their relation to the environment.

Realizing a dream – who was it who dreamed it first?

Marion Melk-Koch (Staatliche Ethnographische Sammlungen Sachsen)

This paper will deal with a project in the field of material culture carried out by Pacific Islanders in cooperation with myself and my museum. The project has its direct roots in research conducted by the Berlin curator Gerd Koch on their islands in the early 1960s. His deep interest and the following comprehensive documentation of the culture was crucial for the realization of this “dream” in times of limited resources. Willing to share their skills and keep them for future generations, Tuvaluans already more than half a century ago laid the foundation for this. Being aware of the concept of a Museum overseas, they “excavated” old knowledge, be it songs or fishing methods. In this way the construction of the traditional house/fale „taumata fenua“ in the GRASSI Museum für Völkerkunde in Leipzig in 2009 came into fruition. It was the mission of the master house builder/tufunga fai fale of Niutao/Tuvalu to preserve at least this elaborate storm proofen type developed by his predecessors for future generations. Errecting the fale was a gift by him and the Niutaoans.
As a more global symbol „taumata fenua“/“viewing distant lands“ was built to be an ambassador of all people worldwide facing climate change.

Interwoven in Relations: Niuean weaving in German collections

Hilke Thode-Arora (Museum Fuenf Kontinente)

The Polynesian island of Niue has a more than one hundred years old reputation for very fine weaving. Niue’s Huanaki Cultural Centre, village show days with their weaving competitions as well as artists, gallery owners and community leaders, all in their own ways, encourage weavers to keep their art alive. However, the cultural memory is threatened in several ways. The world’s finest and largest collection of historical and present-day Niuean weaving, held by the Huanaki Cultural Centre, was destroyed by a cyclone. Large-scale migration to New Zealand has triggered new and innovative forms of weaving, but also cut some of the traditional ones as they could not be passed on to the next generation.
A German research and collection project has assembled a large collection of Niuean weaving in the Berlin museum and a smaller one in the Munich museum. These collections were done in close collaboration with and under the guidance of Niuean weaving experts who had an interest in having Niuean weaving documented and kept safe from climatic hazards. Relations with the weavers and their families are ongoing, including their visits in the collections when travelling Europe, or adding newly-made weavings to those museum pieces collected from the same family.