From the mid-nineteenth century onwards, substantial assemblages of ethnographic artefacts from south-east New Guinea made their way into museums across the United Kingdom. Amassed by British agents active in the protectorate of British New Guinea (1884-1906), current Papua New Guinea (PNG), these early collections are the material evidence of the cross-cultural encounters that took place during this period. Considered through the lens of body adornments from eastern New Guinea in the collections and archives of The British Museum, London, The University of Aberdeen, The National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh, and other smaller collections, this thesis will offer a new perspective on collecting histories by addressing the complex relations in which these objects became entangled, the relationship between the material properties and signification of these objects within and outwith their creator communities, and the imposition of Western classifications on cultures and objects.
The forms of adornment that are the focus of this study are the detachable, corporeal items that clothed, bejeweled and transformed the body in everyday life and in public performances in PNG’s three easternmost provinces, Central, Oro and Milne Bay Province, items that have been classified broadly as ‘ornaments’ in museum catalogue systems. Characterised in this period by their composite make-up of organic materials, this definition includes clothing; headdresses and head bands; ear, nose, face, hair and chest ornaments; jewellery such as pendants and bracelets, and ‘valuables’ used in gift exchange and trade systems. Three primary research themes, the history of collecting, embodiment and representation, will be investigated in order to better understand the complex web of social relations, encounters and reasons for which particular items of clothing and body adornments were given away or sold to British agents in the field. Research questions include: what was, or was not, collected, and why? What was the relationship between materiality, meaning and the body? How have these objects been represented and documented?
An original, inter-disciplinary approach will be employed to take advantage of art-historical, anthropological and museological approaches, drawing in particular on curatorial methodologies and insights from a wide range of source material and scholarship in material culture and body adornment studies, and Pacific history. A period of fieldwork in PNG, including active enquiry into the manufacture, use, value and signification of adornment, and knowledge exchange with source communities, will allow descendants of makers the opportunity to re-engage with collections, and bring a contemporary dimension to the study. Building on current interest in indigenous agency and materiality in relation to clothing and adornment in the Pacific and PNG specifically, and contributing to wider debates about changing museological policy and practice, this research also has the potential to foster cross-cultural understanding of the UK and PNG’s shared histories and generate new cultural, social and economic relationships, thus emphasising at this critical post-colonial moment the important role, purpose and efficacy of ethnographic museums and their collections as sites of knowledge about the past, present and future.