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Dossier : Histoires, matérialités et muséographies des collections océaniennes. Études de cas

Artefacts without Fieldnotes: the Bougainville collection from Patrick O'Reilly

Des collections sans notes de terrain : les objets de Bougainville rapportés par Patrick O'Reilly
Nicolas Garnier
p. 311-326


Pour l’ouverture du musée de l’Homme, P. O’Reilly un prêtre mariste formé à l’anthropologie, est envoyé pendant un an sur l’île Bougainville (1934-1935). Il en rapporte une importante collection d’objets dont seuls quelques-uns sont documentés. Par ailleurs, à leur arrivée en France, les documents de terrain et les objets ont été dissociés. C’est à la faveur d’enquêtes récentes que l’identification de l’usage et de l’origine de ces artefacts a pu se faire. Le contexte contemporain (indépendance souhaitée de Bougainville, enjeux pour le public des musées conservant ces collections) et l’ambiguïté du statut du collecteur – envoyé comme anthropologue, mais opérant au sein d’une structure missionnaire – posent plusieurs questions que cette analyse entend mettre en lumière.

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Texte intégral

This paper gives me the opportunity to express special thanks to Israel Pais and Clarence Aksili whose families have been of great and constant support from the inception phases of the project up to today.34

The author expresses his gratitude towards Frédérique Servain Riviale for her help and support in designing research material in 2011 – 2012, to Geneviève Escure for her careful editorial work, to John Terrell for his suggestion concerning early migrations in Bougainville, to Christian Coiffier for drawing my attention to correspondence between O’Reilly and staff members from the Musée de l’Homme.

  • 1 When referring to the artefacts collected by Patrick O’Reilly, Bougainville refers both to Bougainv (...)
  • 2 Rev. Voyce left two major collections to public museums in New Zealand (nearly 3,500 in Dunedin and (...)

1The Musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac (mqb-jc) owns one of the largest and most comprehensive collections of Bougainville1 artefacts in the world. It was mainly constituted by a Marist priest named Patrick O'Reilly who arrived in Bougainville in June 1934 and spent exactly a year there. It is also the biggest group of works ever constituted within the collection of Pacific artefacts housed at the Musée de l'Homme and then at the mqb-jc. This collection was made at about the same time as three other important Bougainville collections: the Blackwood, Voyce and Speiser collections. In 1929, the British anthropologist Beatrice Blackwood undertook major research in the north of the island and brought back a seminal collection of artefacts and visual documents that are today housed at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. Although it is unlikely that Patrick O’Reilly met Beatrice Blackwood before his departure to the Mandated Territory of New Guinea in 1934, he referred quite often to her work in several of his manuscripts. During his stay in Bougainville, he met a Methodist missionary, the Reverend A. H. Voyce (1899-1984), with whom he competed to gather a collection of stone artefacts.2 The third collection was made by the Swiss ethnographer Felix Speiser who, following his journey in the islands of New Britain, Bougainville, Buka and in New Guinea mainland (1939-1930), brought 190 artefacts from Bougainville to the Basel museum (Kaufmann, 1979: 152-153). 

2Unlike these contemporaneous collections, O’Reilly’s collection has received little attention from French scholars and historians. A recent publication devoted to the final years of the Musée du Trocadéro and its founder Paul Rivet does not mention it at all (Delpuech et al., 2017). It did gain renewed interest however after having been made available through printed and digital reproductions to a group of students from the University of Papua New Guinea as part of a research project in 2011 (Garnier, 2013). Subsequently documents related to this collection started to be disseminated amongst communities in the Autonomous Region of Bougainville.

3O’Reilly’s expedition and its contemporary interpretation in Bougainville are the objects of the present paper. We examine the recent reception of O’Reilly’s documentation in Bougainville by attending to the historical context in which the collection was gathered and then studied almost eighty years later by Bougainvilleans. Finally, we analyse the main features of this collection and conclude with the particular significance of such a collection for Bougainvilleans today.

The upng research in context

4In 2010, a research group on Bougainville culture was formed at the University of Papua New Guinea (upng). It was a joint initiative of myself, Nicolas Garnier, then director of maps (Melanesian and Pacific Studies Centre), and a group of students from the Autonomous Region of Bougainville (arob). The goals of this research can only be understood in the light of the recent political history of this part of Papua New Guinea (png).

5Bougainville is the most northerly island in the Solomon Islands. It is approximately 266 km long and 60 km wide, which makes it the largest (and probably the most populated) island in the archipelago. Bougainville is today an autonomous region of Papua New Guinea, which includes the Carteret and Green Islands (Nissan, Sau, Barahun, Sirot and Pinipel). Twenty-nine languages are spoken in Bougainville: sixteen Austronesian and thirteen non-Austronesian languages. The majority of the Austronesian languages are, however, spoken by a smaller number of speakers.

6The first settlement is attested 28,000 years ago (Terrell, 1976, 2010; Wickler & Spriggs, 1988; Wickler, 2001). Around 3,300 years ago, the original inhabitants were joined by Austronesian-speaking populations who brought with them the Lapita pottery techniques, but also the first dogs and chickens. Since then, successive population movements have given the island its present appearance. For example, the people living today on the Green Islands come from Buka Island. Takuu and Nukumanu atolls located east of Bougainville are Polynesian outliers where certain lineages have Samoan ties (Moyle, 2003). Migration narratives are common in mythological stories and oral tradition.

Photo 1. – Workshop organised in Rorovana in December 2012 about the drawings of Somuk

Photo 1. – Workshop organised in Rorovana in December 2012 about the drawings of Somuk

Cliché Nicolas Garnier

7The island of Bougainville was first placed under German mandate in 1888 at the same time as the Bismarck Archipelago and northern New Guinea (Griffin, 2005; Sack, 2005). The Germans mainly developed coconut plantations. They set up an administrative post in Kieta, on the East Coast. Bougainville, like other islands in the Solomon Islands, served as a recruiting location to provide labor for plantations. While the inhabitants of Malaita were massively deported to Queensland, it seems that the Bougainvillean workforce remained mainly in territories under German mandate. There is still today a large population originating from Bougainville living near Rabaul, in New Britain, where the most important plantations of the Bismarck Archipelago were established.

8In 1914, Australia took control of the island, maintaining part of the German administrative structures. However, most of the infrastructures and public services were set up by the missionaries –foremost the Marists who spread a network of missions, schools, and roads on the island. These structures still mark the Bougainville administration and landscape. During the Second World War, the Japanese invaded the island and were dislodged by the Allied Forces at the end of the war.

Photo 2. – The Bougainville Art exhibition on display at the Buin Hospital, April 2012

Photo 2. – The Bougainville Art exhibition on display at the Buin Hospital, April 2012

Cliché Nicolas Garnier

9Between WWI and WWII, autonomist and independence movements developed on the island and seem to have influenced the political discourse in Bougainville, although they are little documented. The period from the end of the Second World War to the opening of the Panguna copper mine, in 1972, was marked by the development of trade and infrastructures. In 1975, Bougainville was included into the independent State of Papua New Guinea despite local political expectations for their independence from png. The city of Arawa became a cosmopolitan and modern centre. In general, the quest for trade and commerce rapidly changed Bougainville societies, which modernized much faster than the rest of the region. The film Tukana (1984) –a cult film in Papua New Guinea– that depicts a young man at a crossroads between tradition and modernity, perfectly illustrates the tensions that marked Bougainvillean social structures before the conflict that erupted in 1989 and ended about a decade later. Even more than these tensions, the film illustrates the way in which the Bougainville populations adapted modernity to their needs and, conversely, their customs to the needs of the modern world.

The Bougainville crisis, its resolution, and the context of the current research

10The Panguna mine has one of the largest copper deposits in the world. It was entrusted to Bougainville Copper Limited, a branch of Rio Tinto, and exploitation began in the mid-1970s. In the 1980s, objections to the mine operating system were raised by landowners. The Bougainville population complained about the environmental damage that affected the rivers and the coast and the landowners requested an increase in their royalties. Following the official rejection of these claims in 1988, landowners led by Francis Ona, occupied the mine. The island was immediately placed in a state of emergency and troops were dispatched by the central government. In 1990, Port Moresby organized the blockade of the island. At the same time, Francis Ona and his cousin, Peputua Serero, formed the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (bra). The fighting was intense and during Paias Wingti’s tenure as Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea (dates), Arawa, the island’s former economic center and then the Panguna region, were occupied and controlled by the regular army.

11In addition to these violent fights, there were intra-communities conflicts causing much damage to the population. Julius Chan, Prime Minister of png (1980-1982), ordered a general invasion of the island in 1996. He sought military support from a group of mercenaries, Sandline International. The operation sparked a political crisis in Port Moresby. The new government formed by Bill Skate in March 1997 enabled a first cease-fire in 1998; it served as a preamble to a Peace Treaty signed two years later in 2000. As part of the peace agreements, a referendum took place in November and December 2019. In this non-binding referendum, 98,31% of the Bougainvilleans voted for complete independence.

  • 3 The 2011 census counted 249,358 inhabitants. In 2019, the Autonomous Region of Bougainville propose (...)
  • 4 These are personal observations noted over the years in various urban centres in Bougainville (Buka (...)

12Today, around 300,000 people live on the island.3 There is a slightly more developed road network there than in the rest of the country, thanks in part to the massive international aid brought to the region following the Peace Treaty. However, certain areas remain very isolated, notably the northwestern quarter of the island. Despite the closure of the Panguna mine in 1989, which provided the island with a substantial part of its income, the economy has generally grown rapidly. Although no official statistical data are available, increasing numbers of cars and shops attest to a rapid enrichment of the population and of the island in general.4

13Bougainvilleans perceive the last 140 years as a succession of deprivations and failed promises being caused by external agents. However, the expectation of independence and their slow but tangible enrichment give islanders hope for a brighter future. During the rapid modernization of the island, the making of many of the artefacts collected by O’Reilly, Voyce or Blackwood has been discontinued. These ancient collections testify to the loss of aspects of Bougainville cultures. The current aspiration for independence has revived interest in the Bougainville past and, in this context, the accessibility of these collections is of key importance. Moreover, their past heritage is seen as an important foundation for their future as well as a political justification for their autonomy.

The goals of the Bougainville students’ project

14The research group formed at upng in 2010 intended to document, amongst others, O'Reilly's collection in Paris, and, more importantly, to make this documentation available to many Bougainvilleans. It is customary for upng students to form student groups according to their province of origin. This association was of great significance to Bougainvillean students and the arob government, as they undertook to raise awareness in Bougainville about the forthcoming referendum. During several Christmas holidays, the students traveled to their home communities staging information workshops for the population. They considered essential to combine public forums about their political future with a reflection on their culture. Students saw the Bougainville Crisis as an opportunity to return to a “purer” form of culture, that is a system of value and a body of knowledge that they consider specific to their people. During the crisis, the blockade ordered by the png government cut the Bougainvilleans off from foreign influence, goods and supply. As a result, they had to cater to local needs without external help, expertise or material. Retrospectively, many Bougainvilleans feel that this ordeal gave them a new sense of cultural ownership: they could provide for themselves. When I asked one of them to give me a specific example of the reappearance of traditional culture, he cited locally made guns. According to him, Bougainvilleans were able to use local skills in order to manufacture homemade guns. This epitomized a return to “traditional culture”. What was meant by “traditional culture” was not solely represented in artefacts taken during the colonial history to be displayed in Western museums. More importantly, it was applied to technology and material production that could be developed without the support of foreign aid. Formulated in such terms, local culture and independence are largely connected.

Photo 3. – Israel Pais and a Chief of Inus (near Tinputz) studying Bougainville artefacts from the mqb-jc, November 2010

Photo 3. – Israel Pais and a Chief of Inus (near Tinputz) studying Bougainville artefacts from the mqb-jc, November 2010

(cliché Nicolas Garnier)

15The research on museum artefacts was undertaken in this separatist context. It consisted of a series of fieldtrips to various Bougainville communities in which the students were actively involved while I produced visual documentation (partly taken from the mqb-jc database). The students interviewed elders and dealt with the many tasks that they considered they had to fulfill, such as the organization of public debates about the future referendum and rekindling with members of their extended families.

  • 5 Very practical considerations, such as the weight, size, texture, resistance to climate and humidit (...)
  • 6 The names of many villages or hamlets visited by O’Reilly have changed, so it has been one of the m (...)

16After several fieldwork trips to Bougainville, I was awarded in 2011 a research grant by the mqb-jc, through the Société des amis du Musée. This funding enabled us to work with greater conditions. We compiled very useful notebooks5 that included illustrations and technical details about the Bougainville collections held in Paris. These notebooks were sometimes annotated with comments and remarks made by elderly people. These comments primarily related to local taxonomy and precisions about the original locations.6 New ethnographic information on the usage, technique, or meaning were recorded in these notebooks and subsequently added to the museum database. This concerned a small number of artefacts only. Students, elders and other villagers showed limited interest in spears and arrows (their pictures were perhaps too small to be seen properly), stone axes or pottery, i.e, the most numerous artefacts in the collection. However, artefacts that are still produced today such as fishing tools, body ornaments, dancing fans from the Kieta area (locally called biruko), traditional money, and basketry drew a lot of attention. Fieldwork was conducted in three main areas: Inus (near Tinputz), Rorovana (near Arawa and the former colonial centre Kieta), and Morou (near Buin, in the South of Bougainville).

17These first field trips took place in three villages, which were situated in each of the three main administrative subdivisions of the Autonomous Region of Bougainville. They were not selected to illustrate representative aspects of Bougainville cultures, but rather because of the enthusiasm of the students who took part in the project. After this initial fieldwork, we organised a traveling exhibition, which took the form of a series of thirty posters featuring a selection of artefacts and ethnographic pictures accompanied with information collected previously. They were grouped by themes that were discussed during evening sessions in classrooms at the University of Papua New Guinea. Fortunately, this relatively poorly equipped university provided staff with reasonably good computers, an excellent it service and useful software. Several students who were enrolled in graphic arts gave technical and visual support to the making of the posters.

18During the following holiday break, the students traveled in many parts of Bougainville. They received an enthusiastic welcome in villages, public schools, and other infrastructures. It was also an opportunity for the students who were particularly engaged in the project to have their participation recognized and appreciated. This project had no specific relationship to the personality of Patrick O’Reilly and focused on the local significance and use of the artefacts rather than on the context of their departure to Europe. Students and participants in the project neither referred to this collector nor to any other Europeans who had been instrumental in the collection of ethnographic artefacts during colonial times. However, students and participants were fully aware that the objects they were studying belonged to the past and, for most of them, had left Bougainville a long time ago and were no longer produced.

19This research was conducted collectively by the group of students, who did not want to give anyone a leadership position. Consequently, each participant used the archival material to pursue relatively autonomous goals. Most students developed a particular interest in artefacts that came from their birthplace. They asked me to print folders including specific artefacts within the general ensemble. Many were able to rapidly identify sets of artefacts. For example, Kieta students spotted the women’s fans (biruko), Buin students developed a keen interest in basketry trays and containers and Tinputz students put together all initiation headdresses (upe). When artefacts entered the Paris museum with the name of the village from where they were collected, it was easy to include them in the folders compiled by participants. We conducted meetings with village elders in order to identify the artefacts that were registered without specific information. This particular aspect of the research was seen by students and elders as a significant opportunity to share knowledge and facilitate the transmission of information from one generation to another. Globalisation, Christianisation and the Bougainville crisis were regarded as the main causes of a vast cultural loss by students, elders and by the community at large.

20Many participants from all generations and backgrounds expressed deep concerns about the destruction during the Bougainville Crisis of a former museum that existed in Kieta. This project was envisaged by students, village elders and broader community members as an opportunity to keep images from artefacts that were no longer produced, or that had lost their ancient form and technique. Elders used these images to teach younger generations about the “ways of the past”, about traditional “Bougainvillean cultures” and to assert Bougainville identity against a png and global background.

21Bougainville participants to the research project showed surprise and regrets when objects were not labelled. Although it was never said explicitly, they seemed to expect museum files to keep a record of the place where the objects were taken from, and some information about their use or their vernacular name. More generally, participants expected museum artefacts and their documentation to help bridge the present and the past. Knowing artefacts from the past enables building continuity between the cultures of the past and contemporary aspirations. Due to the colonial history, new religious inflexions and the recent political turmoil, these bridges may not exist anymore. In this context, completing the museum files (recording an ethnographic discourse about individual artefacts) was of secondary interest, and hence, it was rather my goal than theirs.

22Soon after the first folders started circulating in villages, local leaders initiated the establishment of community-based museums and cultural centres (especially around Buin). Around Arawa in particular, they commissioned villagers for the recreation of some objects of the past. These initiatives resulting from the preliminary stages of the research (cultural centres, museums, reestablishment of ancient techniques, art workshops), were seen as a form of political assertiveness and a channel through which Bougainvilleans could reconnect to the culture of their ancestors.

23Some participants expressed dismay when they discovered that some traditional headdresses (the initiation upe) or a large mask used during initiation (71.1934.188.1263.1-3) were kept overseas. These artefacts – embodying a paramount form of sacredness– are so deeply tied to the land where they were created that their presence outside Bougainville is considered an outrage by many on the island. Unfortunately, the archival documentation concerning these artefacts was only discovered after 2016 and could not be included into the scope of this early research.

24The project was designed in such a way that students and then community leaders could take ownership of the documentation that we gathered collectively from 2010 onwards. After the first field trips, elders and village representatives addressed requests that became more systematic. The students and I built a database in Port Moresby where we stored numerous pictures of ancient artifacts and photographs taken during colonial time. This documentation expanded far beyond O’Reilly’s collection and included pictures borrowed from many archival and museum sources outside Papua New Guinea. They were and are still redistributed throughout Bougainville communities under various forms (printed portfolios, laminated posters, and under an electronic format on students’ laptops or mobile phones).

25During the course of the project, the participants (students and village elders) gained increased autonomy and the original project gave birth to multiple local and independent cultural initiatives. Students still link up together and many have pursued the discussions with me after I left upng, in 2016, to return to France. My position gave me new opportunities to access unpublished material collected in Bougainville during colonial times and I continue sending documents to students and community leaders in Bougainville. Newly discovered archival holdings have enabled the development of specific projects that have been designed with individual communities, such as the collaborative research designed with the village of Gagan on the memory of the artist Somuk (yet unpublished archival materials). My presence in Europe has also rekindled the research on Patrick O’Reilly and the documents he collected in Bougainville.

Patrick O’Reilly before his departure to Bougainville

26Patrick O’Reilly’s expedition to Bougainville was part of an ambitious program organized by Paul Rivet to transform the old Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro into a more modern institution, called Musée de l’Homme. As part of this program, experienced professional and recently trained ethnographers were sent to the South Pacific.

  • 7 Maurice Leenhardt stayed for a longer period in New Caledonia where his ethnographic fieldwork merg (...)

27The Swiss Alfred Métraux, who was in charge of the ethnographic side (see Métraux, 1941), and the Belgian Henri Lavachery, responsible for the archeological aspect of the mission, worked on Rapa Nui/ Easter Is. The second mission was led by a group of amateurs, mostly aristocrats, who sponsored their own expedition called “La Korrigane”, after the name of the ship aboard which one crewmember, Monique de Ganay, was trained by Marcel Mauss. It received recent and detailed academic attention (Coiffier, 2001). The last mission (although there was no “order”) was entrusted to Father Patrick O'Reilly. It was the longest and, to some extent, can be considered as one of the earliest uninterrupted fieldwork ever undertaken by a French researcher.7

28Patrick O'Reilly received training as a Marist priest and was ordained in 1928. At the end of his studies, he attended the lectures given by Marcel Mauss at the Institut d'Ethnologie, from where he graduated in 1932 (Faessel, 2002: 45). This institution was instrumental to the creation of the French colonial State as it was meant to provide basic training in ethnography for colonial officers, travelers, and missionaries. The content of the training is fairly well known as a transcription, titled “Manuel d'ethnographie”, was made available in 1947. Benoît de l'Estoile (2007) provides a powerful insight into the context in which the training was provided. He argues that at the end of the 1920s and during the 1930s there were three competing approaches to non-Western cultures (i.e. colonized areas). The earliest approach was an adaptation of the Darwinian theory in social sciences. Arising at the end of the 19th century, it was still in vogue in many colonial administrations in France during the “Années Folles”. Such evolutionist theory was at the origin of the Musée d'Ethnographie du Trocadéro founded in 1878. When Paul Rivet was asked to give a new turn to this aging institution, he adopted a more liberal orientation that was incarnated in France by Marcel Mauss, and which was partly reflected in Patrick O’Reilly’s collections.

29For Mauss and Rivet, societies were considered as coherent wholes, which needed to be studied individually and not within a comparative framework based on technological complexity. Ethnographers collecting for the Musée de l’Homme (who were often well-intentioned amateurs such as O’Reilly, missionaries, or travellers such as the Korrigane’s crew), had to consider several features: among them kinship and political structure, judicial institution, and religious and moral institutions. Marcel Mauss devoted two of the longest chapters of his Manuel d'ethnographie to technology and the arts. Although they were published more than ten years after the departure of Patrick O'Reilly to Bougainville, the Marist priest was likely well aware of their content. Therefore, it is no surprise that many of the artefacts collected by Patrick O'Reilly belong to one or several of the categories suggested by Marcel Mauss. O’Reilly collected artefacts in Bougainville according to principles that fully correspond to the second, and more liberal, understanding of non-European cultures.

Photo 4. – Patrick O’Reilly setting up a display devoted to the initiation in Bougainville at the Musée de l’Homme

Photo 4. – Patrick O’Reilly setting up a display devoted to the initiation in Bougainville at the Musée de l’Homme

Unknown photographer, 1939 or later. Album “Bougainville”, mqb-jc, Paris (Inv : 70.2016.22.1)

30Benoît de l’Estoile identified a third approach to exotic cultures that he called “primitivist” (2007: 58-59). It is a reversed form of evolutionism in which the “savage” state of development is given high cultural value. At first, O’Reilly did not adhere to this intellectual orientation. However, during the Second World War, his encounter with the artist Jean Dubuffet partly modified his understanding of the collected material and led to the first systematic publications he devoted to his Bougainville collection (1951, 1952, 1955, 1958). In 1951, he opened an exhibition of drawings gathered in Buka which can be considered an illustration of the taste for primitivism that was in vogue in Paris in the 1930s.

Patrick O'Reilly in Bougainville

31Paul Rivet probably approached the young priest when he attended Marcel Mauss’s training, but it is unclear why they selected the island of Bougainville. Beatrice Blackwood had not yet published the results of her research on the northern tip of Bougainville’s main island (1935) and it was then only known through publications in German with limited distribution (Frizzi, 1914; Thurnwald, 1934-1935 & 1937). Was it because a large community of Marist priests was based there and many of them were French? This is a hypothesis that needs to be given credit. Patrick O'Reilly probably took advantage of being a priest, and foremost being a Marist priest, which proved to be a considerable asset during his stay there.

  • 8 On sheet 210 of the “Album”, he writes “February 1981. These last days by gathering in an album the (...)

32Patrick O'Reilly’s long sojourn in Bougainville is relatively well-known thanks to three sets of documents dated June 1934 to June 1935. First, he left a detailed diary conserved in the Marist archives in Sainte-Foy-lès-Lyon, near Lyon. Secondly, in the Marist archives in Rome, there are about twenty notepads: while most of them are intact, several are partly ruined or partial. They detail his findings, some of his reflections and notes that were probably taken during interviews. The third source of documentation is an “Album” that was acquired by the mqb-jc in June 2016. It is a manuscript compiled shortly before February 1981, seven years before his death and forty-five years after his return from his mission in Bougainville.8 The manuscript includes nearly 500 photos, about 40 drawings, and presents a synthesis of his notes taken both from his travel diary and his field notepads. O’Reilly also published a descriptive paper about his fieldwork in 1940 (O’Reilly, 1940).

  • 9 For example John Layard stayed a year in Atchin in 1914, Bernard Deacon spent a year in Malakula be (...)
  • 10 Sonia Faessel published an abstract from this letter: “Parti de Paris avec l’idée de me retirer seu (...)

33Patrick O’Reilly spent a whole year in Bougainville, which was relatively rare for an French ethnographic mission at the time,9 where several weeks or months were considered sufficient to collect ethnographic information (on the conditions of collecting ethnographic samples in France, see Mauss, 1947 and de l’Estoile, 2007: 144-146 & 185-237). However, O’Reilly’s fieldwork cannot exactly be labeled as participant observation according to Malinowski’s recommendations. The Marist priest’s diary shows that he rarely spent a week in the same place, although a letter to his sister demonstrated that he originally intended to do so.10 In many instances, he only overnighted in a village. The rich and detailed content of his notebooks, today conserved in Rome, indicates that O’Reilly envisaged writing a comprehensive publication on Bougainville. His stay was not only aimed at gathering documented artefacts, but, to a certain extent, was more ambitious and also intended to be an ethnographic fieldwork. However, these notebooks written in tiny handwriting are very rich, but difficult to exploit. They usually consist in rapid annotations that can only rarely be related to identified events, locations or rituals. Their content could perhaps help understand some aspects of Bougainville culture that are today extinct or that have greatly changed.

34It seems that he acquired no fluency in any of the local languages. His fieldnotes show that he made many mistakes in Tok Pisin, a language easy to learn and commonly spoken in Bougainville. Despite his language limitations, he benefited from a particularly efficient network, which considerably facilitated his access to remote places, to detailed information and, foremost, enabled him to travel fast and without the technical hazards and inconveniences that are still common in some parts of Bougainville today. He seemed to have been given high consideration and material means that would make a contemporary anthropologist jealous. He used without limits the steamboat and the plane owned by the Marist missionaries. Lastly, he benefited, everywhere he went, from the numerous accommodations that the Marists built throughout Bougainville, Buka, and the northern Nissan group.

The museum collections

35The material collections brought back by Patrick O'Reilly are today dispatched into three main institutions:

  • the mqb-jc to which the ethnographic collections of the Musée de l’Homme were transferred (about 1,500 pieces).

    • 11 Personal translation. Original text : “Plus modeste que celle recueillie pour le Musée de l'Homme, (...)

    the Vatican museum, which houses the missionary collections formerly held at the Latran Palace in Rome. O’Reilly described his collection stored there as: “Smaller than the one collected for the Musée de l'Homme, this collection nonetheless constitutes a sampling that, with a minimum of method and directives, all missionaries should be able to carry out on their own territory11” (O'Reilly, 1940: 163-164). There is no available catalogue for this collection but 180 artefacts are mentioned with entry numbers in the paper written by O’Reilly in 1940. If we infer that entry numbers could refer to series of similar artefacts, the Vatican museum could house at least 258 artefacts, possibly more, around 300 pieces. In many ways, this set can be regarded as a reduced version of the collection conserved in Paris. In a short description published in 1940, O’Reilly mentioned several categories of artefacts that can also be found in Paris, although forming more comprehensive series.

  • the Musée d'Océanie, a small missionary museum in La Neylière, the former private estate of Father Colin, the founder of the Marist order. This third collection of about 200 pieces includes the artefacts that Patrick O’Reilly had kept for himself after sending the main collections to Paris and Rome. This collection includes a range of weapons, body ornaments, daily utensils, and architectural sculptures.

36The three artefact collections share similar features although they vary in size. They all include comparable categories of objects: weapons, tools, baskets, body attire, traditional currency, musical instruments, architectural models, material samples and woodcarvings. The Paris museum owns the largest and the most comprehensive collection, but the two others also include remarkable examples of artworks. Each museum conserves types of artefacts that cannot be found in the two others. The mqb-jc owns a large initiation mask (goev/urar) that is unique in the world and a very large set of stone tools. The Vatican Museum displays a very well documented monumental religious carving and the La Neylière museum was given a small ensemble of drawings by Somuk. 

  • 12 During his fieldwork, Patrick O’Reilly did not only collect in Bougainville. He brought back to the (...)
  • 13 The Parisian museum only conserved artefacts and no documentation until 2016 when this museum acqui (...)

37Apart from the material collections, Patrick O’Reilly formed important documentary archives, including recordings, drawings and charts.12 Like the objects, they are dispersed between several institutions including the mqb-jc,13 the Musée d'Océanie at La Neylière and the following ones:

  • the Marist archives in Rome inherited Patrick O'Reilly’s personal archives which he kept stored at the 104, rue de Vaugirard in Paris, where he resided until his death in 1988. They conserve the bulk of his Bougainville fieldnotes mostly related to rituals he observed in the various locations he visited. They are ordered by dates and sometimes by themes. Occasionally, information can be related to some of the artefacts, but they were not specifically written to document his collection. These fieldnotes were not used by O’Reilly in later publications.

  • the Marist archives in Sainte-Foy-lès-Lyon hold his 1934-1935 diary which provides interesting details about the conditions under which he acquired some artefacts (for example his relationship with the carver Genu).

    • 14 According to their description, these sound recordings correspond to two sequences from the film Bo (...)

    the Bibliothèque Nationale de France keeps two audio recordings.14

The Bougainville collections at the Musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac

  • 15 According to Jean Guiart he collected over 4,000 artefacts for the Musée de l'Homme (Guiart, 1988: (...)

38Most of the collection at the mqb-jc is ethnographic and archaeological. Its main purpose was to document the state of Bougainville societies at the time of the missionary/ethnographer's visit. It thus covers many aspects of human activity with a special emphasis on technology, most likely due to the influence of Marcel Mauss and Paul Rivet. It is one of the largest Pacific collections in France.15

  • 16 64 files of the museum cannot be connected with identified artefacts today. They may have been lost (...)

39At the Musée de l'Homme, the detailed inventory of what was acquired by Patrick O'Reilly is difficult to establish because the inventory reveals a series of slight inconsistencies.16

40The actual collection is roughly 1,500 objects but Patrick O'Reilly also appears as a donor of 1,613 artefacts. They entered at two different times. The first series comprising 1,493 artefacts (plus five that were recollected later) entered soon after O’Reilly returned from Bougainville.

41In 1981, he gave an additional series of eighty-three Bougainville artefacts, only comprising stone implements (registered as 71.1981.42.1 to 71.1981.42.83).

  • 17 Without taking into account the numerous specimens given to the museum of La Neylière and a third c (...)
  • 18 There are also many weapons from Bougainville in the collections of the Leiden Museum, in Auckland (...)

42Three types of objects are abundantly represented in this collection: stones axes (202 samples),17 ceramic shards (50 shards and 8 full pots), and weapons (just over thirty arrows and fifty-eight spears).18 It is unclear what prompted O’Reilly to accumulate these three types of artefacts. They are briefly described in the paper he published on his collection made for the Latran Museum (1940: 171-172). The files of the Musée de l’Homme are almost empty, and without any written records it is impossible to know O’Reilly’s intentions. Perhaps he was willing to document the various regional variations of these three types of artefacts. There are no records of the conditions in which these collections were acquired: were artefact purchased for money or traded for other goods, given by villagers or by missionaries? If the objects were indeed given to him, they were thus not specifically chosen by O’Reilly which could explain both the large numbers of such artefacts and the lack of ethnographic account. Several series of artefacts illustrate daily activities (food processing and cooking, fishing, basketry, various kinds of containers, children’s games, string games, many types of tools), body ornaments (numerous combs, fibre garments, pendants, nose ornaments, shell bracelets, necklaces and armbands), traditional money, musical instruments, funerary apparatus (including a rare set of house models that were used as family shrines on Pokpok island) and a few samples of materials. Finally, the most important ritual objects (the sculptures belonging to female and male initiation rituals in the north of the island) have no information, not even about their geographic origin. The museum files for these objects are empty and the fieldnotes provide no clues either.

  • 19 Letter dated of 9th August 1939, from Dr. Paul Rivet to the Directeur général des Douanes, and to t (...)

43Most artefacts entered the Paris museum collections without detailed labels or provenance. There is typically no indication about the village, and rarely any details about the use of the artefact. As most of Patrick O'Reilly publications on Bougainville relate to Buka mythology, they are of no help in documenting the Paris collections (1951, 1952, 1955 and 1958). Sonia Faessel mentions that the crates he sent to Paris were opened only in 1939 (Faessel, 2002: 49). This late opening could explain why O’Reilly did not fill detailed accession files. It is noteworthy that while Patrick O’Reilly originally sent fifteen crates to the Musée de l’Homme, one of them was misplaced, probably by the French customs, and the artefacts it contained were later discovered on the art market, with some of them sold by Pierre Vérité.19

44The only paper devoted to these collections is a classification of the lithic utensils (Gérard & O'Reilly, 1973). According to Borger Bakere from Buka, interviewed by upng students during one of their fieldtrips, these stone blades were part of an exchange system between the inhabitants of Buka and Nissan. The former provided stone blades and received fish in counterpart. It is also known that Buka islanders obtained their pigs from Nissan in exchange for stone axes as well.

  • 20 The fourth type of currency is known in Bougainville. It is described by Richard Parkinson and said (...)
  • 21 The museum collections are available online. For this particular item, see (...)
  • 22 Several informants in Bougainville made such statements to me since 2010.

45O'Reilly’s collections in Paris also include shell money. Amongst the four main types of traditional currency that were circulating in Bougainville in the 1930s, three are represented in the collection.20 There is a series of necklaces made out of flying-fox teeth (71.1934.188.1379 & 71.1934.188.1380), necklaces made out of small shell rings (traditionally called mimis throughout Bougainville although different terms may be used depending on the linguistic area) and, lastly, large necklaces made out of entire shells (with technological series such as 71.1934.188.200.1-2 or 71.1934.188.201)21. Only the first and third types seem to be produced locally, especially in the very north of Bougainville and Buka. A particularly ancient example is conserved in Paris (inv. 71.1890.88.12) but entered in the French collection prior to O'Reilly's mission and without relationship to his collection). The two other types are said to come from outside Bougainville, from the Solomon Islands (see for example 71.2012.0.5583 that may come from Malaita). In Bougainville, they are today attributed to the Shortland Islands. However, the mimis could have a southerner origin (Malaita?). They are said today to be exchanged with the Telei people for pigs and Galip nuts (Canarium sp.).22

Woodcarvings collected by Patrick O'Reilly

46While Bougainvillean sculpture appears in many publications (Blackwood, 1935; Frizzi, 1914; McCarthy, 1951; Howarth and Waite, 2011; Oliver, 1949; O’Reilly, 1935 and 1940; Parkinson, 1926; Specht, 1999; Spiegel, 1967; Waite and Conru, 2008), it has not been given much detailed ethnographic attention apart from Blackwood’s monumental monograph. It emerges from these studies that there were at least two distinct productions: one associated with ritual practices and the other intended for foreigners (settlers, missionaries or tourists). In the south of the island, there is a limited tradition of sculpture. In the Telei region, oral testimony evokes the presence of carved posts in meeting houses (for some examples from Buka, see Frizzi, 1914: 32, plate 3827). La Neylière museum holds one such post but its style and the lack of information about this particular carving make its attribution to the south of Bougainville only hypothetical.

  • 23 In his 1940 publication, O'Reilly briefly described three carvings that are now held in the Vatican (...)

47The collection of woodcarvings gathered by Patrick O’Reilly was of great consistency before it was dispersed and today travel to Paris, Rome and La Neylière is required to appreciate its scope. There are very few museums capable of presenting a coherent set of wooden sculptures from this area of the Solomon Islands. The collections brought back by Rev. Voyce and by Beatrice Blackwood do not include any equivalent series. Unfortunately, these exceptional testimonies are not well documented and for the most important sculptures, those of Rome and that of La Neylière in particular, we know almost nothing about their origin or use23. Some of them were displayed at the opening of the Musée de l’Homme in 1938 and were still on display until 1995 when the gallery was transformed to host an exhibition devoted the Marquesas Islands. Since then, they have unfortunately not been displayed again. Given the limited information about the practice of sculpture across Bougainville, it is difficult to attribute the sculptures to specific geographic areas. Sometimes Father O'Reilly gives contradictory information. Thus, the great carved wooden Virgin of Genu, now in the Vatican, is described both as a commission from Patrick O'Reilly (1981) and as an order from the Apostolic Vicar which was refused on delivery (Maarschalkerweerd, 1937: 22).

48Rorovana people remember some names for woodcarvers from the past: Keto, Baga, and Genu, who has left several archival traces in Western institutions. Several sculptures kept in western museums can be attributed to him: numbers 71.1934.188.1262, 71.1934.188.1264, 71.1934.188.1269, 71.1934.188.1276, 71.1934.188.1267, 71.1934.188.1268 at the mqb-jc ; four pieces at the Musée de La Neylière and in Australian museums (see Howarth and Waite, 2011: 54-58); another one was identified at the Anthropology Museum of the University of Brisbane. The latter was collected in Rorovana in the 1930s, a period that corresponds to Genu’s peak production of medium-size statuettes (less than a meter high) which were made for foreigners such as sailors, traders, colonial officers and missionaries. The inhabitants of Rorovana probably took advantage of the proximity of Kieta, the former colonial centre, to sell their works to people passing through. At that time, they lived precariously. Having been repeatedly chased away from different places (notably by the Nasioi, see Laracy, 1939: 234-235), their current village location had only been established a short time before Patrick O'Reilly took an interest in their sculptures.

49To explain this important production of sculptures, the inhabitants of Rorovana evoke the history of their migration. Their ancestors are said to have come from the Shortland Islands to settle on Bougainville (Terrell, Irwin & Irvin 1972; Togolo, 2005: 277 and personal fieldwork). Their presence on the Shortlands could have been only a migration stage that started long before. According to some contemporary Rorovana villagers, this migration began on the Roviana lagoon. They claim that the Roviana Lagoon is the chosen land of a great tradition of sculptures. Today the inhabitants of Rorovana affirm that they derive their talent as sculptors from their ancestors from Roviana and that the formal similarities between the sculptures of Roviana and those of Rorovana can be explained by their common origin.

Bougainville's photographs collected by Patrick O'Reilly

50The mqb-jc iconothèque long contained only five photographs relating to O’Reilly’s stay in Bougainville. However, a considerable collection of photographs taken in Bougainville (more than 500) was added recently with the acquisition of the “Album” in June 2016. These are extremely precious documents for the cultures of Bougainville. Patrick O'Reilly was sent to the field with quite modern equipment. A short caption in this manuscript informs us about the Contax camera he may have used (folio 210), considered a competitor to the famous Leica. The pictures collated in the “Album” seem to be recent prints; probably made for the book (i.e. in the early 1980s). Alongside the visual documentation produced by Douglas Oliver during his early fieldwork, now conserved in Hawai'i, they represent the most comprehensive visual documentation on past cultures of Bougainville (for some of the published pictures, see Oliver, 1949). Browsing through his hundreds of pages of fieldnotes (in Sainte-Foy-lès-Lyon and Rome) and much later in the “Album”, none of the protagonists appearing in the pictures are named with the notable exceptions of European missionaries and Genu, the Rorovana carver. While O’Reilly regretted not having made portraits of artists such as Somuk, most of the time, Bougainvillians are referred to by the term “boys”. It is quite a disappointment as Patrick O'Reilly stated indirectly that he could have identified some of the people appearing on the pictures. The terminology used by O'Reilly was already largely derogative in the 1930s, and in the 1981 manuscript, it had become unbearable. Equally symptomatic of a certain ethnological attitude, there is no mention of women and it seems that the only Bougainvillean correspondents of O'Reilly were men.

51Many other photographs by Patrick O'Reilly are also kept at La Neylière. Most of them are glass plates. They are carefully stored into cardboard boxes and classified under specific themes, not very differently from the classification of the “Album”. Once again, they reflect certain themes suggested by Marcel Mauss, especially those concerning techniques. Apart from Patrick O'Reilly’s own pictures, La Neylière keeps a large number of older glass plates brought together by other missionaries stationed in Bougainville but whose origin remains to be determined.

52The visual documentation made available through both the “Album” and the glass slides of La Neylière provides a very informative complement to the collections made by O'Reilly in Bougainville. Many of these pictures detail the technical stages of the making of the artefacts he brought back. They include comprehensive sets of pictures about the making of clay pots (very likely in Pokpok Island), clay smoking pipes (that bear no mention of location but that could be from Buka), tuna fishing techniques in the neighbourhood of Kieta (perhaps on Rorovana Bay?), boating and sailing, string games, the making of shell money in Pinepil (an island offshore of Buka), very rare pictures of the making of a “dancing shield” and a male fibre cap in Buin. This documentation is invaluable as it has only few known equivalents. It describes practices that have been extinct in many parts of Bougainville.

53Several rituals are also documented. The most interesting is a long series of pictures taken during an initiation in Tzipatavei, near Tinputz. They complement the very detailed record left by Beatrice Blackwood of a similar ritual (1935: 202-218). While the text written by the British anthropologist gives a comprehensive narrative, her pictures, blurry and scarce, are somehow disappointing. On the contrary, Patrick O'Reilly who was a very close witness to some of the most critical and secret aspects of this ritual took pictures of the making of a Goev/Urar mask as well as of the symbolic killing of the initiates in the ritual phase that follows the public appearance of the masks.

54In addition, shortly after the Second World War, Patrick O'Reilly assembled a large series of war photographs, most of which were taken by the United States Army Service. They are collated in a separate album kept in the Marist archives of Rome.

  • 24 The acronym of this Catholic company, founded in 1927 in Cologne, in Germany, stands for Missions-V (...)
  • 25 About the film Bougainville, Patrick O'Reilly mentions: “Tourné d'août 1934 à février 1935 à Bougai (...)
  • 26 Letters dated 29th of June 1935 from Roland Grunevald to Patrick O’Reilly (Archives BCM, Letters of (...)

55Patrick O'Reilly is often credited to be the first French scholar to have completed a filmed monograph on a Pacific island. The film called Bougainville is dated 1935. The making of the film was perhaps partly due to Peter Berkenheier. In his “Album”, he said that a German filmmaker accompanied him. Berkenheier was a camera operator working for a German missionary company named miva,24 which provided the mission with an airplane. He probably arrived in Bougainville with Patrick O'Reilly, perhaps to assist in the making of a film devoted to the history of aviation in the North Solomons (see Dierke, 2015). He appeared as a photography director for a film on the church of Saint Severius in Cologne in 1930, and after the war, in the same role, for a film about the cathedral of Cologne. In his “Album”, Patrick O'Reilly described his material as very heavy (over 150 kg) and necessitating the help of at least four carriers. No documentation or archives have subsisted from the making of this film, apart from brief recollections that appear in the “Album” and a short notice in a paper published by Patrick O'Reilly in 1949.25 It would also seem that part of the film material gathered by O’Reilly did not survive the tropical climate of Bougainville and that most of the film reels were destroyed.26 The locations featured in the film could not be identified when numerous screenings were organized in our recent field trips to Bougainville. As a justification for the scientific interest of his film, he highlighted the connection with the artefact collections that he sent to the Musée de l'Homme:

  • 27 Personal translation. Original text: “Outre son caractère documentaire, l'intérêt proprement scient (...)

“Besides its documentary nature, the strictly scientific interest of this film seems to reside above all in the fact that a large number of the present transportable artefacts were sent to the Musée de l'Homme where they are kept. Thus pottery –pipes and pots– basketwork, certain sculptures of which the film shows different stages of manufacture, can be examined and studied by specialists who will find in this way, alongside artefacts, direct and objective documentation on their use and manufacture27” (1949: 140).

Drawings collected by Patrick O'Reilly and Paul Montauban

  • 28 Montauban’s life is known thanks to two short articles by Paul Séjourné, 1982a & b.

56The many drawings sent by Father Montauban and partly published by O'Reilly in 1951 (Melanesian Art, Somuk, etc.) and by O'Reilly and Montauban (1952, 1955 and 1958) represent the most original part of the contribution of O'Reilly. Montauban was a Marist priest who resided in Gagan, a village located in the centre of Buka when O’Reilly visited him. The two priests entertained an important correspondence after O’Reilly’s return to France. Montauban assisted O’Reilly in collecting drawings in Gagan.28 Long considered lost, many were found very recently, while a large number were already known through publications. Three drawings have been identified in Lausanne at the Musée de l'Art brut, while the small La Neylière museum holds at least eleven. Twenty Somuk drawings are included in Patrick O'Reilly's “Album”. From the same “Album”, others are attributable to other inhabitants of Gagan, the village of Somuk that Patrick O'Reilly visited in January and February 1935. In 2016, over fifty drawings by Somuk were identified in O'Reilly's papers in the Marist archives of Rome. Finally, seven additional drawings were found in the papers of René Dessirier (1919-2003), a friend of Patrick O’Reilly. This important collection of drawings complement those commissioned by Beatrice Blackwood to her informants from Kurtatchi today kept in Oxford. In 2019-2020, with the help of Somuk’s family in Gagan, the mqb-jc organized a retrospective of his work. A version of this exhibition is meant to travel to Bougainville once the circumstances make it possible. This project is also part of the collaborative research that has been conducted with Bougainville people on O’Reilly’s collections.

Patrick O'Reilly and social sciences

57Following Benoît de l'Estoile's analysis of French ethnographic orientations in the 1920s and 1930s (2007), we can find in the manuscript written by Patrick O'Reilly in 1981 and conserved at the mqb-jc some expressions revealing an evolutionist mentality rather than a more liberal way of thinking. This attitude seems to have been quite perceptible, and already considered a little “out of place” early in his career. The “Album” written not long before his death reflects the obsolescence of this mentality in the early 1980s. Jean Guiart painted a portrait of him that confirms O'Reilly's attitude:

  • 29 Personal translation. Original text: “Sa conception de la société humaine était aux antipodes de ce (...)

“His conception of human society was the opposite of that of a revolutionary. Father O'Reilly had not read the writings of utopian socialists and the influence of the great pre-war socialist intellectuals, Marcel Mauss and Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, whose teaching he had followed, had hardly rubbed off on him. His vision was hierarchical and stable, everyone in their place. […] Long after the Liberation, which had passed over him without unduly disturbing him, he kept on his desk a statuette of Marshal Pétain almost as a devotional statue29.” (Guiart, 1988: 91)

  • 30 Although Guiart admits that O'Reilly kept a very high level of honesty and dignity during the Germa (...)
  • 31 Other narratives concerning O’Reilly have a rather laudatory tone, but they are focussing on other (...)

58Guiart’s accusative words30 attest to O'Reilly's character, which transpires in many of the remarks (published or unpublished) about Bougainville.31

59His notebooks written in tiny handwriting are certainly very rich, but difficult if not impossible to exploit. Often superficial and unspecific, his notes cannot be used anymore to understand some aspects of Bougainville culture that are today extinct or that have greatly changed. In his later publications, he made no use of them and rather referred to letters he received from other Marist priests, still based in Bougainville, especially Father Montauban, whose notes and letters constitute one of the richest documentation on the north of Bougainville. Paul Montauban was a fluent Solos speaker and careful analyst of Buka societies, and yet most of his valuable manuscripts have remained unpublished. Although very comprehensive, the collection of artefacts brought back by O’Reilly did not achieve the reputation gained by the two other contemporaneous collections made in the Pacific for the future Musée de l’Homme. The Métraux expedition was accompanied by a sound academic publication –one of the key texts on Rapa Nui/Easter Island (1941). The La Korrigane expedition brought back artefacts that were immediately considered masterpieces of Primitive art (Coiffier, 2001). The O’Reilly collection lacked carvings that would match the French infatuation for Primitive arts, and unlike Rapa Nui/Easter Island, Bougainville, despite its French name, never triggered any interest from a French (or a European) audience.


60We shall quote again Guiart's obituary as it reveals the great disappointment caused by O'Reilly incomplete documentation of the objects he brought back from Bougainville:

  • 32 Personal translation. Original text: “De ce voyage il ramena au musée de l'Homme, avant-guerre, 4 0 (...)

“From this trip, he brought back to the Musée de l'Homme, before the war, 4,000 objects, 1,000 more than the entire Dakar-Djibouti expedition and an ethnographically much more balanced, better-organized and well-documented set. He also brought back the first French filmed monograph of a Pacific culture. But not the beautiful monograph that Douglas Oliver was to give us on the same island. Father O'Reilly thus had everything to become one of the pioneers of ethnology in France and the Pacific but in fact, he never was, for the simple reason that he did not want to be. He never published his own materials nor the corpus of traditional vernacular texts which his missionary colleagues there had sent him, and which he had partially studied in winter during the war, in Maurice Leenhardt’s seminary32.” (Guiart, 1988: 94)

61Some of the details narrated by Jean Guiart need discussion (the number of artefacts and the amount of documentation that accompany them), however, this quote highlights some of the most distinctive aspects of Patrick O'Reilly’s contribution to both French ethnographic collections and the documentation of Bougainville cultures. First, O'Reilly spent a very long time in the field, a method that had become common in the English speaking academic world but was not practiced in France at the time. Although this collection had not been studied until recently, it is the largest comprehensive body of artefacts within what is now called the “Unité patrimoniale Océanie” at the mqb-jc. Guiart regretted that O’Reilly had not been able to publish a monograph that would equal Douglas Oliver's achievements. The few texts that he published on Bougainville, especially those concerning Solos mythology owe far more to Father Montauban than to his own findings.

62It is also a paradoxical collection. While gathered by a priest, the collection has no religious orientation, and rather follows guidelines designed by Mauss. It only includes very few carvings related to Christianity, and the only artefact that is overtly Christian was perhaps not collected in Bougainville.

63Lastly, the technological inflexion of this collection is perhaps today the least informative. The extensive sets of pictures of threads, strings and pieces of bark only elicited boredom and disinterest from the Bougainvilleans who recently worked with me on this collection. A few scenes of the film Bougainville feature some technical operations (the making of a basket, of a pot, of a pipe), but for most of these sequences, the fact that there are no names or locations makes it difficult to connect them to a technological process. Consequently, these artefacts mean little to Bougainvilleans. In turn, they are of scant interest to academics, who appreciate the study of technological processes as long as they are documented: since they arrived in France, the objects have never been displayed or studied.

  • 33 The only exception concerns the Lapita pottery, which was not collected on Bougainville.

64Rarely displayed in France, the artefacts (or rather their reproductions) received an enthusiastic reception in the place where they were collected eighty years earlier. Several even provoked anger. They raise a crucial question in contemporary museology since this is a collection that receives little attention in its current Parisian location. The O'Reilly collection is torn between a French relative indifference (apart from three artefacts, the collection is neither on display nor on loan for temporary exhibitions within or outside the museum)33 and the current political and ideological weight they are given by a population driven by the possibility of its independence. The history of Patrick O’Reilly's collection raises broader questions about the relationships between ethnographic collections and source communities. This observation invites us to rethink the role of ethnographic museums vis-à-vis the source communities. The interest that the Western public may take in ethnographic collections is obviously not the same as that of the source communities. This disparity of interests is even greater when there is no significant diaspora in the former colonial power where ethnographic collections are housed. This leaves museum staff with the responsibility to identify the source communities. Secondly, how do we, as curators and collections managers, make collections available for the source communities’ benefit and what could be the relevant modalities and procedures for such a process?

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Coiffier Christian (éd.), 2001. Le voyage de la Korrigane : une odyssée dans les mers du Sud, Paris, Hazan, Muséum national d'histoire naturelle.

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Terrell John, 1976. Perspectives on the prehistory of Bougainville Island, Papua New Guinea: A study in the human biogeography of the Southwestern Pacific, Harvard University, PhD Dissertation.

Terrell John, 2010. Social Network Analysis of the Genetic Structure of Pacific Islanders, Annals of Human Genetics 74 (3), pp. 211-232.

Terrell John & Geoffrey Irvin, 1972. History and Tradition in the Northern Solomons: an analytical study of the Torau migration to Southern Bougainville in the 1860s, The Journal of the Polynesian Society 81 (3), pp. 317-349.

Thurnwald Richard, 1934-35. Stone monuments in Buin, Oceania 2, pp. 514-517.

Thurnwald Hilde & Richard Thurnwald, 1937. Menschen der Südsee: Charaktere und Schicksale ermittelt bei einer Forschungsreise in Buin auf Bougainville, Salomo-A archipel, Stuttgart, F. Enke.

Togolo Melchior, 2005. Torau Response to Change, in Anthony Reagan & Helga M. Griffin (eds), Bougainville Before the Conflict, Canberra, Australian National University, pp. 274-290.

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1 When referring to the artefacts collected by Patrick O’Reilly, Bougainville refers both to Bougainville islands and to adjacent islands visited by the collector which are today part of the Autonomous Region of Bougainville (such as Buka Island and Green Islands).

2 Rev. Voyce left two major collections to public museums in New Zealand (nearly 3,500 in Dunedin and 3,452 in Auckland), see White (2018: 37).

3 The 2011 census counted 249,358 inhabitants. In 2019, the Autonomous Region of Bougainville proposed an important population increase, reaching 300,000 people (, consulted on June 17th 2022).

4 These are personal observations noted over the years in various urban centres in Bougainville (Buka Town, Arawa, Tinputz station, Buin).

5 Very practical considerations, such as the weight, size, texture, resistance to climate and humidity of the documents taken to the field are essential, despite having received little academic attention so far. In countries like Papua New Guinea, where airfreight is considerably limited, such considerations are critical.

6 The names of many villages or hamlets visited by O’Reilly have changed, so it has been one of the main tasks to identify the locations mentioned in the Paris museum database.

7 Maurice Leenhardt stayed for a longer period in New Caledonia where his ethnographic fieldwork merged with his missionary engagement, unlike Patrick O’Reilly who undertook no missionary activity during his stay in Bougainville.

8 On sheet 210 of the “Album”, he writes “February 1981. These last days by gathering in an album these photos taken in Bougainville, one of the Solomon Islands, in Melanesia, I have done again, in my room, the trip made forty-six years earlier, a contax in my hands” (my translation). A Contax is a small or medium size camera designed by Zeiss Ikon from 1932 to 1972.

9 For example John Layard stayed a year in Atchin in 1914, Bernard Deacon spent a year in Malakula between 1926 and 1927, and Gregory Bateson undertook long fieldwork amongst the Iatmul between 1928 and 1929 and a second time in 1932.

10 Sonia Faessel published an abstract from this letter: “Parti de Paris avec l’idée de me retirer seul dans un village, d’y vivre le plus près possible des indigènes et aussi éloigné de tout le reste de la civilisation, j’ai dû abandonner ce projet comme irréalisable par moi.” (Faessel, 2002 : 48).

11 Personal translation. Original text : “Plus modeste que celle recueillie pour le Musée de l'Homme, cette collection n'en constitue pas moins un échantillonnage qu'avec un minimum de méthode et de directives, tout missionnaire devrait être capable d'effectuer sur son propre territoire.”

12 During his fieldwork, Patrick O’Reilly did not only collect in Bougainville. He brought back to the future Musée de l'Homme series of important pottery shards that were donated by Father Otto Meyer. These items belong to a larger archeological collection that was excavated on Watom Island in East New Britain by the same person and is today dispatched between Cologne, Basel, Paris and Victoria. They were later linked to the Lapita style and can be considered to be the first-ever samples unearthed from the Austronesian migration (Dotte-Sarout & Howes, 2019).

13 The Parisian museum only conserved artefacts and no documentation until 2016 when this museum acquired a volume including over 500 photographs taken by O’Reilly during his fieldwork (539 entire or fragments of photographs). These photographs detail technical operations such as pottery, pipe making, and daily activities such as gardening or fishing. Patrick O’Reilly also attended several rituals that he carefully documented with photographs: a large initiation performed in Tsipatavai near Tinputz station, funerals in Pokpok Island and a wedding probably performed in the same location. These photographs are particularly valuable as they show artefacts that were acquired by O’Reilly on these occasions and that can potentially be identified in Paris, Rome or La Neylière.

14 According to their description, these sound recordings correspond to two sequences from the film Bougainville that he made in situ in 1935 (cf. infra): the wedding (in the middle of the film) and the initiation sequences (at the very end). The filming may have been done at the same time as the recording of the sound. One is perhaps the soundtrack accompanying a version of the film described by O'Reilly as “Ce film est muet. Il n'en existe qu'une copie. Il en a été tiré une version sonore, beaucoup plus courte, sans caractère scientifique, montée dans une intention purement spectaculaire, mais qui a l'avantage d'avoir pu reproduire deux chants, de la musique, ainsi que des bruits de foule enregistrés sur place. Cette version a un nom : « Popoko, île Sauvage »” (1949: 144). Translation: “This film is silent. There is only one copy. A much shorter, unscientific sound version was produced, edited with a purely spectacular intention, but which has the advantage of being able to reproduce two songs, music, as well as crowd noises recorded on the spot. This version has the name: “Popoko, Wild Island”.

15 According to Jean Guiart he collected over 4,000 artefacts for the Musée de l'Homme (Guiart, 1988: 94, see also Laracy who published this erroneous information, perhaps refering to Jean Guiart, 2005: 1003).

16 64 files of the museum cannot be connected with identified artefacts today. They may have been lost or entered several times under different numbers. Amongst them, we count elements of shell money, two “kapkap”, one flute, several pottery sherds, and two string games for example. Some other artefacts made out of different components have been registered as well with different numbers that are not always following each other. Conversely, some artefacts that were published have not left any trace within the collections and their files. We are still looking for an obsidian blade that was allegedly found on Bougainville, but that cannot be traced so far. If found, its study could be of very high interest as there is no such object on this island. In addition, while entering the numerous artefacts O’Reilly collected in the inventories of the Musée de l’Homme, twenty-five artefacts from other parts of the Solomon Islands were acquired from other sources. The way they were acquired remains unexplained (listed as 71.1934.188.1476 to 71.1934.188.1500).

17 Without taking into account the numerous specimens given to the museum of La Neylière and a third collection given to the ethnographic museum of the Vatican (see Gérard and O’Reilly, 1973: 289). O'Reilly also mentions 5,000 to 6,000 axe stones lent by the Reverend A. H. Voyce at the Otago museum (or in Auckland?) (1973: 290).

18 There are also many weapons from Bougainville in the collections of the Leiden Museum, in Auckland and in the British Museum.

19 Letter dated of 9th August 1939, from Dr. Paul Rivet to the Directeur général des Douanes, and to the transporter Hernu Peron (Archives bcm, folder 2 AM1K73e) and letter dated of 11th November 1940, from Patrick O’Reilly to Ms Joubier, secrétaire du musée de l’Homme (Archives bcm, folder 2 AM1K73e).

20 The fourth type of currency is known in Bougainville. It is described by Richard Parkinson and said to be exchanged amongst chiefs (Parkinson, 1999: 214-215), and only a few specimens are held in museums today (there is one in Auckland, see Brunt et al., 2012: 225). They took the form of aprons made out of small glass beads. They were extremely valuable at the beginning of the colonial time but have disappeared from Bougainville today.

21 The museum collections are available online. For this particular item, see[]=71.1934.188.201%7C2&refreshFilters=true&refreshModePreview=true

22 Several informants in Bougainville made such statements to me since 2010.

23 In his 1940 publication, O'Reilly briefly described three carvings that are now held in the Vatican (1940: 193-196).

24 The acronym of this Catholic company, founded in 1927 in Cologne, in Germany, stands for Missions-Verkehrs-Arbeitsgemeinschaft (Mission Vehicule Assistance). It specialized in providing transportation and equipment to remote places. Miva operated in Bougainville in the early 1930s and was suspected by the Australian authorities to work undercover for the Nazi government, to re-establish a German control over the Northern Solomons (see Dierke, 2015).

25 About the film Bougainville, Patrick O'Reilly mentions: “Tourné d'août 1934 à février 1935 à Bougainville (îles Salomon, New Guinea Territory), par le R.P. O'Reilly, avec l'aide de Pierre Berkenheier. Format : 35 mm. Deux versions : 1° muette intégrale : 6 bobines, 1 h. 10, hors commerce ; 2° « Popoko, île Sauvage », sonore et incomplète, 2 bobines, 20 min. Distributeur du film sonore : Etoile Film, Lyon, Bordeaux” (O’Reilly, 1949: 139).

26 Letters dated 29th of June 1935 from Roland Grunevald to Patrick O’Reilly (Archives BCM, Letters of the Musée de l’Homme, 2 AM1K73e).

27 Personal translation. Original text: “Outre son caractère documentaire, l'intérêt proprement scientifique de ce film semble surtout résider en ce fait qu'un grand nombre des objets transportables qu'on y voit figurer ont pu être expédiés au Musée de l'Homme où ils ont été recueillis. Ainsi les poteries – pipes et marmites – les paniers en vannerie, certaines sculptures dont le film nous montre les différents stades de fabrication, peuvent-elles être examinées et étudiées par des spécialistes qui trouveront de cette manière, à côté des objets, une documentation directe et toute objective sur leur usage et leur fabrication.”

28 Montauban’s life is known thanks to two short articles by Paul Séjourné, 1982a & b.

29 Personal translation. Original text: “Sa conception de la société humaine était aux antipodes de celle d'un révolutionnaire. Le Père O'Reilly n'avait pas fréquenté les écrits des socialistes utopistes, et l'influence des grands intellectuels socialistes d'avant-guerre, Marcel Mauss et Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, dont il avait suivi l'enseignement, n'avait guère déteint sur lui. Sa vision était hiérarchique et stable, chacun à sa place. […] Longtemps après la libération, qui était passée au-dessus de lui sans le troubler outre-mesure, il gardait sur son bureau une statuette du Maréchal Pétain en style de Saint-Sulpice.”

30 Although Guiart admits that O'Reilly kept a very high level of honesty and dignity during the German occupation of France (1988: 93).

31 Other narratives concerning O’Reilly have a rather laudatory tone, but they are focussing on other aspects of his work and personality and neither Laracy nor Faessel, his two main biographers, ever studied the documentation gathered by O’Reilly in Bougainville (see Laracy, 2005 and Faessel, 2002).

32 Personal translation. Original text: “De ce voyage il ramena au musée de l'Homme, avant-guerre, 4 000 objets, 1 000 de plus que toute l'expédition Dakar-Djibouti et une série ethnographiquement beaucoup plus équilibrée, mieux organisée et tout aussi bien documentée [sic]. Il ramenait aussi la première monographie filmée française d'une culture océanienne. Mais pas la belle monographie que Douglas Oliver devait nous donner sur cette même île. Le Père avait ainsi tout pour être un des pionniers de l'ethnologie en France et dans le Pacifique. En réalité, il ne l'a pas été, pour la simple raison qu'il ne l'a pas voulu. Il n'a jamais rédigé ses propres matériaux, ni publié le corpus de textes traditionnels vernaculaires que ses collègues missionnaires là-bas lui avaient remis, et qu'il avait étudié partiellement au cours d'un hiver de la guerre, dans le séminaire de Maurice Leenhardt.”

33 The only exception concerns the Lapita pottery, which was not collected on Bougainville.

34 This paper has been written in English especially to offer them an opportunity to get an update on the project.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Photo 1. – Workshop organised in Rorovana in December 2012 about the drawings of Somuk
Crédits Cliché Nicolas Garnier
Fichier image/jpeg, 357k
Titre Photo 2. – The Bougainville Art exhibition on display at the Buin Hospital, April 2012
Crédits Cliché Nicolas Garnier
Fichier image/jpeg, 404k
Titre Photo 3. – Israel Pais and a Chief of Inus (near Tinputz) studying Bougainville artefacts from the mqb-jc, November 2010
Crédits (cliché Nicolas Garnier)
Fichier image/jpeg, 222k
Titre Photo 4. – Patrick O’Reilly setting up a display devoted to the initiation in Bougainville at the Musée de l’Homme
Crédits Unknown photographer, 1939 or later. Album “Bougainville”, mqb-jc, Paris (Inv : 70.2016.22.1)
Fichier image/jpeg, 96k
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Pour citer cet article

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Nicolas Garnier, « Artefacts without Fieldnotes: the Bougainville collection from Patrick O'Reilly »Journal de la Société des Océanistes, 155 | 2022, 311-326.

Référence électronique

Nicolas Garnier, « Artefacts without Fieldnotes: the Bougainville collection from Patrick O'Reilly »Journal de la Société des Océanistes [En ligne], 155 | 2022, mis en ligne le 01 janvier 2024, consulté le 24 juin 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Nicolas Garnier

Responsable de l'Unité patrimoniale Océanie-Insulinde,

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