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Dossier Le Sepik : société et production matérielle

De-colonized Collecting: The Australian Museum in the Lower Sepik (1988)

Décoloniser la collecte : L’Australian Museum dans le bas Sepik (1988)
David Lipset
p. 129-141


Les pratiques de conservation et de collecte, au temps des musées post coloniaux, ont-elles « versées dans l’innocence » ? Ou peuvent-elles être vues comme des gestes crédibles et authentiques contribuant à une redéfinition des relations morales entre les peuples et les cultures indigènes qui sont à l’origine de ces collections ? Cet article analyse un cas de collecte de musée ainsi que les pratiques de recherche « décolonisée » et réfléchit à ces questions. Il prend pour exemple le Projet de Documentation Sepik initié par l’Australian Museum de Sydney en 1988. Je veux démontrer que ce projet a su mettre en place un mode de collecte décolonisé qui met l’accent sur la prise en compte d’une approche inclusive et reconnait la légitimité des réseaux d’échanges et de savoir traditionnels.

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The research from which this article is derived was conducted collaboratively by Kathleen Barlow, Lissant Bolton, Smith Jakai, James Kaparo, John Sauma, the late Kem Saupe, the late Murakau Wino and myself. It was funded by The Australian Museum, the National Museum and Art Gallery of Papua New Guinea and The Wilford Fund for Research in the Department of Anthropology, University of Minnesota. The clarity of the article, such as it is, benefitted a bit from a detailed reading by a generous anonymous reader. Thanks also to Markus Schindlbeck, Philippe Peltier and Christian Kaufmann for organizing this useful project.

De-colonization of Pacific Studies

1As part of their great dialogue, Pacific Island scholars have criticized the racism and violence that characterized their colonial history while asserting the autonomy and legitimacy of their indigeneity (Trask, 1993; Hau’ofa, 1994; Hereniko, 1997; Tengen, 2008; Hokowhitu, 2004). One of them, Linda Tuhiwai-Smith, has even gone so far as to single out academic “research” done by foreigners without regard for local values, interests and self-determinations as the most egregious, lingering expression of that history. She has called for “de-colonizing methodologies” by means of which research might be rectified and redeemed – in large measure by being taken over by indigenous people (Tuhiwai-Smith, 1999). In a basic sense, these scholars raise the question: how may Pacific Islanders define themselves in the historical moment?

2On the one hand, indigenous claims to the moral high ground have hardly gone unchallenged. Willy nilly, global capital, in the forms of extractive industry or commodity chains, have continued to claim their land and labor, not to mention their very authenticity (Weiner and Glaskin, 2007; Jacka, 2015). Missionary Christianity still seeks to damn their ancestors. The very postcolonial states in which they would be proud citizens seek to monopolize political-legal sovereignty but then misallocate funds and engage in corrupt practices. Their coastal environments are threatened by rising sea-levels (Lipset, 2011). And not least, rural kin seek remittances that pressure their moral status as “generous” persons who fulfill obligations (Martin, 2013). On the other, their privilege has received institutional endorsement and support from sympathetic, liberal voices along the postcolonial frontier. In this paper, I am particularly interested in evaluating an expression of the latter taken by Pacific anthropology and its institutional extensions, natural history, folk art and ethnographically-based museums.

3Being storehouses of artifacts collected amid the racism, indignities and theft that were characteristic of the colonial era when they were made,some museums have heeded the call to “de-colonize.” They have sought to retrieve their collections from the taint of the immoral relations of power in which they were acquired, relations of power that were then hidden under the rubric of being a “good collection,” authentic and comprehensive (Clifford, 1998: 218; Bell, 2017). Museums have tried to disaggregate their collections from colonial excesses. They have sought to redefine them in egalitarian terms and relationships, egalitarian terms and relationships that privilege the indigenous descendants of original vendors for their ongoing cosmological and genealogical attachments to specific objects – as heirlooms or as embodiments of ancestors (see, e.g., Peers and Brown, 2003; Phillips, 2011; Harrison et al., 2013; Krmpotich and Peers, 2013; Peers and Brown, 2016). Undoubtedly, the most important Pacific-based example of this sort of de-colonizing gesture was the five-year Melanesia Project at the British Museum (2005-10), which adopted and implemented egalitarian, or inclusive, modes of collecting and curatorial practice. Researchers were dispatched to various sites throughout Melanesia and indigenous artists, craftspeople, community members, as well as indigenous Museum curators were brought to London.

4To what extent were the British Museum’s methods, which it touted as being “characteristically Melanesian” (Bolton et al., 2013: 331), de-colonized? Or, to put the question in the strong terms of Tuck and Yang (2012), was this initiative just a denial: an attempt to “escape or contain the unbearable searchlight of complicity” with colonialism (Tuck and Yang, 2012: 9)? To what extent were they just another “move to innocence” (Mawhinney quoted in Tuck and Yang, 2012: 9-10)? That is, was the Melanesia Project just another tactic seeking to relieve if not deny the guilt or responsibility of the colonizer without conceding property, power or privilege or even acknowledging the museum’s contribution to contemporary Western hegemony (see also Boast, 2011; Elsner and Cardinal, 1994)?

  • 1 I should also mention that the Sepik Documentation Project lent some inspiration to a second, major (...)

5By way of developing a critical assessment of de-colonizing-related issues in museology, this article returns to a case study of a forerunner of, and partial prototype for, the British Museum’s initiative.1 It analyzes research and collecting practices that were developed in situ by the Australian Museum’s “Sepik Documentation Project” (sdp) during its second field season (1988). In the first season of that project (1986), discussed in an earlier paper (Lipset, 2016), efforts were made to mimic “visiting trade” conventions with trading partners of the Murik Lakes people in North Coast villages.This mimicry was meant to demonstrate a contemporary, postcolonial mode of collection that stressed status inclusivity and acknowledged the legitimacy of indigenous, intertribal exchange relationships and knowledge. Here, I go on to assess collecting and research practices that the sdp team utilized during its second field season in the Lower Sepik region of Papua New Guinea (png). I do so by evaluating five fieldwork episodes as evidence of a de-colonized, or egalitarian, mode of social relations in the context of museum collecting.

The Sepik Documentation Project (1988)

  • 2 O’Hanlon (2000) distinguished between stationary and mobile collecting. The former is done from a r (...)

6The purposes of the “Sepik Documentation Project” (sdp) were threefold: 1) to collect information about the Museum’s existing collections from the Lower Sepik and North Coast, 2) to do research on change in the intertribal trade network of the Murik Lakes people who live in the Sepik estuary and 3) to make a “stationary” and “mobile” collection of contemporary art and craft from it (O’Hanlon, 2000: 15).2 In 1986, as I say, the sdp team elicited ethnography and collected contemporary objects from North Coast villages where the Murik have hereditary trade relations. Two years later, upon return to png, we continued to pursue these research goals inland from the Murik Lakes (see Fig. 1). Our team consisted of myself and Kathleen Barlow, whose Murik fieldwork had shaped the sdp’s goals. We were accompanied by Lissant Bolton, then the Pacific Collections Manager at the Australian Museum, Allison Hansen, who was an undergraduate anthropology student at the University of Minnesota, and our two little boys, aged four and one, whom Hansen was meant to watch.

  • 3 John Sauma had received research training from the Department of Primary Industry between from 1984 (...)

7Our inclusionary efforts began with extended discussions in Wewak, the provincial capital of the East Sepik, with a handful of senior, middle-aged and younger Murik men, we hired John Sauma, one of Barlow’s adoptive brothers, to work with us as boat driver, community liaison and informant.3 In addition, Smith Jakai, James Kaparo, Kem Saupe and Murakau Wino volunteered their help. Out of anxiety for access to health care for our children, we decided to base ourselves at the Catholic Mission in Marienberg (see Fig. 1). Following what we already knew about intertribal exchange in the Lower Sepik region, and the advice of our Murik team members, we developed a research itinerary that focused on the so-called “trade-mothers” of the coastal Murik people who supply them with sago flour and fresh fruit and vegetables in return for the seafood of which their brackish mangrove lagoons are so well stocked.

8Renting two outboard motors from the Department of Primary Industry, and a boat from a small sago factory located just upriver from Marienberg, we began our research program in three eastern Murik villages and in Kopar village at the mouth of the Sepik River. The lakes, which make up the western half of the Sepik estuary, are located about 32 kms, which is to say, several hours, down river from Marienberg (see Fig. 1). Our first stop was back at Darapap village where Barlow and I were adopted in 1981. We bunked

Figure 1. – Lower Sepik Research Sites of the Sepik Documentation Project, 1988

Figure 1. – Lower Sepik Research Sites of the Sepik Documentation Project, 1988

9in an empty, bush material house on a lakeshore corner of Darapap that had been built under the auspices of the Department of Primary Industry, should the occasional tourist happen by, or should National Fisheries Authority representatives turn up (which few did). From there, we made daylong visits to the villages of Mendam and Karau (see Fig. 1). The following five fieldwork narratives to which I now turn are meant to illustrate the sdp’s modes of collecting and research.

Return to the Murik Lakes

10Upon arrival in Darapap village, our two boys, Max and Michael, immediately became objects of desire. Adopted kin were desperate to hold them, despite their objections. They were given one Murik name after the next. Michael, who had just turned one, got handed from one mother to the next while a knot of age-mates armed with little bows found a kindred spirit in our four-year-old son (see Fig. 2). Meanwhile, we went to work in the manner we had devised during our previous field season:

Figure 2. – Max Lipset with bow

Figure 2. – Max Lipset with bow

(© Lissant Bolton, Australian Museum)

11we followed the genealogical relationships we had established in 1981, Barlow and Bolton talked with women while I spoke to men. Bolton purchased artifacts. We also fell into the run of daily life as we found it going on. In Darapap, Barlow and Bolton sat with women who were working on new raffia skirts for a pending initiation rite into the Female Cult. I watched men singe a new lake canoe. And village plazas and footpaths were alive with half-dozen, newly initiated spirit-figures who were proudly chasing children in and about their houses.

  • 4 The photographs were inserted in plastic sheets and bound in three ring binders. We brought about 1 (...)

12Barlow, Bolton and I showed photograph albums of objects in the Australian Museum collections back in Sydney to people (Bell, 2008).4 In 1986, North Coast villagers from whom we tried to elicit information about the photographs were unwilling to talk about them, not because we were strangers to them, but because they said that they did not know anything about things that had not been made in their villages. In Murik villages, men and women were ready and willing to hold forth at length about the photos (see Fig. 3). We also gathered data about men’s and women’s roles in the changing intertribal economy (see Barlow, 1985), current exchange rates and the relationship of money to barter at regional markets.

Figure 3. – Murik women discuss baskets

Figure 3. – Murik women discuss baskets

(© Kathleen Barlow, Australian Museum)

  • 5 In subsequent day trips, Bolton held artifact markets in Karau and bought 10 pieces there and then (...)

13Bolton, meanwhile, staged a market and bought 40 objects.5 From men, she purchased shell and woven body decorations, betel nut mortars, lime gourds and spatulas, canoe-related things, canoe-models, mast hooks, an outrigger steering paddle, carved birds, a prow, spear throwers, as well as a few tourist carvings, small figurines, a model slit-drum and several masks. Women sold several skirts and many Murik baskets, large and small. The women also sold various domestic objects, such as plates and ladles, spoons, sago stirrers, strainers and pestles, fire tongs, fans and brooms, and fishing equipment, such as line spools. Village children also gifted our son Max several baskets, balls, and pinwheels which “he” later “donated” to the Australian Museum.

14From my perspective, an exceptional moment during this first phase of our research was an encounter with Sewa, a senior man from Singarin village on the lower river (see Fig. 1). Sewa was spending the day in Darapap with his wife and four children while waiting for transport to town. He was going toWewak to sell produce at the market and use the money to buy supplies for an end-of-mourning rite he wanted to sponsor for a “daughter” whose mother had died. Upon meeting Sewa, I outlined the purposes of our research, and allowed that we were intending to visit his village in subsequent weeks. He instantly responded with an account of the origin of trade relations between Singarin and the beach villages that he tied to a marriage between a man called Bwa’sai, from the beach, and a woman from Singarin called Arepapa. The man moved in with his wife’s family and “directed us to help the beach people with sago, bananas and taro. “You have good food,” he told them. “Help all these people that I have left.” He went on to enumerate trade goods and exchange rates with river villages.

15A virtuoso narration of “The Two Brothers” story then followed. I have collected this one many times from multiple narrators but never had I heard it told at this level of detail, breadth and coherence. “I want to tell you a little story,” Sewa began in irony, “about Andena and Arena, two of our founding ancestors. It starts at the headwaters of the Sepik.” The “little story,” which was nothing less than a geo-historical epic, went on for an hour or more.

16“The Two Brothers” features a pair of sibling ancestor-spirits and culture-heroes who populate the riverine region and invent the Male Cult. But, as in every version, the two ancestors exemplify a conflict-based model of masculine aesthetics. When the younger brother sleeps with Mwed, his elder brother’s wife, they come to blows. The younger brother associates aesthetic design with desire, and contested desire; he tattoos the woman’s thighs and genitals and then escapes upriver in a spirit-canoe. The elder brother sets off in a “crocodile canoe” in hot pursuit. Eventually, they come back to Singarin, where in those days the coastline met the ocean. The younger brother built a new outrigger canoe there, with the idea of heading out to sea. He helped his elder brother build a canoe as well but then caused it to sink in a storm he magically created. The elder brother goes ashore at Kaup village (see Fig. 1) while the younger brother sails on to visit each of the Schouten Islands, eventually reaching Siassi Island. Decorated from head to toe in shell and teeth valuables, establishing trading partnerships by giving them away to hosts, he never stops despite requests from hosts to settle and marry in their communities. “I am a man from everywhere,” the younger brother declares. “I can’t stay in one place. I want to go to ... where the sun rises.” His outrigger turns into a ship at night and sails into the colonial present – to Port Moresby and eventually to Australia, where the younger brother turns into a white man and creates machinery and workshops there for which he is universally acclaimed. By way ending his “little story,” Sewa allowed that when the younger brother died, the state put the image of the Queen on Australian currency.

“But it was really him, the younger brother inside, which was meant to be kept secret from we natives. We descend from the elder brother. You, whites descend from the younger brother, which is why your knowledge and technological power is superior to ours.”

  • 6 The “Two Brothers” story has been recorded repeatedly along the North Coast of png (Burridge, 1960; (...)

17The open-armed reception of our boys and our gender-based attentiveness to community life, not to mention the successful markets Bolton held, all reflected the egalitarian inclusiveness of our method. Although my summary of Sewa’s version of the “Two Brothers” fails to convey the detail and panoramic sweep of his narrative, I want to stress that the great effort he put into telling it demonstrated the high level of his interest in, rather than alienation from, our research.6 For Sewa, as well as Darapap villagers more generally, our “research” was not “a site of struggle between interests and ways of knowing,” as Tuhiwai-Smith might condemn this kind of collecting (Tuhiwai-Smith, 1999: 1). Not at all. It was an ethical and respectful strategy. Presented with a trustworthy, prestigious ear (mine), Sewa seized it and offered up an account of fish-for-sago trade between the Murik and their inland neighbors and then, he went on to narrate nothing less than an indigenous view of Sepik ethnohistory and colonial inequalities.

Overnight at the mouth of the Sepik

18Accompanied by Murakau Wino, a senior Darapap man, as well as by his age-mate, Kem Saope and Peso, his nine year old girl, we spent two days in Kopar, the village at the river’s mouth (see Fig. 1). Upon our arrival, however, we discovered that other than a few mothers with little babies, a group of young men absorbed by a game of soccer, and some mourning women confined to their houses, most adults had paddled across the river to attend a funeral in Watam village (see Fig. 1). At length, an empty house, awaiting a consecration rite, was made available for us. We brought food to cook, rice and tinned fish, but were quite well looked after by Kopar women who fed us sago pudding and clams that afternoon and then fried sago flower and bananas for breakfast. A clam soup with fried sago flour pancakes followed that afternoon.

19I repaired to the men’s house to listen to stories about lineage history and structure, the many taboos against contact with menstruating women men should observe in order to preserve their vigor, and the organization of the Male Cult. I also discussed Kopar trade relations with Manam Islanders and canoe consecration rites. Among other stories about pre-contact warfare in the Lower Sepik and the founding of Kopar, I was able to collect an account of the origin of the national lingua franca, Tokpisin. Paul, the narrator, claimed that the language had been invented by Soni, a Kopar ancestor.

20Soni bespelled himself and went to sleep. In a dream, he visited the dead living underground. They spoke to him in Tokpisin and taught it to him. Upon waking up, Soni became a language teacher. In other words, said Paul, Tokpisin was created

“before the white man arrived. The Germans had not arrived and we already spoke this language. It was crazy time. Really long ago. It was still ‘the time of spears,’ Tokpisin was here in this village. Then it spread everywhere. Then, the white man learned it. The real origin of Tokpisin is Kopar...Our ancestor fought hard to go to sleep and get Tokpisin from the dead.”

  • 7 I should add that Bolton’s decisions about what to buy were largely based on what was brought to he (...)

21Meanwhile, Barlow and Bolton received Kopar women in the house and went over the photograph albums. Some old baskets in the Australian Museum collection fascinated them. Barlow elicited lengthy versions of the story of Jari, a culture-heroine who invented vaginal childbirth, and had a hand in creating the tides. Kopar women also offered very detailed accounts of female cult initiation rites. On the second day of our visit, Bolton held a market and purchased and documented nearly fifty objects. Kopar folk streamed to the house to sell kitchen utensils, tourist masks and figurines, canoe-related objects, and a half-dozen plaited baskets (see Fig. 4) that included one named for the culture-hero, Wandema. The Wandema basket belonged to the men of the lineage that bears the name of the great cannibal-ancestor and father of the sun, whose story Barlow and I had from multiple informants. At the end of the day, the owner of the house where we stayed, put in an appearance and wanted to know how much money vendors been paid in total7

Figure 4. Market objects

Figure 4. Market objects

(© Lissant Bolton, Sepik Documentation Project, Australian Museum)

22We left the next day before sunrise. Kopar men and women helped load our boat. As a fuel-saving measure, we followed the advice of John Sauma, our Murik research assistant, ran downriver out the mouth of the Sepik, and turned west so we could enter the lakes through Boreman Channel, before the winds and swells came up (see Fig. 1). The swells, both at the river entrance as well as at the mouth of the channel, were nevertheless sizable, even though the winds had not yet come up, but John Sauma confidently made good use of them. Killing the outboard as they pushed us forward, we saved gasoline.

23The quality of Kopar hospitality and the unequivocal willingness of both men and women to contribute materially and discursively to our project, matched our initial reception in the Murik villages. As in the latter communities, the Kopar classified Barlow and I as adopted kin, and the two senior Murik research assistants who accompanied us there were also kin. Kopar people also identify themselves as “Murik”, although they speak Kopar, a different, but closely related, Lower Sepik language (Foley, 2016).

  • 8 In 1987, 1 png kina = us$ 00.94. There are 100 toea in a kina.

24We spent the night in Darapap before heading back to the mission station at Marienberg the following morning. While there, I attended a small feast in a Male Cult Housewhere men were debating a Gaingiin Society initiation, the Gaingiin Society being a public masquerade consisting of seven age-grades, each of which possesses masks that have differing rights and duties. Skirt-making was still going on among the Female Cult members who were enjoying joking relationships which they mixed with singing initiation songs. Bolton held another market to which people thronged. She bought a total of 26 pieces. Men sold her a few little tourist carvings, a model slit drum, a figurine, a little mask, as well as several betel nut mortars, canoe charms and spearthrowers. Women sold her a coconut cup, a wooden dish and Murik baskets of several kinds. Bolton bought a little cooking paddle for 60 toea.8 The paddle, she was told, was used to flatten sago flour and coconut breads prepared for ceremonial occasions, such as mortuary rites, when these foods are presented to feasting partners in return for ritual services they provided during earlier phases of the process. The paddle, the women added, was also used by men to knock a chisel when carving a canoe (see Fig.).

Figure 5. – Cooking paddle

Figure 5. – Cooking paddle

(© Australian Museum)

25The cooking paddle, although a minor purchase, at least in price, merits further comment. As an object mainly distinguished by its use-value for women at their kitchen hearths, but occasionally for men as well, its purchase reflected several points about sdp collecting goals. The paddle attested that the status inclusivity upon which our whole research program and collecting methodology was premised admitted the daily life of women, their domestic labor. It also disclosed its expendability, and how easily it could be replaced by a newly carved one. Moreover, the paddle signified that while we wanted to collect as many object categories as possible, ordinary and magnificent, male and female, we were reticent, and did not really have sufficient funds, to buy irreplaceable, older things, such as pre-war masks carved with shell tools.

An encounter with a feasting partner

26Leaving most of our Murik co-workers in Darapap, we motored slowly back up river to Marienberg in a boat jammed full of us, our gear and purchases from the four villages where Bolton had held markets. We spent the next several days around the mission station, attending the local banana and taro market, dealing with diapers and our kids’ digestion issues. We began boiling water to settle their stomachs; and then, Barlow and our youngest boy, Michael, got badly scalded when a kettle full of boiling water toppled over from a table and onto him sitting as he was on the floor. Large blisters rose on the little boy’s left arm, torso and foot that had to be dressed every morning. Barlow’s burns got infected which made walking difficult. We were fortunate that Sister Mariana and her team of nurses were there to dress and attend wounds.

27After several anxiety-riddled days and nights of disrupted sleep, injuries were sufficiently healed to allow us to return to work. We made day trips to the villages of Mangan and Mosan, which are two more “mother” villages of the coastal Murik (see Fig. 1). Father Cherubim Dambui (who later became the first national bishop in png) drove us there in the Mission vehicle. Bolton staged a small market in Mangan and bought half-dozen items, including three small masks and two little wooden figures, spending a total of K10. Next day, in Mosan village, she bought two netbags (K4 each) and 12 body ornaments, that included two dogs’ teeth headbands, four leg-bands, three belts and three bandoliers, at a total cost of K70.

28For my part, I met Steven Ganay, who introduced me to a form of status inclusivity of which I had been unaware. Ganay identified himself as a “feasting partner” (Murik: jakum) of the Murik man who had adopted me as his “younger brother” (this being a competitive exchange/joking relationship with reciprocal ritual obligations in the Male Cult that same-sex siblings share). Although finding this relationship outside village boundaries presided over by Murik Male Cults caught me by surprise, having eagerly participated in them, I knew exactly what to do.

29After Ganay taunted me about having “crushed” my adoptive “elder brother” by giving him a big stalk of bananas, I responded with a few betel nuts with which I encircled his head – this ritual gesture being a sign of triumph. “Wait,” he then answered. “I will come and look for you.” Next day in Marienberg, he “killed” me with a gift of a live chicken – which he encircled around my head. I then promised to get some Murik seafood for him and when he requested some tobacco, I gave him an unopened tin. Surrounded by sons and junior male kin, he talked of giving me a pig in retaliation.

30I subsequently mentioned this exchange and his comment to my elder brother’s trading partners in Marienberg; one of them recalled a turtle which he had given Steven Ganay that he had never reciprocated.

“How will he pay it back? This chicken isn’t fat at all. There aren’t five of them, just one!”

He offered to give me some bananas

“to help me ‘fight’ Ganay. Don’t worry. Your ‘brothers’ are here. You have nothing to fear.”

31Two days later, I returned from the Murik Lakes with two big baskets full of clams that I presented to Ganay. Another one of my elder brother’s trading partners contributed three yams and two coconuts to the gift, in order “to help” him make soup with the clams. Ganay complained that by the time he got everything back home to Mosan, the clams stunk, having gone bad.

“What had stunk,”

I shot back at him,

“was your shit with the clams in it.”

32My exchanges with Steven Ganay in Mosan village, first of all, illustrates that regional, intertribal relations extend beyond the exchange of foodstuffs between sago-providing “mothers” and their coastal “children” to include ritual obligations. While there is a suggestion of inequality in the maternal construction of these exchange relations – the beach people being cast as hungry, dependent kin, here an egalitarian element of competition comes into play. In other words, my little rivalry with Ganay reveals another form of status inclusivity in which we participated. My exchanges, both material and discursive, with Steven Ganay were as between equals.

33Of course, this is speculative and one cannot be certain, but I think that acknowledging these hereditary connections and by enacting them in a recognizable idiom added to our emerging reputation as a different kind of “white.” I suppose that the injuries Barlow and our young son suffered, which became widely known in and around Marienberg, might have also aroused a certain degree of sympathy for ourselves and our project as well. Rather than differentiating us, that is to say, as outsiders, they demarked us as no less physically vulnerable to misfortune, and as no less worried parents and husbands than everyman and everywoman.

The purchase of a Murik tumbwan

34Margaret Mead distinguished between two kinds of sacred objects in Sepik societies in a rather obscure 1935 article that drew from her famous Sex and Temperament research with Reo Fortune. Tambaran objects were secret and hidden from non-initiates while tumbwan were masked, humanoid spirit-figures that appeared from time to time in the plazas and dance grounds of communities for one reason or another. Hearing a rumor that a coconut taboo was to be set up by a tumbwan from the Gaingiin Society, which is a male initiatory system made up of seven age-grades, John Sauma, one of his sister’s daughters and I returned to the Murik Lakes leaving the kids, together with the women, behind to go on recuperating and do some work around Marienberg.

35In addition to watching the coconut taboo installation, I wanted to purchase a tumbwan costume from the Gaingiin Society for the Australian Museum. While setting a coconut taboo was the prerogative of the most senior grade, my hope was to buy a more junior tumbwan figure called Yangoron. The Yangoron grade owns rights to a family of named masks, each of which is attached to an outfit of overalls and a long-sleeved top made of coconut bark. Their relationship to conventional domestic order is both one of mimicry and transgression. On the one hand, they are a family of four “grandparent” masks, a “husband” with two “wives,” and several “children,” a “daughter,” and a number of “son” tumbwans whose birth order is carefully tracked, and equal the members of the grade at that moment. On the other, the two “wives” carry knives and may attack and threaten younger men and children in the community. The male tumbwans are all adorned with a conical piece of fiber through which male initiates used to pull their hair but also by huge, erect penises whose glans is painted bright red. They also chase junior tumbwans and children and threaten them with spears. A last transgression: the Yangoron figures are also allowed to beg in public, which is otherwise strictly forbidden because of the dishonor it would bring on a kin group. Should a member of the Yangoron grade observe that an assembly in the Male or the Female Cult has nothing to eat, a tumbwan may be sent out to rove from house to house and ask for food, fish, bananas, coconuts, taro and sweet potatoes, which he carries back to the Male or Female Cult. One senior woman recalled being chased by a Yangoron tumbwan when young.

“My father would go down from the house with a hand drum and sing to him and he would dance. We would sneak down and get a stick and poke him in the ass and he would jump wildly!”

36A figure of fun, Yangoron chases children and shakes his exposed, red phallus about in the air or even in their faces.

37No coconuts groves were tabooed during our visit. Instead, men in Darapap village were pre-occupied with preparations for a regional meeting to discuss a fishing venture that the provincial government was planning to sponsor. In the Male Cult House, men were discussing how to buy gasoline to go buy sago flour from trading partners by way of feeding the guests. I was asked to sell some gas for this purpose by Ker, my adoptive mother’s brother. I made him a gift of a few gallons, as per kinship norms.

38The visit’s other goal found success, however. Behind a temporary screen in the men’s house the senior Yangoron grade had sewn three new, coconut bark outfits.

“There were not very many men [around to work on the costumes] so we couldn’t make the women, the mother and the daughter,”

my mother’s brother allowed to me.

“There was no mother to strengthen [= nurse] the children.”

39A few days earlier, the three tumbwan put in a brief appearance in public to inspect the village (see Fig. 6).

40The grade-holders decided to sell Bot, the “father” tumbwan to the Australian Museum, after which his firstborn son would replace him (and a larger phallus, I was told, would need to be attached to his groin to replace his small one). They set the price at K160, which seemed like a fair price to me. Next morning, the “son” tumbwan escorted his “father” through Darapap village to the foreshore of the lakes where the sdp boat was moored. On the way, a senior woman sitting on the verandah of her house shouted to “the father” to come shake his ancestor’s hand. The son chased after Gaingiin, the most junior tumbwan, who himself had come out to playfully chase children about the village. When the two Yangoron reached the sdp boat, the “son” helped the “father” aboard, and he seated himself in the prow.

41As the boat departed, “the son” suddenly turned on a mother holding her infant grandson, knocking her over into the lake shallows. Moving off toward youth surrounding him, he raised a spear he held in each hand above his head, and shook them in elation. The youth fled in delight as the tumbwan ran alone in ankle deep water, veering sharply to chase them across the tide flat. Keeping a safe distance, children began to taunt him as he watched the departure of his “father.” Jamero, a senior woman, then sang to him and he danced with her. To peels of laughter, his phallus bobbed up and down as he did.

Figure 6. – Two new Yangoron tumbwans make their way through Darapap village

Figure 6. – Two new Yangoron tumbwans make their way through Darapap village

(© David Lipset, Australian Museum)

  • 9 The masks and costumes in the Gaingain Society are put to repeated, rather than one-off, use, after (...)

42Was my purchase of Yangoron deceitful and self-interested? Did it represent “all that is truly bad about research” (Tuhiwai-Smith, 1999: 11)? In my opinion, the purchase of this tumbwan’s outfit was the most exquisite acquisition of the whole field season, and the drama of the “departure” its most exquisite moment – although I imagine Bolton and Barlow might favor some other thing, or category of things, or another incident that was more feminine. It was true that conflict broke out within the age-grade that sold the costume to us a few weeks later – over the distribution of money – I think the whole ethos of the departure scene suggests that I did manage the transaction with careful respect for the organization of the vendor, the Gaingiin Society.Another interesting ethnographic detail: the Murik construction of the sale was not as an alienation of property, or as neocolonial pilfering, but rather as a context for generational succession, or social reproduction, in which the “firstborn son” tumbwan, seen just now in triumph, replaced his “father.”9


43Over the next few days, Bolton and Barlow were able to make brief, day-long visits to Imbwando and Suk villages and they returned to Mangan while John Sauma and I were buying the Yangoron tumbwan in the Murik Lakes. Upon our return, we all visited the villages of Mabuk and Singarin on the river and made an overnight stay in Watam (see Fig. 1). In each community, we went on relying on local relations arising from our adoptive Murik kin and went on competing with their feasting partners. We also continued collecting ethnographic data separately from men and women. Bolton and Barlow showed the photograph albums of Lower Sepik collections in the Australian Museum to the women and continued to hold markets for contemporary art and crafts.

44Three days before we were scheduled to leave the Lower Sepik, John Sauma and I went over to Kaup, the one landed, Murik-speaking village (see Fig. 1, and see Lipset, 2017). We returned to Marienberg by truck and canoe two days later bringing food to contribute to a departure feast that Maggie, John Sauma’s sister, wanted to give in our honor the following afternoon. We also contributed a chicken to the meal that we had been given in return for gifts we had presented to some local Marienberg people who had helped us.

45Maggie and her husband set up a big table with chairs and had invited a lot of people. She served a coconut with chicken soup over rice in addition to several other dishes; but she gave Barlow and me the Murik staple of sago pudding and sautéed fish. We were each given going-away gifts. Lissant Bolton and Alison Hansen tried betel nuts for the first time (Fig. 7). Being sad about our departure, so they said they felt, our hosts, the brother and sister, John and Maggie, did not eat.

Figure 7. – At the departure feast in Marienberg, Allison Hansen tried a betel nut for the first time; Lissant Bolton and Max Lipset looked on

Figure 7. – At the departure feast in Marienberg, Allison Hansen tried a betel nut for the first time; Lissant Bolton and Max Lipset looked on

(© David Lipset, Australian Museum)

46We returned to Wewak town and packed up the collections to send to the Australian Museum. The event that highlighted this last phase of the field season was a second departure feast – sponsored by John Sauma’s mother and step-father. Rumor had it that the meal was meant not just to send us home but to solicit our support in a rivalry between Dakuk, John Sauma’s and Barlow’s adoptive mother, and her co-widow over rights to their deceased husband’s coconut groves. Before the feast began, we went to the half-finished house Dakuk and her new husband were building in one of the squatters’ camp where peri-urban Murik people live in Wewak.

47Dakuk offered me mashed bananas mixed with coconut and sago meats that was topped with a beautiful, pre-cracked sandcrab (this dish being second only in prestige to pig’s liver in Murik fare). I sat and talked with Bwakem. Suddenly, Wangi, a retired policeman, climbed up the houseladder and sat himself down face-to-face with me, or as the Murik say, “nose-to-nose.” We had known each other since 1981 and we had employed his daughter two years earlier during the first sdp field season. Fully aware of our research, he lectured me about warfare, marriage and hereditary land claims in the pre-colonial Lower Sepik.

48Eventually, we made our way to his house. I sat next to Wangi in a corner of the linoleum-covered floor. Dakuk and Bwakem sat across the room from us, separated by dishes of food that were laid out in the middle of the floor. Manag, Wangi’s wife, served Barlow and I sago pudding topped with a sandcrab while everybody else ate chicken and rice, or sandwiches. It was a festive occasion marred only by the absence of one of my adoptive “brothers,” who was also married to another one of Dakuk’s daughters. I asked after him at one point during the festivities only to be hushed. This tension aside, the evening concluded in good spirits with an exchange of gifts between ourselves and our hosts. I gave Wangi a plastic tarpaulin and a couple of other burlap bags. He gave our younger son, Michael, a Murik name, which was the name of the younger brother of a ceremonial leader after whom he had named Max, our firstborn, in 1986. In other words, we left having been made to feel stingy in the sense that we had reciprocated far less than what we had been given.

49The Murik idiom of “nose-to-nose” communication is a compelling, echt-Sepik image of the success of the de-colonized research and collecting practices that we had been deploying. That is to say, the indigenous voices, or, in this case, indigenous kinesics, as well as indigenous protocols and practices, in other words, the collaboration that we valued and appropriated was an “integral part of [our]... methodology” (Tuhiwai-Smith, 1999: 15). And we were received as equals, or, if not as equals, at least as in personal relationships to our hosts, for having done so, not just at our leave-taking, but repeatedly throughout the field season. True enough, departure feasting is conventional in Murik hospitality. The two meals nonetheless reflected, I think, genuine appreciation for our methods, not only among our Murik “kin,” but regionally as well.

Conclusion: Decolonized museum collecting in the Lower Sepik

50I want to distinguish between the privilege Pacific Island scholars claim for their “indigenous voices” in settler states, such as Hawaii and New Zealand/Aotearoa, from that made in independent, postcolonial states, such as Papua New Guinea. In the former, anthropology and museums are derided as morally ambiguous institutions; and they are condemned as “inextricably linked” to the worst excesses of European imperialism and colonialism (Tuhiwai-Smith, 1999: 1). In the latter, weighing the moral status of anthropology is insignificant compared to the project of building an indigenous nation-state (Somare, 1975; Narakobi, 1983, see also Stanley, 2008). If so, then in states like Papua New Guinea, employing egalitarian and status inclusive research/collecting methods might be less controversial and less likely to be dismissed as little more than a “metaphor... that turns decolonization into an empty signifier” filled by any and every action, other than the repatriation of property, thus to mystify the ongoing inequity of relations (Tuck and Yang, 2012: 7, see Tapsell, 1997).

51To close, I want to critically evaluate the extent to which the research and collecting methods portrayed in this article represent nothing more an “empty signifier” and a self-serving “move to innocence.” To what extent do they convey an authentic recognition that knowledge and value do not descend from the metropole and capitalism, but have sources and centers that are plural, mutual and inconclusive?

52From the perspectives of indigenous scholars in settler-states, nothing less than repatriation of property, be it land or artifacts, meets this one and only criterion of authentic de-colonization (see also Lonetree, 2012). The Sepik Documentation Project team obviously brought photographs to the field as a means of eliciting information about the provenance, uses and manufacture of artifacts. Did we once encounter a demand for repatriation in any of the 15 communities we visited? No. The one contested demand for the return of an object, which was the Yangoron tumbwan we bought, arose from an internal dispute within the age-grade who sold it about the fair distribution of the money we paid for the costume.

53From indigenous and liberal perspectives, museum collections have sometimes been disparaged as nothing less than

“the last colonial captives and field collecting... as their abduction” (O’Hanlon, 2000: 2).

54In other words, the agency and interests of were subordinated to those of the buyers. By contrast, the collecting/research strategy we devised sought to maximize the vendors’ capacities to sell us what they chose and tell us what they chose (Schindlbeck, 1993: 59). Of the thirteen markets Lissant Bolton staged, in a variety of sites, in houses and open stands, or on the ground, reflected that goal. They were well and avidly attended. Prices she offered were never, or very rarely, rejected. What kind of collection did she want to make? The aim was to illustrate the range of contemporary material culture in the region. It thus posed no practical, ethical or ontological problems to vendors who willingly turned up with objects to sell. The size of the collection, by the end, was modest; it numbered 230 things, each of which was documented in dialogue between Bolton, Barlow, me and the vendor. It might be broadly divided by domestic objects women put out to sell, plates, utensils and baskets and men’s tourist pieces, little masks and figurines, as well as betel nut mortars, canoe-related paraphernalia and weapons. Both sexes sold shell, feather and teeth ornaments. Today, the sdp collection of 1988 in the storerooms of the Australian Museum can hardly be seen as an “incarcerated source ... of indigenous identity” (O’Hanlon, 2000: 30). It rather stands for an egalitarian model of de-colonized collecting.

55What of the hospitality we encountered? Were we ever given to feel that we were trespassing? Not really. Instead, we were repeatedly made to feel welcome, by way of being put up in houses in four communities, by being offered meals, but most gratifyingly, by the extent to which people generously shared knowledge with us – about trade relations past and present, of their culture heroes and heroines, and of course, about the objects we bought. More: we were accepted as fictive kin throughout the region, rather than as one sort of outsider, or another, e.g., as tourists, for example.

56I hesitate to submit that we were treated as equals and that our foreigner status was entirely circumscribed by our status as adopted Murik kin. But I would go as far as to aver that this status at least mixed our status as white anthropologists into some kind of a hybrid category of self/other. We were both yet we were neither. I engaged in competitive exchange with hereditary feasting partners. I sat “nose to nose” with a senior informant. We sought out both men’s and women’s knowledge. But we resided in a maternity ward of a mission Aidpost where we had access to electricity as well as to emergency healthcare when needed. And of course, we went “home” after two months work, however graciously our departure was celebrated.

57If our methods did succeed to exemplify an egalitarian and status inclusive mode of museum collecting/research, I think that they did so in part because of relationships created during our earlier fieldwork in 1981-82, which did lend us some residual legitimacy in the region (cf. Moutu, 2007). But I would add that it benefitted from the political and historical context in which our project took place. The Lower Sepik region of Papua New Guinea, despite all the excesses of its colonial history, not to mention the contemporary expansion of missionary Christianity and global capital, is not part of a settler-state. As sovereignty over land and culture remains more or less self-determined by Lower Sepik people, our efforts to make use of what Price and Price once called “non-hegemonic” collecting practices (Price and Price, 1994: 13) need not be summarily dismissed as “merely” metaphoric de-colonization. Indigenous communities responded to us as they did from a position of agency and self-worth rather than dispossession and disorientation.

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1 I should also mention that the Sepik Documentation Project lent some inspiration to a second, major museum-based project. This project was conducted in the Aitape area of png by John Terrell and Robert Welsch and made use of the A.B. Lewis collection at the Field Museum in Chicago (Terrell and Welsch, 1990).

2 O’Hanlon (2000) distinguished between stationary and mobile collecting. The former is done from a relatively fixed base while the latter is done while in transit.

3 John Sauma had received research training from the Department of Primary Industry between from 1984-1988. We paid him K460 at the end of the field season.

4 The photographs were inserted in plastic sheets and bound in three ring binders. We brought about 150 images of a range of objects collected at various moments in the 20th century, but largely pre-ww ii, such as old plaited baskets, body ornaments, some pottery and various carved wooden plates, headrests, handdrums and so forth.

5 In subsequent day trips, Bolton held artifact markets in Karau and bought 10 pieces there and then in Mendam village, where she purchased 24 pieces (see Fig. 1).

6 The “Two Brothers” story has been recorded repeatedly along the North Coast of png (Burridge, 1960; Lawrence, 1964; Kirsch, 2006) and elsewhere (Lattas, 1998).

7 I should add that Bolton’s decisions about what to buy were largely based on what was brought to her and was not determined by sociological considerations to distribute money equally across constituent groups in communities.

8 In 1987, 1 png kina = us$ 00.94. There are 100 toea in a kina.

9 The masks and costumes in the Gaingain Society are put to repeated, rather than one-off, use, after which they might be disposed of, like the Malanggan statues in New Ireland (Küchler, 1997). The costumes are donned regularly and are worn until they wear out, when they are discarded and remade. Thus selling the Yangoron mask and costume was not a form of disposal at all.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1. – Lower Sepik Research Sites of the Sepik Documentation Project, 1988
Fichier image/png, 221k
Titre Figure 2. – Max Lipset with bow
Crédits (© Lissant Bolton, Australian Museum)
Fichier image/jpeg, 568k
Titre Figure 3. – Murik women discuss baskets
Crédits (© Kathleen Barlow, Australian Museum)
Fichier image/jpeg, 452k
Titre Figure 4. Market objects
Crédits (© Lissant Bolton, Sepik Documentation Project, Australian Museum)
Fichier image/jpeg, 520k
Titre Figure 5. – Cooking paddle
Crédits (© Australian Museum)
Fichier image/jpeg, 124k
Titre Figure 6. – Two new Yangoron tumbwans make their way through Darapap village
Crédits (© David Lipset, Australian Museum)
Fichier image/jpeg, 432k
Titre Figure 7. – At the departure feast in Marienberg, Allison Hansen tried a betel nut for the first time; Lissant Bolton and Max Lipset looked on
Crédits (© David Lipset, Australian Museum)
Fichier image/jpeg, 556k
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David Lipset

Professor of Anthropology, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, mn usa,

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