The UMAC 2002 Conference was held in Sydney and Canberra in Australia from Sunday 29 September - Friday 4 October 2002.
The title and theme of the conference was: Exposing and Exploiting the Distinct Character of University Museums and Collections.
Indigenous Perspective on Art Collection of Traditional Culture of the Past, Present and Future - BOUGAINVILLE.
Note: not to be re-produced without permission or quoted without acknowledgement to author.
This paper will look at the issues of ownership and the protection of intellectual property of traditional art and culture. I will address issues surrounding the historical lifting and acquisition of huge volumes of traditional art and treasures within the last two hundred years by various collectors (including traders, colonial officials, missionaries and private collectors). Access to own traditional art and artifacts now preserved in western museums is of critical concern to indigenous peoples. Many cultures that are threatened with survival today are totally unaware of where and how to access significant collections. Westernisation has both eroded our culture, yet stored examples in inaccessible places. Indigenous peoples of the world are wondering what has happened to collections in storage often never on display. Our attempt with the 'Yumi Yet' exhibition to examine present Bougainville culture today in the light of the never before exhibited Bougainville art from the Australian Museum raises a historical discussion between past and present. We wish to open up a meaningful dialogue between institutions and various cultural bodies and peoples to facilitate the future return of significant art to their rightful owners. University bodies such as UMAC and ICOM and the curators of university and public collections could become vital facilitators in the establishment of such dialogues and negotiations. Under what safeguards and conditions should these collections be managed and returned? From an indigenous perspective, arguments within countries as to who are the rightful owners and custodians for the return of such treasures emerge. Is it for the state or cultural bodies within the indigenous culture to take on the responsibility for the preservation, acculturation and future of the collections, or will the works be claimed by clans and tribes or individuals? Whilst traditional societies are rich in art and culture, knowledge of preservation and curatorial skills lag behind western institutions. For the preservation and development of art and culture now and in the future, how can knowledge transfer from more advanced countries be made accessible to indigenous peoples such as Bougainville?
Whilst the mission statement of the International Committee for University Museums and Collections is clear (as in accordance to its constitution), one of its aims that strikes a good chord with me, is Article 3 (b), Subsection (x) - which purports to:
"facilitate international and regional collaboration to stimulate networking, partnerships and research, and to initiate exchanges of artefacts, exhibitions, standards, practices and other information".
It is indeed exciting to see the University Museums and Collections (UMAC) include in its aims "the preservation of academic, scientific, technological and cultural heritage, etc.; but also its aim to "stimulate international and regional networking" in the field of exchanges of artefacts and exhibitions. It has been my great pleasure as part of the team with Professor Di Yerbury (Chair of the Sydney Organising Committee of UMAC, Curator/Executive Director of the Macquarie University Gallery) and the Australian Museum to have installed in time for this 2nd International UMAC conference - the "YUMI YET Bougainville "This is Us" Exhibition. It is a striking and diverse historical and contemporary display of cultural objects from Bougainville, a culture that has never before - in its own right - been on public display.
Yumi Yet: "This is Us" features a selection from some of the earliest works held in the Australian Museum's Pacific collection, dating back to the 19th century. These are exhibited alongside contemporary artworks, ceramics, photographs and videos. The cultural objects and artworks are presented through the personal stories and experiences of the Havini and Sirivi families, reflecting the vibrant culture of this newly autonomous island group.
The subject matter and content in this second international UMAC conference is most educative and innovative. As I checked the Website of the ICOM and UMAC, I was particularly struck by an abstract of a paper by Carol Mayer on University Museums - Distinct Sites Of Intersection For Diverse Communities.
That tries to re-asses the "politics of domination" that had supported the politics of western museums in exhibiting of "non-western cultures' often described as the "other". Two years ago we were guests of the First Nations of Vancouver. They were very proud to give my wife and I a personal tour of their precious heritage, situated in the grounds of the University of British Colombia Museum of Anthropology. There afterwards we also had the opportunity to visit the Khowutzun Native Village (in the Capital Victoria) which is hailed as the world's largest carving house of native motifs.
May I also speak of our own Macquarie University as an institution that also places a strong emphasis on indigenous Aboriginal art and culture; as an appreciation of this very indigenous world/land on which we now stand.
I am relieved that a new thinking is emerging within university museum collection philosophy of "re-evaluating the motivations that have driven the collecting, classifying, and displaying of material culture".
Dialogue between museums and indigenous or First Nations Cultures as to the collection of indigenous art objects and intellectual property has become a serious issue in this period of a more enlightened United Nations agenda of 'decolonisation'.
I intend to highlight this very point, that wholesale lifting of indigenous works of art was undertaken in huge volumes as early as the first contacts made by the western 'civilizations'. These established civilizations in the west had developed an appreciation in the arts that ignited this kind of passion. The so-called "primitive art" of the indigenous peoples was somehow seen as 'exotic' by explorers who collected such primitive treasurers as interesting trophies to bring back home. Unwittingly, these practices led to cynical exploitation by following expeditions that bartered mercilessly with 'the natives'. One wonders if the receiving museums and places of learning in the west were aware of the impact (a form of cultural rape) such practices made on indigenous peoples.
TRADITIONAL CULTURE AND COLONISATION:
Interest in traditional art within the pacific region became more pronounced with the advent of colonisation in the last rush for colonies by the west in the 18th century.
Unbeknown to the First Nations however, this was actually the beginning of the systematic fleecing of their " Intellectual property". More extensive than the loss of precious traditional art and treasures that can be replaced, western domination and subjugation of our peoples forced our ancestors to stop making such artworks. They were seen as expressions of independent culture that posed a threat to the colonisation of our bodies, our minds, our beliefs and our societies.
Modern artists of the west, taking a break I guess from the pressure of classical realism, romantically started to sniff around for something that was different and exotic. As Pablo Picasso responded to the expressive strength of African art and Monet was inspired by flat stylistic Japanese prints; so Paul Gaughin recognised light, pattern and abstraction of shape and colour of the pacific. It seems that so-called "primitive, non western art" was not so primitive after all it liberated the art movement of the 20th century.
In our PostModern world, artmaking admits the eclectic mix of cultural quotation, appropriation and reinterpretation. Indigenous art, notably here in Australia, is leading the revival of revisiting cultural roots and art practice. This movement has inspired the Pacific artists, Bougainvilleans among them, to access artworks of the past that lie stored or unexhibited in university collections and museums of the world. Revival of culture in a non-threatening, multicultural environment is an enriching, positive role for institutions of learning to initiate and foster in society.
I suggest to this important gathering that NOW is the time for institutions that hold such artworks to redress the past. The benefits for such action can work both ways. The sharing of knowledge and the profile that the Yumi Yet Bougainville exhibition has generated is pioneering for our own Bougainville people positive cultural outcomes.
We have embarked on an interaction between two cooperating and enlightened institutions, the Macquarie University Gallery and the Australian Museum. Both institutions have acknowledged the colonial past but seek to redress it in positive ways.
BOUGAINVILLE ART WORK:
Besides the Australian Museum examples on exhibition, works of my ancestors lie, tucked away, in museums and universities in Germany and all over Europe, Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand and America.
In Bougainville's case, the intricate pattern work and stylized abstraction had obviously failed to justify popoular theories of "primitivism" and therefore Bougainville art was never selected for exhibition as examples of the primitivism in art. Closer to home in the Port Moresby Museum we were shocked in the early seventies to see only one item in the Papua New Guinea Collection. This was a solitary Upe (an initiation Upe ceremonial headdress on display). Why have we suffered this obvious discriminatory preference within the nation that claims Bougainville as one of its Provinces? No doubt the answer (s) lie in the colonial attitude of the then Australian Colonial Administration who we Bougainvilleans were. And the definition and value of our art objects assessed against western art by these early colonialists and zealous missionaries.
Many Bougainvilleans have asked this question including, one Jim Griffin, my then senior history lecturer (UPNG - 1971), now retired Professor. He and his wife began to plow through German archival documents of the period of German colonial rule in German Nuigini and Bougainville in the 18th Century, finding some startling materials.
The Germans were of course 'curious human beings", wherever they went. They (James and Helga-Maria Griffin) published a little booklet "Bougainville Artifacts, Conserved or Cookim Coffee, Institute of PNG Studies, 70); that obviously confirmed how Bougainville art objects were not only depleted for commercial value but simply rated very low in terms of popular "exotic primitive art". Another inference here is that Governor Dr. Albert Hahl (.. Nov.1902 August 1914, German Neugunea last Governor..) was more interested in his brew of coffee than with the conservation of Bougainville art and art objects!
Not only were Germans serious entrepreneurs, but also dedicated anthropologists, ethnologists, linguists, who carefully recorded the history of the people wherever they went including in Bougainville. But they were also "addict" collectors of native artifacts more then promoting or conserving it. Apart from others who were heavily involved in art collection in Bougainville were German Richard Parkinson and an Irish, Captain Farrell - one of the many husbands of the legendary business entrepreneur, Queen Emma.
Apart from other private collectors, Parkinson (..from 1882 onwards..) and Farrell contributed their fair share to the 4000 pieces at the Australian Museum in College Street Sydney. Captain Farrell apparently set up a tidy little business between Bougainville and New Britain and New Ireland Provinces of PNG where he collected hundreds and hundreds of artifacts, which were then shipped to museums in Germany and Europe.
One, Thurnwald, in 1910 tallied 3,150 items from the Solomons (Bougainville), the Bismarck Archipelago (New Guinea Islands) and Micronesia. The collection was so lucrative even the natives started to freely trade their artifacts for modern tools and other sundry items. Governor Dr. Albert Hahl was so inundated with natives pressurizing him to buy more artifacts that he is recorded as throwing his hands up in the air in frustration and shouting, "tomorrow" telling them "me cookim coffee". A present day translation would be "tomorrow, your objects are only good enough as firewood for boiling my pot of coffee" or words to that effect.
By about 1914 another German, E. Frizzi, travelling through Bougainville found that artifacts were already disappearing. The discouragement by missionaries who saw some of our practices and artifacts as 'unchristian' or evil may have also contributed to the disappearance of artifacts and art practices. For instance, missionaries resolutely discouraged carving of "naked figures" that may have led to the disappearance of such art objects (Beatrice Blackwood, Both Side Of Buka Passage). Outside influence in terms of 'superior' tools and other merchandise may have also contributed to the use of European goods in preference to their own.
Access to own traditional art and artifacts now preserved in western museums is of critical concern to indigenous peoples. Many cultures that are threatened with survival today are totally unaware of where and how to access significant collections. Westernisation has both eroded our culture, yet stored examples in inaccessible places.
Indigenous peoples of the world are wondering what has happened to collections in storage often unappreciated, forgotten or never on display. Unless indigenous peoples are made aware of where their cultural heritage is stored or exhibited they will never have a hope in the world of accessing or retrieving them.
To bring the truth closer to home, in the first 40 years of my life I had no knowledge that over 4000 art objects of my own Bougainville cultural heritage were in storage in the basement of the Australian Museum in College Street, Sydney. If my memory serves me correctly, I cannot even remember anytime when dialogue was established with the people of Bougainville regarding these "hidden treasures". Let alone dialogue through the Port Moresby Museum about the possible return of that Collection to Bougainville, not withstanding what lie in museums in Germany and Europe.
The Pacific Projects Officer of the Australian Museum is currently working with our Bougainville Cultural Committee on several initiatives. We are planning to produce a catalogue that will unite the text and images from this exhibition with an overview of all 4,000 Bougainville objects held in the Australian Museum.
We intend to set up a Bougainville Cultural Foundation where all proceeds from the catalogue can be channeled for the purpose of rebuilding cultural and art centres within Bougainville itself. Our aim is to inspire and facilitate the next generation of Bougainville artists.
We wish to open up a meaningful dialogue between institutions and various cultural bodies and peoples to facilitate the future return of significant art to their rightful owners. University bodies such as UMAC and ICOM and the curators of university and public collections could become vital facilitators in the establishment of such dialogues and negotiations.
Under what safeguards and conditions should these collections be managed and returned? From an indigenous perspective, arguments within countries as to who are the rightful owners and custodians for the return of such treasures emerge. Indigenous leaders must take responsibility to open public dialogue within home communities and properly plan for the consequences of returning artworks from links forged with western institutions and museums.
Intellectual property and cultural knowledge must be democratically preserved for a whole community with respect for traditional practice observed. Sometimes issues of great sensitivity must be respected. We cannot be ignorant of retained concerns for restricted use of clan totems or sacred or gender based knowledge and practice.
Is it for the state or cultural bodies within the indigenous culture to take on the responsibility for the preservation, acculturation and future of the collections, or will the works be claimed by clans and tribes or individuals? Such discussions need to be resolved within communities before the return of precious, rare or significant objects are effected.
CURATORIAL SKILLS, PRESERVATION AND CO-OPERATION:
Whilst traditional societies are rich in art and culture, knowledge of preservation and curatorial skills lag behind western institutions. For the preservation and development of art and culture now and in the future, how can knowledge transfer from more advanced countries be made accessible to indigenous peoples such as Bougainville?
The South Pacific Cultural Heritage Program based at the Australian National University has already launched a program to incorporate into the school curriculum of the South Pacific, "distance education in cultural heritage management".
Amongst other things to teach and to train Pacific Islanders in the "development of cultural heritage management policy and develop cultural heritage database"; and for the people to be more familiar with the importance of their own artifacts and art objectives. Whilst this is some beginning in the right direction, a wider campaign to other academic institutions for their expertise and assistance will be needed.
This "Yumi Yet - Bougainville Exhibition" is the beginning of a Bougainville "fight-back" program. To reclaim and protect our intellectual property of our past, strengthen the present and plan for the future.
Our attempt with the 'Yumi Yet' exhibition to examine contemporary Bougainville culture in the light of the never before exhibited Bougainville art from the Australian Museum, raises a historical discussion between past and present.
To what extent have our past culture and practices survived westernisation and the modern world? How can we integrate the rebuilding of a modern Bougainville, recently ravaged by war (1988-2002) with the rediscovered unique designs and symbols we want to incorporate into our contemporary culture as a celebration of our newfound autonomy.
Our homegrown recipe or antidote to colonialism comprises a plan of action that we have embarked on in collaboration with the Australian Museum. Now, in response to this exhibition, we have interested Australians from the local community and this university who wish to support us. It is only a beginning, but here is the list of actions that have been generated by Yumi Yet:
We intend to establish formal dialogue with museums all over the world to begin the retrieval of some of these precious art treasures. Our intention of returning them safely to cultural centres in Bougainville will bring great joy to the people who have begun to re-value once discarded knowledge and cultural objects.
During the war years (..1989-1997..) and a ten-year blockade, there has been a Cultural Revolution quietly taking place, as the people had to return to ancient practices to survive totally off the land.
Previously discarded and despised knowledge is now treasured. Our younger generation is now ready to listen to their elders as part of the search for peace and harmony within our own borders. Cultural objects are incorporated into the solemn peace making and reconciliation ceremonies being conducted throughout Bougainville today.
There could not be a better time than this International Council of Museums (ICOM) and the University Museum And Collection (UMAC) conference in Australia 2002 to table our concerns. For Indigenes Peoples and First Nations to have the ears of the learned members of this gathering - of the issue of indigenous art and art objects that are gracing or being tacked away in museums all over the world. On how we can begin to enter into meaningful dialogue and begin to "facilitate international and regional collaboration to stimulate networking, partnerships and research, and to initiate exchanges of artefacts, exhibitions, standards, practices and other information".
I suggest to this September/October gathering that NOW is the time for institutions that hold such artworks to redress the past. The benefits for such action can work both ways. The sharing of knowledge and the profile that the Yumi Yet Bougainville exhibition has generated is pioneering for our own Bougainville people positive cultural outcomes.
We have embarked on an interaction between two cooperating and enlightened institutions, the Macquarie University and the Australian Museum. Both institutions have acknowledged the colonial past but seek to redress it in positive ways.
I extend this message to the rest if the world and to this gathering of the International Council of Museums And University Collections.
Bougainville Cultural Foundation (BCF).
Blackwood, Beatrice, Both Sides of Buka Passage, Oxford, At The Clarendon Press, London, 1935.
Ambesi, Alberto Cesare Oceanic Art, The Hamlyn Publishing Croup Limited, London, New York, Sydney, Toronto, 1970.
Griffin, James and Helga-Maria, Bougainville Artifacts Conserved Or Cookim Coffee, Occasional Paper 1, Institute of PNG Studies, Port Moresby, 1970, 1980..?
Copyright © Moses Havini 2002.