Papua New Guinea: Collecting - or stealing?

Collecting artefacts during the colonial period was not always carried out honestly or ethically.

Kaimare, Papua New Guinea Map

Design Unit © Australian Museum

In 1922-1923, photographer Frank Hurley led an expedition to the Australian Territory of Papua. Allan McCulloch of the Australian Museum joined him to collect artefacts and natural history specimens. The expedition members spent most of their time at Kaimare on the Purari River delta, where they were allowed to see the private area of the men's house where sacred objects were stored. These included 17 sacred cane figures, each with a bundle of bullroarers. Hurley and McCulloch were allowed to purchase one bullroarer from each bundle. Hurley was not allowed to take photographs of the sacred figures - but he did take some by deceit.

When Hurley and McCulloch were about to return to Australia, the Papuan Administration impounded their collections pending the outcome of an inquiry into a claim that they had used force to acquire items on Lake Murray. The inquiry found no evidence to support the accusation, but revealed that McCulloch had admitted stealing a bullroarer at Kaimare. During subsequent inquiries at Kaimare, the elders accused Hurley and McCulloch of stealing at least five ritual objects. Some items from Kaimare were confiscated but the rest were allowed to go the Australian Museum.

Like any museum with ethnographic collections of a similar age, we have material that was originally acquired from indigenous people under circumstances that would not be ethically acceptable today. In recognition of this legacy, the Australian Museum has an active program repatriating human ancestral remains, secret/sacred objects and other culturally significant materials back to indigenous communities. The Museum has completed hundreds of repatriations to Indigenous communities in Australia, and have carried out or assisted repatriations of ancestral remains and cultural objects to Canada, PNG and the Solomon Islands.


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