Australian Museum Journal The Torres Strait Islands collection at the Australian Museum

Shortform:
Florek, 2005, Tech. Rep. Aust. Mus. 19: 1–96
Author(s):
Florek, Stan
Year published:
2005
Title:
The Torres Strait Islands collection at the Australian Museum
Serial title:
Technical Reports of the Australian Museum
Volume:
19
Start page:
1
End page:
96
DOI:
10.3853/j.1031-8062.19.2005.1464
Language:
English
Date published:
02 November 2005
Cover date:
02 November 2005
ISSN:
1031-8062
CODEN:
TRAMEU
Publisher:
The Australian Museum
Place published:
Sydney, Australia
Subjects:
ANTHROPOLOGY; ARCHAEOLOGY; TORRES STRAIT
Digitized:
02 November 2005
Reference number:
1464
EndNote package:
EndNote file
Title page:
Title page (24kb PDF)
Complete work:
Complete work (7312kb PDF)

Abstract

[Preface]. This study traces its origins to a catalogue of the Torres Strait collection at the Australian Museum, compiled by David Moore (1993), former Curator of Anthropology at the Australian Museum. By the time Moore retired, poor health prevented him from amending and editing the typescript in preparation for publication. In 1996, the whole Torres Strait collection was comprehensively recorded on the Museum's electronic database. I was given the task of finally checking data recorded in this database against hand-written records and the artefacts themselves. Such work presented a perfect opportunity to revisit the idea of a Torres Strait catalogue.

This work evolved to encompass collection research, supported and encouraged by the consecutive Collection Managers and Heads of Anthropology at the Australian Museum. The study was inspired by David Moore and benefited from his research into the Museum's collections, as well as his research on the Torres Strait material culture in general (Moore, 1979, 1984). I wish to thank David for kindly sharing his expertise and his suggestions concerning the organization of records. The original research that Moore conducted on the Torres Strait collection yielded valuable data, especially in the fields of indigenous terminology and object use. This information is recorded in the manual and electronic documentation systems of the Museum. When compiling data for this study I consulted not only the documentation records, but also Moore's typescript catalogue, to follow closely his version of indigenous terms and, where appropriate, his indication of objects' usage. While writing up the project in 2000, I met Dr Jude Philp and Ms Anita Herle2, who researched the collection and legacy of Professor Alfred C. Haddon's monumental fieldwork in Torres Strait in 1888–1889 and 1898 (Herle & Philp, 1998). We inspected the Torres Strait collection held at the Australian Museum on several occasions. These encounters and fruitful discussions, especially with Dr Philp, stimulated me to review some aspects of this project and contributed to its final form, with much more awareness about contemporary discourse between the more than a century old collections and present day Torres Strait Islanders. Dr Philp contributed enormously to this project by sharing with me her abundant knowledge and enthusiasm as well as reading several drafts.

My special thanks are extended to the Torres Strait Islanders for their interest and assistance in the consultation process in August 2003. I was given the opportunity to present the summary of the project to the Board of the Torres Strait Regional Authority, and to the Council of Murray Island. I discussed the prospect of the catalogue and the relationship between Islanders and the Australian Museum with Ron Day (Mer Island Council Chairperson), Terrence Whap (Chairperson for Mabuiag Island Council until 2004), Leilani Bin-Juda (Arts Development Officer, Torres Strait Regional Authority), James Rice, and Ephraim Bani. My visit to Torres Strait was facilitated, with great hospitality, by Leilani Bin-Juda, Ron Day with his family, and Joe Fatafehi with his family.

In various stages of my research, I benefited from the assistance of Anthropology staff, volunteers and other people involved directly or indirectly in the project. I wish to thank Drs Jim Specht, Lissant Bolton, Val Attenbrow, Jude Philp, as well as Elizabeth Bonshek, Leanne Brass and Phil Gordon for their generous support, directions, comments and editing. I benefited greatly from conversations with Leilani Bin-Juda, who also guided me and supported in consultations with Islander communities. The Australian Museum photographers Stuart Humphreys, Paul Ovenden and James King took the photographs of artefacts while Bill Evans, correspondent for Tribal Art Magazine, generously provided some financial support for images. I thank Ian Loch (Malacology, Australian Museum) for identification of shells, Dr Solomon Bard, David Bell and Caroline Guerra, for assistance in compiling the catalogue, Peter Dadswell for proofreading, and the staff of the Australian Museum Archives and Research Library for their prompt and always cheerful help in searching for a variety of publications, images and documents. The Australian Museum Society and the Branch of Anthropology financially supported the publication of this catalogue.

The large and well-documented part of the collection, over 60 per cent, is from Mer (Murray Island), and therefore this work focuses on Meriam people and their culture. The documents that provide a vital context for the collection contain personal views and opinions. These views often seek, in vernacular language, to express a sense of curiosity and astonishment. They frequently blend recording with personal and emotive commentaries. The comments, sometimes tinted with arrogance towards "natives", also reveal the search for understanding other peoples and their culture. The field journal of Allan McCulloch is an excellent example. I quote liberally from this journal, not only to broaden the background for the collection of artefacts, but also to provide the reader with an insight into the process of attaining understanding. I also quote from Philip Parker King's accounts of a journey to Torres Strait in 1836, which provides one of the earliest extended English language descriptions of the Islanders.

The voice of the Islanders is almost absent in the documents. However, their expertise, intentions and attitudes can be detected in the documents and the artefacts, their form, craft-work and intended function. Since many artefacts were made for outsiders they could be seen as the Islanders interpreting their own culture for the benefit of others. The set of ancestral figures from Murray Island is probably the best example of such interpretation (Catalogue nos. 163–168, Figs. 19–24). Many replicas and models, however, can be seen as interpretations as well. Since the time of Haddon's studies, if not earlier, Islanders became well aware that their culture was valued and that related knowledge and objects were sought after by outsiders. This awareness initiated a long inter-cultural exchange or a dialogue where Islanders, the bearers of this knowledge and expertise, were constantly asked to share, reminisce, interpret and reinterpret their culture, language and customs. Explicitly, or not, such process of interpretation became a strong underlying current in all the encounters between the Islanders and various collectors, observers, scholars and ordinary curious visitors to the islands of Torres Strait. This study attempts to highlight such interpretation, silently present in the collection of artefacts. The Islander names of the islands are used to organize the material in the catalogue. In the text, where numerous quotations are included, however, the use of Islander names proved very difficult and cumbersome. Therefore, the island names in the text are used as far as possible in accordance with their usage by the Torres Strait Regional Authority, with English or Islander version in brackets, except in quotations where the name used by the writer is retained.

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