Papua New Guinea: Old objects, new information
Like other museums in the world, the Australian Museum has many objects about which very little information is recorded.
In many cases, it is now too late to rectify this situation. At best, we can only make general statements about what they are and how they might have been used.
On the eastern coast of New Ireland and the adjacent islands, the dead are honoured at ceremonies during which elaborately carved and decorated masks, figures, posts and other items are used. These are known as Malangan carvings and are still used in ceremonies today.
In the 1880s, after losing most of its collections in the Garden Palace Fire, the Australian Museum purchased thousands of artefacts from the Papua New Guinea region to rebuild its collection. These included many Malangan carvings. Unfortunately, the Museum received no information about these items other than a general indication of where they came from.
In the 1970s and 1980s, several anthropologists took photographs of these carvings back to New Ireland to record any information that survived about them. From the Islanders, they were generally able to obtain the name of the class of carving, and sometimes the name of the clan or artist's line that owned the rights to the form. Much of the detail about each carving remains lost.