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Unmasking Culture – the snippets of history behind the Malagan masks

By: Kirsty Nguyen, Category: Science, Date: 14 Jun 2017

Learning by inquisitive exploration.

Kirsty examines Malagan masks

Kirsty examines Malagan masks
Photographer: Stan Florek © Australian Museum

I’m Kirsty, a high school student who was lucky to spend a few days with the Cultural Collections team at the Australian Museum. Here’s a post of what I found especially interesting.

The Museum is home to many thousands of artefacts derived from Indigenous people in Australia, the Pacific and from other World cultures. The ones on display are only a small portion of what is kept in the Museum stores. When viewing the Pacific Spirit exhibition, I was captivated by a series of beautifully designed masks created by the people of northern New Ireland Province, an island in Papua New Guinea. These Malagan masks, as they are called, were to mark and commemorate the death of community members and were used mostly in funeral ceremonies. Although the masks are all stylistically similar, they had been made to portray different, individual people.

I went on to learn that Malagan signifies not only wooden carvings prepared for ceremonial purposes, but an entire system of intricate traditional and cultural events cultivated and performed in parts of the New Ireland Province. The masks I got to see are only a little sample of a very rich and complex culture.

My close observation of masks payed off as I spotted some interesting details I set to explore and explain. The masks were traditionally made from natural materials which included wood, shell, ochre and other pigments; bark-cloth and resin. I observed that among an assortment of “indigenous materials,” some of these masks had included other borrowed materials, notably pieces of (mostly red) cloth and blue pigment. These were the signs that the strong and such original cultures of New Ireland interacted, directly or not, with and industrial Western world in the 19th century.

I learned that pieces of red fabric were often used by Europeans, and others, in trading with the people of Melanesia and the Pacific. But the blue pigment is even more interesting. The vibrant colour most popularly referred to as “Reckitt’s Blue” was a cheap powder that Europeans used in clothes laundering to rid fabrics of any off-white or yellow tinge which may have accumulated over time. Due to their being complementary colours, the addition of blue to the yellowed fabric allowed it to give off a whiter appearance. Small doses of it were added into washing loads with the intent of enhancing the brightness of the clothes and to make the slightly coloured items white again.

Blue colour, especially of such intensity, was rarely available in most indigenous cultures and its introduction, to contrast a variety of ochre colours, creates a dramatic visual effect.

I had initially thought that artefacts only told us a story about a distant time and place, as it would have been in its own society and period, and captured frozen as in the old-fashioned encyclopedia. However, the examination of Malagan masks opened my eyes to the fact that artefacts also tell the story of their time, with its dynamic history, narratives and the interactions across cultural and social boundaries.

It is amazing the way an artefact, though being made years, decades and even centuries earlier, has the potential to reveal dynamic realities of the past and their complexities. We, as scholars and historians can extract so much information from a source that has outlived its creators and will outlive us. History has so much to say to us, all we need to do is give it a chance to speak.

I had applied for my work experience to the Australian Museum with the hopes of learning about and interacting with the worlds around me and there is no doubt that I am leaving the place knowing things I hadn’t known upon arriving. My work experience allowed me to explore a side of the Museum I wouldn’t have otherwise known, to walk amongst rows and rows of cultural objects that spoke of their people, revealing a world that at first, was completely unfamiliar to me. I’m so grateful to have been welcomed here and to be given the chance to discover cultures and histories I hadn’t known. Thank you to Dr. Stan Florek and other museum staff for hosting me and guiding me in my learning.