Cultural revival

Cultural collections in musuems provide a crucial link to forgotten practices.

Sophie Nemban

Sophie Nemban
Photographer: James King © Australian Museum

Sophie Nemban, a fieldworker from the Vanuatu Cultural Centre, first visited the Australian Museum in 2003 to examine decorated barkcloths collected from Erromango, her island home.

Sophie’s visit helped build a foundation of knowledge and skill needed to inspire women (and men) from her island to revive the lost tradition of nemas production, and in 2008 the Museum was able to acquire new Erromangan nemas, the first to be produced in nearly a century.


Erromango is one of Vanuatu’s largest islands. The first European to visit the island is thought to be Captain James Cook in 1774. After the discovery of rich stands of sandalwood on the island in the 1820s, Erromango was subjected to many depredations, first from sandalwooders, then blackbirders (‘recruiters’) and traders, as well as diseases to which the islanders had little resistance.

During a tragic period of less than a century, the population plummeted from a pre- European high of 20,000 to just a few hundred. These influences have drastically affected the history and culture of the island, which now has a population of around 1500.

Then there were the missionaries. The most influential were the Presbyterian Robertson family who lived on the island from 1872 to 1913. Their presence during four decades, although completing the missionisation of the people, sounded the death knell for much of traditional Erromangan culture.

Towards the end of their time there, the Robertsons provided the Australian Museum with around 150 objects, the largest single collection of the 600 objects from that island in the Museum’s collection.

The art of persuasion

The type of cultural items collected by the Robertson family and the process of selection were not neutral activities, but were more akin to a systematic operation that was to successfully disrupt Erromangan culture. Over four decades the missionaries targeted key aspects of traditional culture, offering incentives and rewards (such as flour, biscuits, tea, sugar, bush knives, matches and especially European clothing) to entice people to gradually leave behind their culture and adopt Christian beliefs and European values.

The targeting of traditional clothing, adornments and spirituality is evident in the objects they obtained: decorated barkcloth, grass skirts, armbands, combs and neck ornaments, as well as men’s weapons and sacred ritual currency. The collection of these important objects effectively removed them from circulation and use.

Crossing the wall

The missionaries used clothing as a gift incentive to Erromangans attending church services. Clothing became a prestige item to distinguish Christian converts and was an enticement to ‘the heathen’.

The effort to persuade local people to dress ‘adequately’ was highlighted in recent discussions with church elders from Dillon’s Bay, the main mission headquarters on Erromango’s western coast. They relate how the Robertsons enclosed the church property with a large stone wall – an imposing expression of the division between the indigenous culture outside and the missionaries within.

Erromangans were permitted to cross this wall to go towards the church only if they first changed their traditional dress for European clothing. Almost ritually, the men would have to leave their clay pipes in holes in the wall and their weapons at its base, while the women would have to change from their voluminous grass skirts by the goat pens at the end of the wall.
The women’s beautifully decorated and valuable barkcloth tops were then given to the men who carefully laid them out flat near the Robertson’s house. In a small hut nearby, the women would then dress in the European clothing provided by the missionaries, while the men wrapped themselves in cloth lava-lavas elsewhere.

The elders also recounted that strict rules determined where people could sit or stand during the church service. Women sat to the left, men to the right; male church elders sat at the front and the current ‘sinners’ at the back. The ‘heathen’ (non-converts) were relegated to the outer side of the stone wall.

This happened every Sunday in the early mission days and as the people returned to their homes the ‘undressing’ process was reversed, again at the church wall. The social pressure on people to conform, to adopt the gospel, eventually swayed the population of islanders to surrender their culture, at which time the Robertson’s mission was largely complete.

Discovery and reawakening

Faced with this continual process of cultural dislocation and erosion, barkcloth production gradually disappeared, though its memory survived in more isolated areas of the island through oral stories.

In 2002, at the Melanesian Arts Festival in Port Vila, photographs of 18 Erromango barkcloths and archival images from the Australian Museum collection were shown to a group of Erromangan women, eliciting shared reactions of emotion, curiosity and bewilderment. They recognised some of the barkcloth designs as being from their own clan areas – cultural items they had heard of, but never seen.

Following this initiative, the Australian Museum Society (TAMS, now Australian Museum Members) invited cultural fieldworker Sophie Nemban to visit the Museum to view and be inspired by early Erromangan women’s material held in the Museum’s collection.

For the first time, an Erromangan woman could reconnect physically and spiritually with early cultural items of her heritage and personally study aspects of their manufacture, designs and raw materials.

Such is the power of real objects in collections. This physical and sensory reconnection with women’s traditional items has assisted in building a platform for a larger process of cultural reawakening on Erromango, beginning with the revival of barkcloth manufacture and design.

Over the last six years, Sophie, Jerry Taki and other fieldworkers from the Vanuatu Cultural Centre and Erromangan Cultural Association have consulted deeply and intensively with chiefs, province representatives, elders, women and young people.
They have travelled extensively throughout the island to reach villages by foot and canoe, bringing photographs, notes and other documents to result in the reactivation of Erromangan culture. The community now has strong expectations that this process will expand to all provinces in Erromango and inspire younger generations to carry it forward.

Yvonne Carrillo-Huffman, Collection Officer, Pacific

First published in Explore 30(4), pp 24–25 (2009) 


Brendan Atkins , Publications Coordinator
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