Introduction to our Melanesian Collections

The Melanesian cultural area is the nearest neighbour of Australian and the Museum holds a significant collection of cultural material from Melanesian nations.

Malagan mask from New Ireland

Malagan mask from New Ireland
Photographer:  © Australian Museum

Melanesia in the Australian Museum collections

The Australian Museum holds one of the largest and most significant collections of Pacific material in the world.

The majority of the 60,000 objects comes from the Melanesian nations of Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji and New Caledonia, with representative collections from Polynesian and Micronesian nations (including New Zealand, Tonga, Samoa, Tuvalu, Cook Islands, Easter Island, Hawaii, Niue, Tokelau, Wallis and Futuna and French Polynesia in the former and Banaba, Betau, Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru and Northern Marianas Islands in the latter).

The Melanesian objects hold great cultural and historical significance within the Australian Museum’s Pacific collections. Their range of fascinating artistic and cultural styles is well represented, with many of the pieces collected in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Many examples are no longer made but of great continuing significance to communities.

The Museum also holds a large collection of valuable archived photographs of the Pacific region. These include Frank Hurley’s two expeditions to Papua New Guinea in the 1920s and over 900 glass plate negatives taken by the Reverend George Brown between 1875 and 1905.

Melanesian art

Melanesian art and objects exhibit an extraordinary range of functions, styles, materials and motifs. This is due mainly to the diversity of cultural groups within the region and the relative isolation of areas for many millennia. However, these cultural groups share an underlying belief system about humans and their place in the universe that impacts on the purpose and symbolism of the pieces they create.

There is an animistic element underlying all Melanesian belief systems – everything, both animate and inanimate, had an eternal spiritual essence. In addition, the spirits of the living and the dead could be identified with the spirits of certain animals.

Manufacture, use and appearance of art objects closely followed these religious beliefs and clan rituals. Spirits – ancestral, natural, mythical and deceased – were portrayed in masks and sculpture. Honouring ancestors was a dominant theme involving controlling the forces of the dead and reliquary items were added to objects to increase their power – objects helped retain the support of the group’s ancestors. Artistic expression was thus concerned almost exclusively with portrayal of human and animal figures, in varying degrees of stylisation.

The majority of traditional societies were based on an egalitarian social structure which was patriarchal and patrilineal. This extended to Melanesian belief systems which were almost entirely the concern of the men. Most of the objects were created by men for important ceremonies, in particular the cult of ancestors was a secret one and boys only were initiated into it when they reached puberty.

After the ceremonies, artefacts were either destroyed to protect them from uninitiated eyes or concealed in men’s cult houses. Less portable objects were made specifically for the cult houses.

Change and continuity in art

In the traditional Melanesian cultural groups, artefacts were produced within specific cultural systems, however innovation and change did occur over time. There was always room for personal interpretation and new ideas were adopted through cross-cultural contact even before the arrival of Europeans.

Art was greatly influenced by the arrival of Europeans to the region. The last two hundred years have seen increased change, colonialism, decolonisation and global capitalism. Traditions were impacted to a degree never seen before, and in many cases art and artistic expression was modified or ceased completely. Objects collected before the subjective influence of traders, missionaries and administrators are of the utmost importance both anthropologically and artistically as they represent the embodied beliefs and inspiration before the traditional way of life was influenced.

Despite this, traditions have survived and many new ones have arisen. New and contemporary art expression continues to represent the vitality and power of indigenous Melanesian cultures.

Michael Hugill , Online Producer (Content Strategy & Social Media)
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