Research project: Indigenous agency and museum collections


Start date:
Mouth ornament, Papua New Guinea

Mouth ornament, Papua New Guinea
Photographer: Lauren Fuka  © Australian Museum

Museum investigators

External investigators

  • Anne Clarke, University of Sydney
  • Jude Philp, Macleay Museum, University of Sydney
  • Erna Lilje, University of Sydney

Funded by

  • ARC Linkage; University of Sydney, School of Advanced Research (USA)


Our collaborative project is developing new ways to unlock data in museum collections about how Indigenous agency helped shape the colonial history of Papua New Guinea. Research is focused on collections from Central Province dating from early European contact (1840s) up to PNG Independence (1975). The aim is to highlight the unwritten history of the people who made and offered the artifacts as gifts, for exchange, or for sale.

Studies are focusing on how variations in the types of good reflect the differing social networks created through exchange. One approach is to analyse changes in the relative proportions of different kinds of artifacts in museum collections. Secondly, a detailed study of chronological variations in the way grass skirts were made provides unique insights into how Indigenous producers actively responded to colonial society. Additional artifact classes will also be studied.

Alongside the study of museum collections, analyses of contemporary auction catalogues greatly expands the sample of artifacts from museum collections and provides important insights into how particular items were valued and conceptualized by European consumers.

Dr Robin Torrence , Senior Principal Research Scientist
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