The Science of Storytelling from our Pacific Neighbours

23 May 2013

The South Australian Museum’s Curator of Foreign Ethnology Dr Barry Craig has been researching the Museum’s Pacific collections since 1995. He is building a picture of life in the Pacific Islands during the late-19th and 20th centuries.

By locating objects in the cultural contexts from which they came, and through the life-histories of the people who collected these things, local and international visitors to the Museum, and other researchers, we can better appreciate Pacific Islands cultures and arrive at a richer understanding of human nature.

The South Australian Museum holds more than 17,000 items from the Pacific Islands, particularly from New Guinea, New Ireland, New Britain, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, New Caledonia, and Fiji.

Dr Craig draws on his field work experiences and 17,000 photographs taken in Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu to inform his research projects and to write about Pacific Islands cultures.

Recently, he has undertaken the six-year Upper Sepik-Central New Guinea Project, funded by Australian Research Council Linkage Grants, Ok Tedi Mining Ltd and the South Australian Museum. The project seeks to understand the relationships between material culture and language, environment, resources and subsistence strategies in two adjacent regions of Papua New Guinea – the upper Sepik basin and the highlands of central New Guinea – during the early to late 20th century.

The project recorded around 12,000 objects from the two regions preserved in museums and private collections worldwide.

The Project website provides an explanation of the project, several beautiful image galleries and informative papers for researchers and the general public. Images and details of around 2500 objects may be accessed via digitally active collection points located on satellite terrain maps of the region.

Last year, Dr Craig worked with Fulbright Scholar and musician, Dr Christopher Roberts, to prepare for publication a book on the tribal songs of Central New Guinea. Ok Tedi Mining Ltd will fund the publication by the Institute of Papua New Guinea Studies. Craig and Roberts are now working on songs from the upper Sepik region recorded by Craig in 1973. The project preserves and makes available a record of traditions that are threatened by the introduction of Christianity and a Western European life-style and money economy.

Dr Craig says the South Australian Museum’s Pacific Cultures Collections — a vast array of tools, ornaments, clothing, domestic equipment, music instruments, weapons, masks, and carvings and paintings of religious significance — were obtained from missionaries, traders, scientists, military and administrative officers.

He says research and education based on these collections helps us to develop objectivity about our own and others’ cultures. “One way to develop rational opinions about the way we are living, the way we are governed, how our society is structured and how it is changing, is to see how other people have organised their societies and the things they make and do in their daily lives. It broadens our thinking about the ethical and moral issues that confront us,” said Barry.

Pacific cultures often operated as fundamentally democratic tribal structures with adaptable and changing beliefs about the environment, subsistence, family, authority, and the afterlife.

Dr Craig writes about these issues and can be contacted for media expertise on tribal customs and the stories behind the objects in the Museum’s collections.