Displaying Cultural Sensitivities

In January 2014 I became aware that the vast and historical Oceanic Collection held by the British Museum was now accessible online to view as digital photographs in an electronic database.  Quite a feat I must admit, by the museum staff. According to the British Museum website, up to 2000 images were uploaded each week as part of their 35 year on-going effort to document and digitise all cultural artefacts, to support curatorial and research work.   As a woman who identifies as being a Pacific Islander and an artist, my initial reaction to this knowledge was one of apprehension. 

After a deep breath, I did a search online within the British Museum Oceanic collection database.  I’m always charged with the emotion of anxiety whenever I search online Oceanic collection databases, mainly due to the fact that there is so much cultural history contained in Pacific artefacts, even if they are digital images, my own cultural sensitivities spring into action, particularly for a few reasons;

1. Am I going to view something that culturally I’m not supposed to see?

2. Has the Pacific community been consulted prior to the public or virtual display, especially so with regard to sacred or taboo artefacts due to cultural sensitivities of sacred knowledge being shared in a public domain?

3. If no consultation has taken place, Pacific people are potentially open to becoming culturally implicated by viewing objects, which for cultural reasons forbid them to do so.

Like many other museums who are custodian of Oceanic collections there are hundreds if not thousands of artefacts, and photographs collected by various missionaries, traders and anthropologist documented digitally for anyone with high speed internet connection to view freely.  I contained my search to Papua New Guinea within the British Museum online collection, it was here that I came across skeletal remains with no information and historical photographs of Motu women bearing the beautiful Reva Reva (full body tattoos).  The portraits of the Motu women were titled as ‘postcards’, the women were posed and photographed completely naked. 

For Papua New Guinean artists like Julia Mage’au Gray, who is leading the Tep Tok Project with many Pacific Islanders some of whom are Motu women.  Having access to these images is vital documentation for Motu women, some of who I know, are passionate about reviving the significant practice of young women being physically imprinted with Reva Reva, a historical cultural language embedded within Motu people.  But when I see images of Pacific people posed naked and the image titled as a ‘postcard’ combined with the exploitative photographic history of Pacific peoples in Europe during the early 1900’s, I cannot help but view this particular online publication as further exploitation of an exploited image, along with it’s people.

As an artist I utilise my practice to learn and understand my Tolai cultural history and customs. A method in my arts practice is to collaborate and consult with my immediate community.  My definition of community refers to immediate and indirect family members of either Tolai or Papua New Guinean descent as well as non-related Tolai people living in Australia or Papua New Guinea.  This method for me is an important part to creating art as I’m aware of the cultural implications placed upon me by interpreting and defining Papua New Guinea culture in a contemporary framework, even though my practice and my identity exists in a Pacific diasporic context.

I’d like to briefly talk about two examples of my work as an artist where I’ve utilised a consultative or collaborative process of Pacific Islander people within my practice.  Just Like Home was a video installation exhibition, which toured Australia in 2010.  This work celebrated the adaptation of Tolai culture in an Australian context.  An important part of the exhibition was to further contextualise what the exhibition was about.  At each exhibition, the public with my mother and I were part of the preparation, cooking and eating of the particular food called Ai gir, which means to steam with hot stones, a cuisine unique to Tolai people.  It gave people of non-Pacific heritage a unique insight into customary cooking practices as well as the culture of Tolai people in a non-passive, inclusive and informative environment.

Another example of including Pacific people within my practice is a filmmaking project that I conceptualised in 2013.  Story Weavers was a Pacific Youth filmmaking project exploring Pacific Islander youth identity within Melbourne, Australia. An integral part of this project was including Pacific cultural elders Uncle Aisea Kaloumaira and Aunty Sana Balai, as well as Indigenous leader, Mark Yettica-Paulsen within the filmmaking workshops. This was to create a space for Pacific youth and elders to have a dialogue around what Pacific Islander identity is and how each generation navigates their own identity, within geographical and social contexts.  The outcome of Story Weavers was a short film called ‘Pearl’ written and directed by Pacific Islander youth that has screened nationally around Australia in multiple film festivals.  Last Sunday Pearl screened as part of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival and is set to make its international debut in Toronto, Canada later this year. 

For the last 18 months of my arts practice, I have been independently researching and understanding the history of collecting culture within museums and anthropological research associated with the Oceanic region, particularly to my place of birth, Rabaul, East New Britain, Papua New Guinea.  My paper today is not to present a scathing review of Museum or gallery practice and processes, but to highlight the position that I, along with many other artists of Pacific decent face and experience when our cultural treasures are freely available to view publicly, without community consultation and the positive and negative implications they have upon us and the general Pacific community. 

I cannot speak on behalf of every cultural group pertaining to the Pacific region, so my focus will be specific to my own experiences of viewing cultural collections relevant to the Tolai people. In late 2013, I was invited by JD Mittman, curator of Burrinja Gallery located in the south eastern suburbs of Melbourne to be part of a consultation committee as part of an upcoming exhibition titled Secret Ingiets; Mysterious stone carvings and ceremonial objects of the Tolai in PNG. The Secret Ingiets exhibition had great cultural implications upon me.  First of all, I had no idea these stone carvings existed, secondly, I’m not supposed to know they exist due to my gender and the male secret societies that created them, which still exist to this day for different purposes and cultural ceremonies.  Again I cannot elaborate on this part of my culture because, I honestly don’t know anything about the male secret societies and culturally I’m not supposed to.

It was quite a personal challenge for me to attend the exhibition and symposium with all of the sacred stone carvings on display.  I wanted to engage with the exhibition, not just for research reasons but for my keen interest in historical artefacts made by my people, but at the same time compelled to not breach cultural protocol.  So I did my own community consultation, online via social media.  I posed the question of attending the Secret Ingiet exhibition to the Tolai community via a social media page that focuses on the cultural history of the New Guinea Islands, namely New Britain, New Ireland, Manus and Bougainville.  The reaction and response I got from people of Tolai and non-Tolai heritage was one of great interest, contradictory, informative and blunt. 

This is the question I posed to the members of a social media page called New Guinea Islands Historical Society:

“This symposium is happening this Saturday in outer Melbourne.  I’m really curious to know what peoples’ views are on this sort of stuff being out in the open… What are Tolai peoples’ sensitivities to this display of Ingiet carvings today?”

The administrator of the group is a Tolai male elder, Gideon Kakabin, and he gave me this response:

The Ingiat society is or was so secretive, that even today no really speaks about it. The artefacts displayed out of context would only hold interest or curiosity value. There is power there to destroy, however without the words and incantations these are just objects.

My main concern was if I could even enter the exhibition, as I felt it would be culturally inappropriate and insensitive for me to physically be in the same space, regardless if the objects have no value or relevance because they were out of context.  This was further complicated by a response from a Tolai woman who said this:

“Traditionally a woman is not allowed to discuss, observe or even call a meeting (kivung) to discuss upcoming cultural feasts etc.  I know it sounds unfair and outdated but that is our culture.  If I was living in Melbourne I would not attend the symposium for the reason that, this cultural practice would over time be lost… I just want to believe that future generations could appreciate my culture as theirs too in its raw state”.

So basically, I didn’t even have a leg to stand on.  As a Tolai woman living in Australia, I want to adhere to cultural protocols as best as I can despite being geographically removed.  I don’t ever want to jeopardise sacred cultural practice or any others that exist in Tolai culture. After expressing this concern within the online discussion I was met with this response from a non-Pacific person:

 “Good point, from Custom, but tell me, how will your children learn of these cultures? The whole thing is dying all over PNG”.

The question of repatriation was brought up, but that is another conversation to be had at another time.  I was very appreciative of the in depth and articulate knowledge given to me via this process, but there lies the paradox; by being made aware of these objects through the exhibition, it prompted an enquiry of wanting to acquire knowledge about these objects, that culturally I’m not even supposed to be aware of. I felt that by attending the exhibition and symposium along with everyone else, that I was adding to the continuing dissolution of cultural frameworks implemented by missionaries and colonists within my own culture. The devaluing of these sacred objects within Tolai culture, have now become an item of value and curiosity within a completely different cultural context, the art gallery.  By understanding this history over time, I am prompted by these questions.

Which cultural context has more value or worth?

What is compromised or gained when sacred artefacts are within each of these cultural contexts?

I’m aware that Burrinja gallery and staff including JD had every intention to consult with the Papua New Guinean and Pacific community prior to the exhibition as well as the scheduled symposium; Pacific Art Collections: The Culture of Collecting Then and Now. From my own experiences of working with the Pacific community; it sure ain’t easy.  What we Pacific Islanders value the most are relationships.  Relationships between people and community that help us develop trust and respect with whom we are working with and for what reason.  When we feel we are valued as people with mutuality and respect for who we are and the cultural knowledge we keep, then we will work well with you.  Basically what I’m trying to say here is that if you want to engage with the Pacific community, then you’re more likely to be successful, if you go to them and not expect them to come to you.  The Australia Museum, Pacific Youth Re-Connection Project is a shining example of this action, by taking artefacts from the museum stores and providing information directly to the Pacific communities within Sydney.

I understand that logistical difficulties for museums and galleries of going to the community is not always possible due to time restrictions, budget and staffing constraints and general bureaucracy within institutions.  I asked the British Museum if they had consulted with the Pacific community prior to the Oceanic Collection being made available online.   I received a response from Dr Gaye Sculthorpe, Oceanic Curator and Section head articulating that:

“No images are included where items have a particular cultural sensitivity such that public disclosure would not be appropriate. Occasionally an image of an item may be removed if it comes to our attention that an object is not appropriate to have an image shown. As we have collections from such broad regions, there is no specific consultation before putting images on the internet, however, through particular projects we aim to work with communities to not only share information but also so that they can add information to our database”.

So the responsibility is upon us as Pacific Islanders to communicate with Museums and galleries of what is culturally appropriate and what isn’t? So how do we as Pacific Islanders work collectively or individually with such wide and varying cultures, languages, hierarchy systems to help inform Museums that hold Oceanic collections? Where and who does the responsibility lie with?  Is it the responsibility of Pacific artists today, like myself interested in Museology? Where and how do we start to inform and implement ethical practices and processes for Museums and galleries to adhere to starting within Australia?  

Originally I wanted to incorporate the opinions of people from the Pacific to inform my presentation today, but I felt that I can only represent my cultural group within Papua New Guinea, because that’s what I feel most comfortable doing.  To conclude, I ended up attending the Secret Ingiets Exhibition, after much thought and consideration.  I did so because I needed to understand the history and context of these items and how they exist today.  I would not have the conclusions and understandings to share today without attending the symposium and exhibition, thanks to Burrinja Art Gallery and the consultation I initiated with Tolai community.  I’ll leave you with this final excerpt from the online discussion from a Tolai man who also responded to my question;

 “Go enjoy the symposium.  You will gain some idea of our culture and outlook and the privilege of seeing what would not ordinarily be on display or discussed here where the culture is “live”.  Our lips are sealed.”

Boina tuna.

This paper was written and presented as part of the Treasured Objects Panel, Contemporary Pacific Arts Festival Symposium, at Footscray Community Arts Centre 21st March 2014.


The public display of culturally sensitive artefacts pertaining to the Oceanic region by museums and galleries without thorough community consultation has invoked various discussions and reactions within the industry and Pacific community. What seems to be lacking in the public presentation of Pacific cultural artefacts, particularly sensitive or taboo material is a protocol or code of ethics to be adhered to, created in conjunction with a working group or committee of cultural representatives to advise and approve of what can and cannot be displayed, which needs to be implemented not just on a national scale, but a global one.  The roles and responsibilities of museums and galleries who act and operate as keepers of material culture from the Oceanic region is an area I am wanting to engage, discuss and highlight in an open dialogue through this symposium as well as to enhance my current master’s research relating to the contextualisation of Oceanic artefacts held in museums.  I will specifically be examining the positives and negatives of publicly displaying Oceanic objects, virtual and real without thorough community consultation and the impact this has upon the members of the Pacific community (within Australia).   If museums, private collectors, galleries, and other cultural institutions are acting on behalf and representing Oceanic people through the presentation of our material culture publicly, then it needs to be done with adherence to our specific cultural protocols, sensitivities and with respect.

Further Reading

Mana Motu, Issue 01 Contemporary Pacific Arts Symposium 2014.

Secret Ingiets, The Melbourne Review, August 22, 2013.