The museum researcher giving indigenous objects a voice of their own

Erna Lilje looks at the material culture of her maternal homeland, Papua New Guinea (PNG). She argues that, to tell the unabridged stories of indigenous artefacts in museums, we need to think more deeply about where things come from and who made them.

Erna Lilje with her exhibition ‘Swish’ at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (Nick Saffell)

When I was 18 I drew up a five-year-plan. It was an experiment that seemed sensible at the time but I never kept to it. My interests, and the opportunities that have arisen along the way, have taken me in unexpected directions — from art to biological sciences to archaeology — none of it really pre-planned.

I carry out my fieldwork in Papua New Guinea (PNG). My mum, who lives in Australia, usually comes with me. She grew up in PNG and, like many Papuans, speaks four of PNG’s more than 800 living languages. When I began my research into PNG’s material culture she, and my aunt who lives there, were a huge help in making local connections, and especially with finding local craftspeople.

Pandanus skirt making, Babagarubu village, Central Province, PNG, 2017 (Erna Lilje)

Courtesies are so important. My mum and aunt provided guidance about customary courtesies that I would otherwise not have known. For example, the kinds of things to take to a village you are visiting — rice, tinned beef and fish — or walking around the backs of people gathered to share a meal or have a meeting, rather than cutting through the centre. It’s as basic as knowing not to blow your nose on a tablecloth.

My parents made a big effort to introduce me and my sister to their cultures. My dad is German. We spent time living and attending school in Germany and PNG as we were growing up. I observed the differences and similarities between Christmas in the two countries, and how in both cases people were melded by special occasions.

Culturally, I feel Australian. I was brought up in what was a new suburb of Sydney. It was a bit of a monoculture and we stood out. Once I started university my friends, and the people around me, were much more diverse. Australia is a land of many migrants. At home our meals spanned continents — we had steamed bananas and coconut milk one day and bratwurst with sauerkraut the next.

I’m a research associate at Cambridge’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (MAA). For the past two years I’ve been part of a team working on the Pacific Presences Project led by museum director, Nicholas Thomas. The MAA has an outstanding collection of material from the Pacific, much of it brought to Cambridge by significant early anthropologists.

My undergraduate degree was in visual arts. I’d always loved museums and my work as an artist played with the idea of framing and exhibiting objects. I created mock museum displays of objects that I’d made and labelled with pseudo-scientific names, such as, spoons with eyelashes, hinged beetle wings and miniature sheep pinned like insects.

My work was gently subversive. I was drawing attention to the frames and devices used to create the voice of authority. I went on to work for about seven years in scientific support roles before deciding to do an MA in museum studies, followed by a PhD.

Museums often tell us about the collectors or collecting cultures. The sources that are used are all produced by the collecting culture — the museum’s documentation, archival material, ethnographies and so on. In most cases, the only historical source produced by people of the collected culture are the artefacts themselves.

Objects themselves have no voice. They are part of a material record that has to be interpreted. The aim of my work is to develop and demonstrate good ways for doing this. My research aims to elicit, from museum collections, historical indigenous experiences of social change and throw fresh light on what Nicholas Thomas has called the ‘entangled histories’ of objects.

Pandanus skirt making, Babagarubu village, Central Province, PNG, 2017 (Erna Lilje)

Making and crafting is a key aspect of my research in PNG. I learn about things by organising tutorials for myself in activities such as the making of fibre skirts. Handling materials and chatting to makers opens a window into the steps of production — from growing the plant to the techniques used to make finished items. You learn things that you can’t get by looking at finished objects in museum collections.

A fibre skirt that has been in a box for a hundred years can look quite unappealing. When they’re worn, fibre skirts swish and complement the movements of the wearer. They’re beautiful. Amazingly, 1,600 people have downloaded my PhD thesis on fibre skirts. That’s a stunning number and I think, at least in part, it reflects the interest in an iconic item from the world-wide PNG diaspora.

Recently I’ve been looking at men’s bark belts from the Gulf of Papua. Fibre skirts are still produced and worn for dancing on special occasions but men’s bark belts haven’t been worn since around the 1930s. At the age of around 12, groups of boys would enter seclusion. After several months they would emerge and their new status would be signalled by new clothes, including belts made from bark.

Belts were worn tight to create narrow waists. The missionary Henry Moore Dauncey wrote about the “Papuan dandy”, and that the “tight-lacing he subjects himself to may be bearable while he is promenading about, but I have seen him suffer agony from it while trying to row in a boat”.

The cinch-waisted male silhouette can be seen in historic photos. The belts provide a contrast to the skirts. Belts were abandoned but the skirts continued to be used. At the moment I’m considering how shifting ideas about masculinity may be part of this story.

Material culture is in a state of constant flux. It’s easy to think of traditional things, including clothing and decoration, as frozen in time. This view causes us to see any change as a loss of authenticity. Actually, living traditions are constantly reinterpreted over time.

Welcoming dance, Babagarubu village, Central Province, PNG, 2017 (Erna Lilje)

The use of plastic for making fibre skirts is a case in point. Fibre skirts are traditionally made from a variety of plant sources. In one of the villages covered by my fieldwork women and girls used to make their skirts from natural fibre but now they’ve combined it with fibres pulled from plastic sacking.

These skirts are red and look spectacular. They represent the latest chapter in a continuing story. Worn for dancing, they can be swished in a way that’s similar to skirts made from plant fibres. I think of it as a riff on a theme. A red skirt made with plastic takes pride of place in my current mini-exhibition, Swish, at the MAA.

We need to think about where things come from. Museums were definitely complicit in Britain’s imperial past. Each object has a different backstory, not all of them negative. Some were gifts to people such as missionaries, others were purchased with the idea of creating a collection ‘before they disappear’.

Awareness of cultural disruption is nothing new. British administrators in PNG in the late 19th century understood that their presence would have an effect on local populations, namely the disruption of peoples’ ways of life and, as they would see it, the loss of authenticity that would inevitably follow the presence of foreign people and trade goods. Their collections were prompted by an urgency to make a lasting record of material cultures seen to be under threat.

This profile is part of our This Cambridge Life series.

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