Interview with Jim Elmslie, at the NGA Myth + Magic Exhibition, Canberra, August 7 2015
JE: How did you get to Cambridge?
AM: I had some good mentors. When I was at UPNG I was told by two ex-Cambridge people, Colin Filer and John Mucki that I should go to Cambridge. One is British and one is Papua New Guinean. Colin Filer is now at the ANU. I was more drawn towards philosophy. Philosophy took up a lot of my passion, and I spent a lot of time in philosophy and at the end of my Honours I found that I needed a job, and I didn’t know where to go and the only place where I thought could combine both philosophy and anthropology was the National Museum (of PNG). Alright anthropology was not sophisticated at UPNG and neither was philosophy. The closest way for me to find some peace with myself was to work at the Museum so that was the choice I made to go and work for the Museum.
JE: When was that?
AM: This was late 1996. So I started working for the museum. My mentor, Colin, told me that Chevron New Guinea was offering a scholarship. They were looking for some scholars to work up in the Southern Highlands as the oil project was gaining momentum and they wanted some Papua New Guinean young people to go up and study and I said, “Can they allow me to go to Sepik or go to Rabaul to do my research?” and they said, “No, you have to go up to the Southern Highlands”. And I said, “Oh no, I think I will pass” and I refused the opportunity and I stayed back. I found two more opportunities that came my way but I couldn’t secure scholarships. One of them was to study philosophy at the University of Warwick in Wales and the other was to study political philosophy at the University of Sussex in England. Both of them fell through because I needed to secure a scholarship. Then I saw a Museum studies option for Masters leading to a Ph.D. in Cambridge, and I applied for that.
JE: So you were working at the Museum?
AM: I was the assistant curator for anthropology between late 1996 and 1998. Then a conference was held in Moresby in 1997 which brought as key note speaker, Marilyn Strathern, who was then Chair of Anthropology at Cambridge. She came and had me in one of those discussions and I made some reflections on our discussions and I captured them and presented it. So she said ‘I want this young man to study with me in Cambridge.’
JE: So you had some group discussions and you summarized them and she was impressed by your scholarship?
AM: Yes. Then she found out that I was working for the museum and said, “Oh, put in an application for the Museum Studies option”, and that’s how I got to Cambridge, with her support. The scholarship came from the Cambridge Commonwealth Trust. Students from around the Commonwealth apply for this.
JE: And you spent how long in Cambridge?
AM: I began my Masters in October 1998 and finished it in September 1999. I went home in 1999 and found that I was accepted into the Ph.D. So I started my Ph.D. in November 1999. I then came back to the village, came back to PNG in March 2000and did field work on the Sepik River from March 2000 until November 2001. I undertook my field work in Kanganaman village in the Middle Sepik. Then I went back to the UK round November 2001 and struggled with my Ph.D. from December 2001 and finished in March 2003.
JE: What did you do once you had finished your doctorate?
AM: I finished my Ph.D. in 2003. I came back and I joined the National Museum again in my job as principal assistant curator, and I got promoted to Curator subsequently. Unfortunately I had to leave this job and return to Cambridge because I won a British Academy Post-doctoral Fellowship. This is a very prestigious award in the British academic establishment and I was privileged to be one of those who received this award in 2004. That led me back to Cambridge to stay for three years. I was just out of Ph.D. filled with all kinds of ideas and I thought I could write three books in three years. I was stupid! I struggled and only wrote only one book successfully that came out two years ago from Oxford University Press.
JE: What was that called?
AM: Names Are Thicker Than Blood.
JE: Right. So your thesis, can you explain what it is about in one or two sentences?
AM: The thesis has the same title as the book, because the Sepik River people are completely preoccupied with the ownership of names, and if you steal peoples’ names they are going to come and fight with you and they are going to force you into a debate and they hope you will relinquish your claim over the name because the ownership of the name is so important, like ownership of waterways and land tracks and special kinds of knowledge, the names of spirits and all kinds of things.
JE: And is the Mai ceremony a major way to transmit ownership of the names?
AM: Mai is a kind of founding ancestor and different clans will have different faces and they will be given personal names and their special names will distinguish them. Say for instance, for my mother’s brother’s people, their Mai will be ‘Walamgambi’ and I can sit here and visualize the mask, ‘Walamgambi’. I think my clan’s name for the mask will be ‘Waskumbooban’ and it is the same clan that owns this mask for several villages. So the learning of the names works through relationships. There are two kinds of names. One comes from your mother’s side and one comes from your father’s side. If you are able to get names from both sides you can become very, very powerful because these names are able to invoke and bring down the power of the spirits behind these names. People of erudition or very high power memories are able to record and capture these names. And these names are actually stories, if you begin to enquire behind these names.
JE: So you received a prestigious scholarship and went to Cambridge came back and did you then work at the Museum again?
AM: No. From Cambridge I couldn’t get the job here in Moresby. Actually I did get a job I should say, it was at the National Research Institute and I was supposed to be in charge of the Social Sciences division at the National Research Institute, but at the same time I got another prestigious fellowship, this time in anthropology. The Royal Anthropological Institute gave me a post-doc – a second post-doc. So I thought, “Man, that is a must”. I negotiated with the NRI to allow me leave, but they said, ‘No, if you don’t come back and get it, refuse this offer’. So I refused this offer from the National Research Institute and went to Ireland for a year and from Ireland I picked up a job in Adelaide. So I went to Adelaide and it was a three year contract from 2009 to 2011. I stayed there until I started getting these strong words from the Museum’s Board of Trustees. They found out that the Museum was going down and down and down and right down into the gutter and they thought they had to look for people who knew that institution and who would have the spirit to try to help them repair it.
Dr. Andrew Moutu was subsequently appointed Director of the National Museum and Art Gallery of Papua New Guinea and remains in that position today.