By Chris Boylan
The National Cultural (Preservation) Act of 1965 was the strongest comprehensive legislation protecting the cultural heritage of Papua New Guinea ever enacted. In the years that followed, staff from the National Museum and Art Gallery of PNG and anthropologists in the field began to document important cultural objects still held by traditional custodians. In 1970-1971 many of these art objects, particularly in the Sepik River region, were declared National Cultural Property and gazetted soon afterwards. Throughout the 1970’s and early 1980’s many more important objects were recommended for declaration through National Museum efforts – in the Sepik principally by Barry Craig – but these were never gazetted. In the years that followed little official attention has been given to these objects; village people were aware of their status but received no further visits from Museum personnel.
In February 2015 I made one of my regular trip to the Sepik River to collect artefacts. During this trip I visited a group of villages in the Lower Sepik River, accompanied by photocopies of the National Cultural Property File given to me by Barry Craig, with the intention of assessing the state of preservation of these objects after a lapse of some 40 years since they had been declared.
In each village, the big men always recognized the objects immediately and were very interested to see the old photos, including images of some custodians who had since passed away, which caused both excitement and a certain sadness.
The results of this brief survey were mixed. Some objects were exactly as seen in 1971, wonderfully preserved and respected as village heirlooms. However some objects had disappeared completely; others had deteriorated due to the forces of the tropical climate, and others had been damaged in various ways.
The villages visited were: Kopar (at the mouth of the Sepik River); Watam; Singarin; Marbuk, and Magendo (above Angoram). I will summarise the results briefly below.
KOPAR: One of the best villages for preservation. The two declared pieces in Kopar – a small figure called “Akenabep”, (1) and an ancient Haus Tambaran figurative ladder called “Sanggir” (2) – in were in good condition, and both carefully looked after. It seems the figure may have been re-painted since 1971, but not recently.
WATAM: The most important figure in the village, a large imposing figure called “Sendam” (3) is now in poor condition. It is the pair to another large and important Watam figure housed in the National Museum of PNG called “Jore”. Unfortunately “Sendam” has badly deteriorated over the last 40 years due to insects, and is now strapped together on a stretcher to keep it intact; sad to see when compared with the strong figure photographed in 1971.
Two other figures, smaller but also old, are no longer in Watam.
One simply disappeared, the other sold to a white artifact dealer (named). The two garamut drums are well preserved, under the eaves of the Spirit House.
SINGARIN: The large garamut drum, ancient when photographed in 1971, is now without its two finials.(4b) They were cut off by “local buyers” (un-named) 20 to 25 years ago when the owner was away from the village. Another small old figure, “Aken” (4), has been well preserved.
MARBUK: the sole declared objects were a group of ancient figurative ritual spears, (5a), intricately carved. They are no longer in Marbuk village, but were taken by Ainindi, a big man of Karau village, for safekeeping when the Marbuk Haus Tambaran collapsed in 1989. They can return when Marbuk rebuilds their Spirit House.
MAGENDO: Two garamut drums and a large figure were declared in Magendo. One garamut has gone, sold to a “local buyer” (named). The other is in a deteriorated condition, more weathered and suffering damage caused by machetes. The 1.86 m high figure called “Ambakapa“(6) (6a), however, is a disaster. Photographed in 1971, it had lost a foot and part leg, but otherwise in reasonable condition. I saw this piece around 2000, and it was still in a similar condition, if a little deteriorated. By 2015, however, it was in many pieces, chopped about and the face badly disfigured.
To sum up, some village people are assiduous in caring for their objects, in fact most. The unfortunate examples of the garamut drum losing its finials, and the large Magendo figure, were damaged when the owners/custodians were not present.
Ideally these pieces should be in museum-like conditions, which means Port Moresby as there are no regional museums of consequence. For example, the two large important Watam figures, “Jore” and “Sedam”, would have been incredibly powerful together in the National Museum. And it is not too late.
Acquisition of these culturally important objects is not an easy process, as the people are generally unwilling to give up these objects, and would most probably want substantial payment. These objects are important heirlooms for these villages, are considered powerful, and greatly respected and cared for by the big men. They see themselves as custodians of the pieces, to pass them on to the next generation. But in some cases – for example the large figure of “Sendam” in Watam village, preservation should be the priority. Within 20 years it will be gone.