Jim Elmslie talks with the West Pacific Collection Manager from the Australian Museum about his life and the concept he has developed of museums being a Ples Namel– or middle place, between different peoples, cultures and objects.
JE Michael you have had a long and interesting journey from the highlands of Papua New Guinea to the Australian Museum in Sydney. Can you tell us a little of how this journey unfolded?
MM I really had a great childhood. I am from Mount Hagen, from Wila village, which is just about five kilometers outside of Hagen. From that village came quite a few significant leaders, leaders who were great orators. My father was a great orator and his memory is still crystal clear. He can go back four or five generations and account for everyone. And for every one of them he can name where they come from, who their mother was, who their grandmother was. So his knowledge is immense and I grew up in that kind of connected community. I watched them perform and do a lot of exchange ceremonies.
I was born in 1959 and went to school in the 1960s. During that time there was lots of Australians and missionaries but my parents were dressed in the traditional costumes and we never tasted rice or bread; I grew up on kaukau(sweet potato) pretty much. So I really had a grounding in my community.
We went to school with the Sisters of Mercy, who were very tough, very disciplined, but they did a lot of good and really trained us well. So from growing up in a family that was very much part of a traditional community and then learning writing and arithmetic – they were two very contrasting things as I came to realise later,
Then I went to Fatima High School in Banz. I trained as a teacher. I wanted to become a maths and science teacher, but I ended up being trained for the arts in Goroka Teachers College. I was a teacher of the arts, particularly the performing arts and the visual arts – you covered everything.
My major transition to appreciating my own history and heritage came when I did my Ph.D. I went and taught for a couple of years and then they pulled me back to come and teach the arts in Goroka Teacher’s College. I did that for a couple of years then went for training in Melbourne at the Victorian College of Arts. I trained there for about three years, particularly in drama, Western theatre and Western dance. Eventually I ended up in Adelaide in the early 1990s to do a Diploma in Humanities as a precursor to enrolling in a Masters at Flinders University and eventually a Ph.D. I put in a proposal after one year of wanting to look at my own culture, and my own history and heritage in drama and in theatre and in performance and really looking at how it was in the communities. That was when all the things from my youth started coming back. Then I went home and talked with my father more and learnt a lot more about our history, my heritage, and then brought it into the context of the present day. So Ples Nameland those ideas came very much from that process.
Then I went back to Goroka College and by then it was a university. I spent ten years as a lecturer there, and then I rose through the ranks and eventually I became Deputy Vice-Chancellor for eight years and looked after the academic programme. In the process I came to see that we needed now to reintroduce our own knowledge, our own art, our own languages.
I had done quite a number of performances at the Asia Pacific Triennials in 1993, 1996, and then in 1999. I also did some performances at the ANU, and in Canada and in the UK, basically museums and places where people really wanted to see and engage with what I was developing – with Ples Namel, with history and heritage. So that’s really how I came to bring my past, and the European institutional past, to come together and say, we need to share those stories and we need to connect. Then the job at the Australian Museum came up and I applied and here I am.
JE How do you see the role of the Museum in contemporary society? How do you explain Ples Namel?
MM Ples Namelis really a physical space. It is in most of our communities where it is the community centre. It is the space where community comes to debate, discuss, celebrate, mourn. It was where the community gathered and did all those activities so it’s the physical space where the community feels and sees and recognizes ‘this is where we belong’. In the highlands communities you had a round house at one end and on the sides you had very special plants – casuarina, and other trees from the forest and in the middle would be this long rectangular space where you would line up the pigs when there was a big moka exchange, or a bridal exchange, or a big mourning ceremony. That’s the space that I think is very important. That’s where the community got together and really debated and discussed and felt that they belonged somewhere. So it is that sort of space that I feel is Ples Namel.
In that space the great orators spoke. In Melanesia because we were not a literate society in terms of writing to record history and stories, our capacity to remember, to record if you like, was huge. When the great orators spoke they brought the past into the present through their poetry, through their recitals. Those recitals of people, men and women, their deeds, whether good or bad, the wars, and the events, the activities that happened and things that were done, were recounted through those stories. The past was relayed through those events. Then using the past would provide a navigation through whatever was happening now and would say this is how and why we are like this, and therefore it makes sense for us to do these things. In that sense it really provided a space where the past was made present, and the present itself where you brought warring parties together, communities that needed to feel that they belong to that space.
Now transposing all of that into a space like this (Australian Museum), like a museum, in the way that museums happened – museums as institution started with curiosities, but today you are now dealing with history, you are now dealing with stories that have been brought here, into this institution. The objects don’t necessarily carry the stories. The stories have been either written or remembered and recounted by various means and ways, and they need now to be told and shared and that aspect is very important for Papua New Guineans. If I see an axe, what is it about? And what was it about, made present here in this facility.
What stories do I need to gain out of this in relation to who I am? I think that process is very important and then the collector who brought it here and gave it to the museum, why and how? And the fact that the knowledge and the skill of the Hagen axe is now being slowly, or rapidly forgotten. The fact that there is material culture that is here now, and the stories that go with those objects need to be shown and told to ourselves but also those generations that will come. The fact is that we took different reasons to have an object here, but the stories that come out of that object relate to my own history and heritage, the stories of colonization and what have you, but also the curious object that they found interesting and collected it – these are the stories that need to be told and shared.
Quite often colonization is not a user-friendly subject. In this particular place it is a difficult subject. Sometimes broaching it raises a lot of red herrings and in that sense Ples Namel has to really come out and say “we need to talk and talk frankly without coming to fisticuffs over the legacy of colonization. Those stories need to be brought to the surface. They need to be told. They need to be accepted by all parties, but not forgotten.” The Ples Namelis the Museum – the physical building because this place has got all the stories.
For instance two years ago we had the famous Asaro mudmen – the clay masks that have been created with these weird looking faces with things hanging out of their mouths. We brought them here, we brought the community here because we didn’t have any in our collection. Rather than send someone off to simply collect some masks – we got the mudmen here. So we brought six of them here. There are a number of villages that make them but we went to one particular village near Goroka in the Eastern Highlands, in the Asaro valley, and we said, “Look we would like you to come to the Australian Museum and we would like you to bring your masks and banda and heaps of clay and really interact with us and make the masks and then perform, and then present and leave your stories behind with us”.
When the Asaro men came over they interacted with the public. It was one of the highest attended, in terms of our public engagements, where on the final day of the public engagement there were well over 280 children wanting to come in and make their own figurines. Here you had the mudmen with a whole bunch of clay, and they started to make their figures and the kids were given mud and they started to make their own. That kind of interactivity between different cultures and different communities, suddenly exchanging stories and connecting in a Ples Namel , in a museum like this, that’s the kind of interactivity that really talks about recognition and valuing of culture from a very experiential point of view from an embodied process where you are creating something. That for me is the significant aspect of Ples Namel. It is in the making, in the touching, and Ples Namelprovides that opportunity. That is where these museums are now significant – in bridging cultures. The Asaro men were totally blown away. They went back to their communities and said, “We have seen something important. What we are doing is very important. It is appreciated, it is recognized and it is valued. So we must keep doing it. We must hold on strong, we must maintain the custom whatever happens, and teach our children.”
There are over 60,000 artefacts in the Museum and they all deserve to be given attention, and their stories told in as much we have the time and capacity. Objects provide the trigger but ultimately it is about the people and the stories that the objects represent. Heritage is so important because it gives you a sense of place and purpose and a sense of who you are. I really think that is where the future is.