Lecture by Dr. Ross Bowden, November 15, 2014
Ross Bowden, DPhil (Oxford), taught anthropology at La Trobe University, Melbourne, from 1979 to 1999 and was then a visiting research associate for ten years. He is now an independent scholar. Ross joined the Melbourne Savage Club to help curate its collection of Aboriginal and Oceanic art particularly the Sepik River art. His latest book, Creative Spirits (2006), is a study of Kwoma bark painting.
The Melbourne Savage Club owns an important collection of Oceanic and Aboriginal art. This lecture presented an illustrated overview of the collection. The Melbourne Savage Club was established in 1894 as a meeting place for men in the arts, especially music.
The fact that the Club has an ethnographic collection at all appears to be an historical accident. It has never been publicly exhibited, mostly never been published and includes ethnographic objects of the highest quality and rarity. Some tourist items have been added in recent years.
Since most of the documentation relating to the origins was either discarded or stolen it is impossible to determine the origin of many individual objects. However, four major sources of the collection are discernible:
- Donations by members during the first decade or so of the Club’s existence, especially of 19th century Aboriginal and Fijian pieces.
- A swap in 1906 with the Museum of Victoria when Baldwin Spencer was the Director.
- Objects collected by Andrew Goldie in the late 19th century in the Papuan Gulf area.
- Objects from northern Papua New Guinea, especially the Sepik, donated in 1938-39 by General Alexander Wisdom, Administrator of the Trust Territory of New Guinea from 1921-33.
Among the very few documents remaining is a lined school exercise book listing donations at the beginning of the 20th century that include Australian artefacts and photographs of Aboriginal peoples from Western Australia. The fine collection of Fijian artefacts probably derives from Club members who, or whose families, took part in the sugar-growing land-boom in Fiji in the 1870s, and had returned to Melbourne by the 1890s. (Thanks to OAS member Fergus Clunie for this information.)
An important source of both Aboriginal and Oceanic items was the zoologist and ethnographer Sir Walter Baldwin Spencer (1860-1929). In 1906 Spencer, then Director of the Museum of Victoria (now Museum Victoria), swapped approximately 100 objects from the museum’s collection for the Club’s Niue Island outrigger canoe which is currently on display, hanging from the ceiling, in the Museum’s Pacifica gallery.
Baldwin Spencer is one of the towering figures in the history of both Australian and world anthropology. Born in Lancashire, U.K., he was educated at Cambridge and appointed to the Chair in Biology at Melbourne University in 1886. His professional involvement in anthropology began in 1994 when he served as the biologist and photographer on the Horn Expedition to Central Australia, a privately funded scientific expedition designed to document the fauna, flora and peoples of Central Australia. During this expedition Spencer met F.J. Gillen, the Alice Springs postmaster, and later co-authored with him some of the most influential texts in the history of anthropology, such as The Native Tribes of Central Australia (1896). The latter had a major influence on the development of theories of religion through its use by the great pioneering French social theorist Emile Durkheim in his book The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1915).
Spencer was appointed honorary director of the Museum of Victoria in 1899. He donated his personal collection of Aboriginal art and ethnographic photographs to the Museum in 1917. Among the objects the Club acquired from Spencer are superb examples of Queensland sword clubs, and Rainforest shields from the Tully River area, objects that were already old when they were collected in the field in 1890s.
A significant part of the Club’s collection consists of Papuan Gulf art and artefacts almost certainly obtained in the field by Andrew Goldie and his associates between 1876 and 1890 (when Goldie left PNG and returned to Scotland). How the Club acquired these objects is a complete mystery. Goldie was a storekeeper in Port Moresby and the most important of the early collectors of Papuan Gulf art and material culture. In 2012 the Queensland Museum published a major catalogue of its ethnographic and other materials deriving from Goldie, entitled Andrew Goldie in New Guinea, 1875-79.
Among the Club’s artefacts, unquestionably of Goldie origin is a bead belt with an old label attached that reads ‘Plaited girdle, New Guinea, got from A Goldie’. Others include a superb group of men’s incised bark belts identical in form and age to pieces illustrated in the Queensland Museum catalogue.
The largest single part of the Club’s Oceanic collection consists of objects donated in 1938-39 by the First World War (Australian Imperial Force) brigadier-general Evan Alexander Wisdom (1869-1945). Born in Scotland, Wisdom was appointed Administrator of the Territory of New Guinea in 1921 and given the job of converting the military administration, established when Australia seized the territory from Germany at the beginning of the First World War, into a civilian one. He was administrator from 1921-33. Wisdom was a Club member when he made his gift.
Among the objects are two superb examples of fighting sticks from the Iatmul language group in the Middle Sepik. These consist of 2-metre long black palm sticks with basketry guards around the handles at one end. Such items are found in many collections internationally but they are often identified, mistakenly, as fishing implements. In fact, they are weapons which men in Iatmul-speaking villages used to joust with other members of their own communities when major disputes could not be resolved by other means, such as by the payment of compensation. The woven guards were intended to prevent the disputants’ hand-bones from being shattered during the fighting.
One of its most admired pieces is a stone axe acquired in the Mt. Hagen area by the legendary gold-prospector and explorer Michael J Leahy when he made his famous expedition into the Highlands of New Guinea in 1933. This revealed that the region was home to the most densely settled and numerous peoples in the whole of Melanesia. The axe was donated by Mick Leahy’s brother Jim – see photo.
Amongst a number of unidentified objects are a 19 century pair of dance paddles from Western Polynesia. The lecture concluded with a video of member Peter Jones playing the Club’s New Ireland friction drum.