By Barry Craig, Ron Vanderwal and Christine Winter, Museum Victoria, Melbourne, 281 pp.
Review by Peter McCabe
“Me been talk with you now, now you give three good feller cheers belongina new feller master. NO MORE ‘UM KAISER – GOD SAVE ‘UM KING”. And with that the locals of Rabaul found out they were under Australian rule in September 1914. The Germans had claimed the northeastern part of the island of New Guinea (Kaiser Wilhelmsland) and the islands of New Britain (Neu Pommern) and New Ireland (Neu Mecklenburg) since 1884 but with the outbreak of the WWI the British Empire saw their presence in New Guinea as a regional threat to Australia and the South Pacific. Australia’s military soon occupied the former German colony. This book illustrates and documents the items that were collected by the Australian soldiers and government officials as they began to establish control of the native population in the years between 1915 and 1920. These items that now form the War Museum Collection in the Museum Victoria.
As Barry Crag writes in the book , “Things held in museum collections are not dead…Things have a life as long as they exist…In other words, things have a biography”. A major aim of the book is to tell those biographies – a job that has taken a large amount of research given that many items were mislabelled or had no accompanying documentation at all. Barry Craig’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the cultures of the region reveals the origin and context of the items as well as their history of collection.
The first two chapters of the book give a very interesting and comprehensive history of the War Museum Collection and the occupation of German New Guinea. Some of that story is quite unsettling. For example, according to one expedition report, on approaching Jambon, in the Upper Sepik River, they opened fire with a machine gun “to cover the advancing party”, only to find :”The village was deserted as by magic”. After stripping the men’s house of “weird objects” and “rude gods” they torched the village and left with their booty “brought aboard and safely stowed away to be sent to the War Museum”.
Most of the book, however, consists of chapters by Barry Craig on the collections from the Sepik region, Morobe, the Bismark Archipelago and Bougainville. These chapters make for fascinating reading as the provenance, meaning and use of items are discussed in detail. It is a treasure trove of information for anyone interested in New Guinea art and culture. Although many of the items could rightly be exhibited in any international art gallery, other items are of a more mundane nature but are of ethnographic interest. All get equal treatment. I was particularly impressed with some of the magnificent New Ireland malangan and Sepik figures. Many of the items, such as the wonderful Markham Valley tapa hats, are ones not commonly illustrated in previous publications.
The book has over 340 illustrations that are mostly in colour. The photographs of items in the War Museum collection are augmented by field photos: some from the first half of the 20th century and others from Barry Craig’s early career in New Guinea. There are also copies of some of the correspondence related to the collection: they make for interesting reading.
Australia’s museums house some of the most important New Guinea collections in the world but, as Jim Specht notes in his Foreword to the book, outside of the OAS, the National Gallery of Australia and the Art Gallery of NSW, there have been few publications and “State museums have failed to publish anything noteworthy- until now”. Let’s hope that this book sets a new trend – we need to let the rest of the world know how great our collections are.
“War Trophies or Curios? is an invaluable reference for anyone interested in New Guinea art, culture or history – make sure you have a copy on your bookshelf or coffee table.