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Hunting the Gatherers: Ethnographic Collectors, Agents and Agency in Melanesia, 1870s-1930s. (Reviews).

Edited by Michael O'Hanlon and Robert L. Welsch

New York & Oxford: Berghahn

Books. 2000.

Pp. xviii + 286. Illus.

Price: US $69.95 (hardcover), US

$25.00 (paperback).

The ten stories in this book are intriguing, the Introduction by Michael O'Hanlon erudite and the Epilogue by Nicholas Thomas challenging. There are chapters on the collecting activities of Beatrice Blackwood (Chantal Knowles), the Reverend George Brown (Helen Gardner), Sir William MacGregor (Michael Quinnell), Bronislaw Malinowski (Michael Young), Felix Speiser (Christian Kaufmann), and John Todd (Chris Gosden). Other chapters discuss German commercialisation of collecting (Rainer Buschmann), the relation of photography and ethnographic collecting (Elizabeth Edwards), the British Ornithologists' Union Expedition to Dutch New Guinea (Chris Ballard) and the A.B. Lewis and associated collections from the north coast of New Guinea (Robert Welsch).

This book explores 'the detailed processes and transactions' through which certain collections of artefacts came to be in various museums and 'the subsequent museum careers of those collections' (p.1). The stories are exercises in the ethnography of field collecting, providing a more complex human face to what many people consider to be a world of dusty, lifeless objects. Artefacts in museums not only represent the material culture of, and transactional relationships among, the peoples from whom they were obtained. They also represent relationships between those peoples and the collectors, between collectors and museums, and between museums and their public. Outside their original cultural context, on the one hand they have a scientific, educative function and on the other they reflect the political, economic and administrative processes that characterised the European colonisation of tribal peoples.

Despite my fascination with these stories, I became increasingly troubled as I read through the book. Then I got to the Epilogue and found that Nicholas Thomas was having similar concerns. I was not troubled by matters of scholarship -- the authors are all respected scholars and deservedly so. I was not bored with the material -- as a museum anthropologist, I enjoyed the detective work and the 'behind the scenes' stories. My own career is implicated. As they say, the book is 'right up my alley'. So what was troubling me?

There's nothing like a stint of fieldwork to give another perspective to things. I was in New Ireland and West Sepik Provinces of Papua New Guinea during April-June of this year. Everywhere I went there was a hunger for 'culture'; I had a sense of Papua New Guineans mourning the loss of their old ways and of dissatisfaction with what has come to replace those old ways. People asked me to send copies of old photos, photos of old objects, copies of books and papers about their culture. Schoolteachers pleaded for copies of anything at all about the cultures of Papua New Guinea.

It led me to ask: does this book under review meet any of those needs? No it doesn't. It is addressed to the metropolitan museum and its circle of historians, anthropologists, archaeologists and curators. Which is fine as far as it goes. However, for Melanesians, few of whom have learnt English as their first language, the text in this book would be, in some places, unnecessarily impenetrable. Melanesians are increasingly aware of the publication of material relating to their cultures and scholars should try to write in a way that reveals rather than obscures.

In the Epilogue, Thomas raises the thorny issue of repatriation of cultural material (the chapter by Quinnell on MacGregor describes a major repatriation project) but villagers in Papua New Guinea are not concerned about repatriation, because that would at best bring the objects to Port Moresby -- closer, but not close enough to be of any use to them. What they want is information, photographic and textual, to serve as a basis for rebuilding or recreating their culture, using their attenuated memory and active imagination as the mortar and what remains of their social system as the framework.

Thomas asks (p.276), 'How can and how should the knowledge we are piecing together about the acquisitions of things enter into the framing of exhibitions and the contextualisation of specific works within them?' He poses this question not only as a problem of representation of indigenous cultures to Western, metropolitan audiences, but as a problem in the context of increasing recognition of indigenous rights to be involved in this representation process. He warns (p.277), 'the burdening of a thing with a detailed story about the dealings between an anthropologist or missionary and a tradestore owner may not help. It may instead... shift the emphasis away from indigenous producers to European agency.' He leaves us with the paradox that 'the narratives of colonisers and colonised are linked but not shared' and poses the question of how this paradox can be negotiated by museum curators. I believe it can be done but it would involve a considerable amount of interaction between metropolitan museums, indigenous mu seums and people from those groups represented by collections. However, this would cost money and no source of funding readily springs to mind.

Having said all that, I must advise, that for those at whom it is aimed, this book is essential reading, if somewhat expensive.
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Author:Craig, Barry
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 2002
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