Ethnographic Notebooks, British Museum Melanesia Project
About : A few weeks ago I was privileged to take part in a project which brought Porer and Pinbin, two Negkini speaking people from Reite (a village on the Rai Coast of Papua New Guinea) to the British Museum’s Ethnography Dept. They were with Dr James Leach (Head of Anthropology at the University of Aberdeen) who has done extensive field work in their village over the past 15 years, and who hosted their visit to the UK this summer. Their visit to the BM was to take part in the latest stage of the Melanesia Project, a project bringing indigenous people from Papua New Guinea, The Solomon Islands and Vanuatu to look at and discuss objects in the collection to increase understanding of their social, cultural and spiritual significance, as well as details of what they are made of, how they are made and by whom.
The Melanesia Project explores the relationships between a wide range of indigenous art and artefact forms, socially-significant narratives, and the indigenous communities from which historic collections of Melanesian art derive. Focusing on the important but largely unstudied Melanesian collections in the British Museum, this project aims to bring new perspectives to both the study of indigenous art, and the understanding of ownership, heritage, and relations between museums and communities.
James and I had discussed meeting up during the project sometime before and then I had suggested using Diffusion Notebooks to create documentation of the process that could be easily shared with Porer and Pinbin’s own community (who enjoy a subsistence lifestyle in the Papua New Guinean rainforest without electricity or many of the communication technologies we take for granted). Our colleagues at the BM, Lissant Bolton (Head of Oceania Section) and Liz Bonshek (Research Associate) agreed, and I was invited to come in and observe and assist with the process.
It was a remarkable opportunity to see how people from a very different culture and civilisation respond to objects collected up to 170 years ago from their locality – how their relation to the objects was one rooted in the materials and the craft with which they were made. It was impressive to see the depth of tactile knowledge Porer and Pinbin have in their hands, how the act of touching was fundamental to their process of recognition of the plants and other materials used in making the objects as well as how they would have been made, as though the touching of the objects conducted a current to complete a circuit of memory.
Several of the notebooks of their observations of the objects made during the week are here to download, print out and make up. The notebooks, written in both English and Tok Pisin (the lingua franca of PNG) by James, have images of the objects as well as the people in the discussions, taken with digital cameras and printed out using a Polaroid PoGo printer (the sticky-backed prints placed directly into the notebooks). The notebooks were then taken apart and scanned in as flat A4 sheets to become Shareable PDf files. This enabled us to transform unique hand-written notebooks into digital publications that can be printed out, made up and shared as often as necessary. It was also an opportunity to give physical records to Porer and Pinbin that they could return to their village with and share their experiences and what they interacted with with their own community – making tangible some of the experiences that would be almost unimaginable and very difficult to communicate to people whose lives are lived within an entirely different relationship to the environment around them.