I have to admit that, at twenty something years of age, I visited this museum purely because of the macabre nature of some of its exhibits.
The museum was established by JK McCarthy an Australian patrol officer, or kiap, in the 1960s. McCarthy in addition to being a trustee of the museum wrote one of the best books (Patrol into Yesterday) on patrolling in New Guinea, as this northern part of what is now PNG, was called at the time. Papua New Guinea was an Australian colony, in fact its only colony, until it gained independence in 1975 and patrol officers were Australia’s police force or keepers of the peace.
In addition to the mourning necklaces to which I have already alluded and which are more commonly referred to as human finger necklaces, the museum actually has a great collection of PNG Highland musical instruments, clothes, weapons and pottery with perhaps pride of place going to a wonderful collection of photos from the 1930s, many taken by local identity and explorer Mick Leahy. What makes these photographs particularly important and interesting is that they portray the first and early contact between Europeans and Highlanders. Leahy and other early explorers were first assumed to be returning ancestors by the Highland peoples because of their white skin.
Back to the reason I visited the museum – the Anga (a ferocious tribe from the extremely remote mountainous area back from the Gulf of Papua) mourning necklaces of human fingers. One of many rituals among native tribes was a rather macabre one of the Anga people. When relatives died, fingers (varying numbers it appears) were dissected after the bodies had been smoked and worn around the necks of relatives as a sign of mourning. A number of these necklaces can be seen in the museum. Perhaps less macabre than a necklace of ones relatives’ fingers, though equally off putting to me, and I suspect my readers, was the ritual of people amputating their own finger (or fingers) and wearing them on a necklace, again signifying mourning the death of a close relative – perhaps a child.
Today (and probably since the mid 1970s) the Anga people seem to make do with the yellow and whitish clays commonly used to cover exposed skin throughout the country to signify that the adorned is mourning the death of a close relative.
Jan 2018 update – I am delighted to see that Ms Martha Tokuyawa the current Curator of the museum has taken time to comment on this review (see below). Martha has provided the following additional information which is most worthy of inclusion in my otherwise rather modest review:-
“The finger necklaces from a stranger would obviously look gruesome but for a loved one at that time, It was something to be highly valued. This mourning momento was more than just a mourning implement. It also was a tangible aspect of a culture which believed in the protection of a the spirits of the departed loved one.
The anga finger necklaces are part of a collection by an American medical anthropologist Dr. Carleton Gadjusek, who later won a nobel peace prize for his contribution to scientific medical research. One of his achievements was research on the kuru disease which eventually provided needed data and solutions to the mad cow disease which almost affected the beef industry in Europe.”
In addition to a small selection of WWII relics within the museum, outside the museum, mounted on a post is a US Airforce P-39 Aircobra, lost in battle and abandoned at Tadji on 21 May 1945.
The plane (nicknamed Jackie & Norma and San Antonio Rose) had been flown by Lt Charles Borders on 56 missions out of Dobodura, Finschafen, Saidor, Owi and Biak airfields before been transferred to the 110th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron and operated from Tadji Airfield, to the the east of Aitape on the north coast of New Guinea. Tadji airfield, built and used by the Japanese, was captured by the US and Australia in April 1944
In 1967 the plane was salvaged by the Goroka Branch of Air Force Association and put on display at the show grounds in Goroka where it was vandalised. It was ‘salvaged’ again and put into storage until put on display outside this museum in the 1980s.
Well worth a visit for the finger necklaces and much more.
This blog entry is one of a group (loop) of entries based on a couple of years living and working in Papua New Guinea. I suggest you continue with my next entry – Aseki Smoked Bodies – or to start this loop at the beginning go to my introductory entry – Papua New Guinea – Personal Memories.