Leading Museums, Museum Leaders

Papuan artefacts, museums & partnerships

Frank Hurley, Allan Riverstone McCulloch surrounded by souvenirs, Papua New Guinea (1922). National Library of Australia, nla.obj-151336179.

Hamish McDonald, Should the Australian Museum return Papuan artefacts?, The Monthly, November 2022

The call for the return of sacred objects stolen from Papua by Frank Hurley poses uncomfortable questions for Australia’s museums

The village of Usakof sits on an elevated bank of hard clay amid the vast reaches of water, reed beds, mudflats and wooded shores that make up Lake Murray, one of the most inaccessible places in Papua New Guinea.

A century ago, in November 1922, photographer Frank Hurley and Allan McCulloch, an expert on fish and insects at the Australian Museum in Sydney, ventured to the same lake. It was only the fourth time on record that white men had gone there, the first group having visited just nine years earlier. For some villagers it was their first contact with these strange outsiders.

Hurley was already famous from documenting the Shackleton expedition to the Antarctic and for his war pictures from the Western Front, and had been to Papua before, in 1920–21 under the auspices of the Anglican Board of Mission. As well as a treasure house of black-and-white stills, he had footage and sound recordings that he was shaping into a silent movie titled Pearls and Savages. But he felt it needed more “savagery” – specifically, visuals of headhunting, cannibalism and strange rituals.

So, with sponsorship from the Hordern department store family and the racy Sydney newspaper The Sun, and with the imprimatur of the Australian Museum, Hurley was venturing into the far reaches of Australia’s territory of Papua.

After taking their ketch Eureka up the Fly, Strickland and Herbert rivers to reach Lake Murray, Hurley and McCulloch went ashore, guarded by four crew members armed with pistols and rifles. They were not deterred by a skull and arrows placed on their path as a warning. They replaced them with “peace offerings” of cloth and empty tins, and went inland. In a village on a rise above the lake, which was undoubtedly Usakof, they found no one around and entered a ceremonial longhouse in search of “ethnological” specimens. Via the Eureka’s radio, Hurley reported on their find for The Sun:

“In the cause of Science, McCulloch allows that even unfair exchange is no robbery; so we collected and exchanged to the great advantage of the owners and to our complete satisfaction. Skulls, human bits, and tit-bits filled our bone-bag; whilst axes, knives, and fabrics were substituted … Human heads! Stuffed heads! … Had we raided a bank and carried off the bullion we could scarcely have been more pleased with such desirable objects.”

A week after getting there, a group of local men ventured out to the Eureka in their long dugout canoes. Some climbed on board, and were shown its marvels of equipment and machines. They tasted salt and sugar. Hurley persuaded one striking-looking warrior-chief named Muji to sit for a photograph, one of the fine portraits that are perhaps his best legacy from his Papuan expeditions.

Usakof is still difficult or expensive to visit. Indeed the entire Western Province surrounding it, the most expansive in the country, is ignored in Lonely Planet’s guide to Papua New Guinea.

I reached it after five days aboard the MV Kuku, built in Adelaide in 1953 and now operated by North Fly Rubber Ltd, a cooperative founded by Warren Dutton, who came to the region as a patrol officer in 1963 and has stayed on running a guesthouse and businesses with his wife, Joy. The 166-tonne ship plies the rivers of the province, the crew paying cash to smallholder rubber-tappers and bringing their blocks of hardened latex back for processing at the co-op’s factory in the town of Kiunga.

My journey on the Kuku went for some 370 kilometres along the twisting Fly River from Kiunga, as the ship unloaded building materials at small settlements, then up the Strickland River, along which we stopped to pick up rubber from canoes and fibreglass dinghies.

On the fourth day the skipper, Stonewig Ame, steered the Kuku northwards into the Herbert River, while anxiously watching the depth sounder. As we reached the southern entrance to Lake Murray, surrounded by mudflats where there is normally water, he declared it too risky to go further and nosed the Kuku into the bank.

With mobile coverage from a tower in nearby Miwa village, the word went out that tappers would have to bring their rubber down to the Kuku in their own boats. By afternoon a swarm of canoes surrounded the ship, with its derrick lifting the rubber blocks in rope slings into the hold, which soon emanated a sour smell somewhat like vinegar or fish sauce.

Among the rubber sellers was Samson Doa from Usakof. North Fly Rubber’s local agent, Clarence Jambura, was also there, and he turned out to be from the Kuni language group, which includes the Usakof people. The next morning, Jambura took me to Usakof in his motorised dinghy, a trip of about 90 minutes.

Doa was waiting on the shore, and took me through the village of elevated timber-and-thatch cottages to the longhouse, where more than 100 men were gathered. It was a Sunday, and across a grassy square with football posts, the village’s five churches of various denominations were starting to ring bells and strike wooden gongs. But they were ignored by the village elders.

Inside the longhouse, with Doa translating from Kuni and Tok Pisin, Usakof’s senior men asked me about my purpose. I explained that the centenary of the Hurley-McCulloch expedition was coming up, and I wanted to know their collective memory of it.

I had some of Hurley’s photographs on my mobile phone, including a famous one of McCulloch sitting among collected skulls and artefacts from the expedition, and showed them around. Some they had already seen: Sydney lawyer and author Tim Griffiths had visited Usakof during his research for a novel about Hurley.

Unanimously, they wanted the objects that Hurley and McCulloch had stolen to be returned to Usakof. “Those things are still powerful,” said Amsida Dili.

Could these items hurt people? “Yes.” Can they save people? “Yes.”

Not only that, many said that Muji, the warrior-chief whom Hurley had photographed, had disappeared when the Eureka left the lake. They wanted him accounted for. “Frank Hurley took Muji, and all those powerful things,” said one man. “We are looking for him. How can we get our powerful things back? We are looking: maybe he had children, grandchildren in Sydney.”

“Before, our grandfathers were relying on these things,” said Akana Malo. “Then the white men came and took these things from us, along with the chief, Muji. They were our belief, until we were civilised, until the missionaries – from them we knew God and we started worshipping. Those things were powerful, and today these things are still powerful. Our grandfathers were fighting with six other tribes, and they were using these powerful things. Frank Hurley came in the middle of a fight. Our people were not very strong after that.”

Adrian Umaka, who told me he was a great-grandson of Muji, is a pastor with one of the churches in the village and is translating the Bible into Kuni. He also thinks the objects have power. “There are two special things, a jawbone and a skull,” he said. “They can talk, they can tell. They can make the enemy weak. They can tell us when they come.”

On their return to Port Moresby before heading home, Hurley and McCulloch ran into problems with their haul collected from Lake Murray and other places along the Gulf of Papua. They found a complaint of “unethical collecting” registered against them by the magistrate in Daru, the government station at the mouth of the Fly River. Their collection was impounded pending an inquiry. Hubert Murray, the still-revered lieutenant-governor of Papua from 1908 until his death in 1940, was highly protective of the indigenous people.

Allegations that Papuans had been forced to hand over items at gunpoint were deemed untrue, and it was accepted that some had been traded for modern utensils. However, Hurley and McCulloch were found at fault in a visit to the village of Kaimari, located on the Purari River estuary in Gulf Province, before they entered Lake Murray. After taking magnificent pictures of warriors sitting at the entrance to a cathedral-like longhouse hung with carved and painted story-boards depicting ancestor stories, the pair had sneaked into the longhouse while Kaimari’s men were away at a mourning ceremony. Penetrating its holy of holies, Hurley and McCulloch moved a screen to find crocodile-like monster figures woven from cane strips. Hurley used a flash to take pictures. Beneath the figures were several bullroarers: small boards whirled at the end of strings that made an ominous sound striking fear of the monster-god into the villagers. The pair helped themselves to some of these bullroarers. Then, with the men returning, they replaced the screen and retreated, setting off firecrackers to cause confusion.

In The Sun and in letters to the prime minister, Billy Hughes, and other ministers, Hurley railed against what he claimed was unfair and hypocritical treatment by the administration of Papua. Confiscation and return of a story-board and several bullroarers to Kaimari eventually resolved the dispute. The rest of the collection, taken from Usakof and elsewhere, was released and deposited with the Australian Museum in Sydney. Nothing else was returned.

As for the fate of Muji, there is nothing in the diaries of Hurley or McCulloch, or records of the Papuan administration, to suggest he might have been taken away on the Eureka. It seems likely to remain a mystery for Usakof’s people.

Hurley’s career then entered a somewhat vaudevillian period. He took his Pearls and Savages documentary around Australia and the United States, reviving interest by renaming the film With the Headhunters of Unknown Papua and then as The Lost Tribe, postulating that the “Hebraic” faces of the people in Lake Murray indicated a lost tribe of Israel.

In 1926, Hurley secured backers for two feature films. The most successful, Jungle Woman, was an adventure tale set in Papua, in which the white hero – sick and lost after escaping from headhunters – is nursed back to health by a devoted Papuan girl. She was played by a white actor, Grace Savieri, assuming a cuirass-like brassiere rather than the bare-breasted local mode of that time. Even this garment could not dispel official unease about exposure of a white female body before “the natives”, and Hurley was in great disfavour in Port Moresby after the rancorous exchange about collected artefacts. He was refused permission to film in Papua, so he moved location to Thursday Island, and to nearby Merauke in what was then Dutch New Guinea. (Audiences were spared the scandal of an interracial marriage: the Papuan girl dies from a snake bite; the hero reunites with his rescued white sweetheart.)

With his directing career failing to take off, Hurley then worked as cinematographer for others, until World War Two saw him return as an official war photographer in the Middle East. He died in Sydney in 1962, aged 77.

For Hurley, the controversy about unethical collecting was “water off a duck’s back”, says writer Tim Griffiths, who researched the photographer extensively. But Allan McCulloch, who came back from Papua in poor health from dysentery and malaria, felt it deeply. The scientist admitted taking objects without consent, and agreed that where there were exchanges, the presence of armed crew members might have been intimidating. He was the “fall guy”, says Brendan Atkins, author of The Naturalist: The Remarkable Life of Allan Riverstone McCulloch.

In 1924, the museum’s trustees refused to approve McCulloch attending a scientific conference in Hawaii, triggering a mental breakdown. On a year’s leave on half pay, he found another sponsor for an anticipated fisheries symposium to Hawaii the next year. He wrote a far-sighted paper about conserving the Pacific’s fish stocks. But before its delivery, McCulloch’s depression deepened. He wangled papers to buy a pistol, and shot himself. He was only 40.

The Hurley-McCulloch expedition remains a matter of embarrassment to the Australian Museum, custodian of the collected material. “My biography of McCulloch is the book the museum doesn’t want you to read,” Atkins tells me. As well as going into McCulloch’s collecting methods, Atkins argues his mental health was worsened by non-scientists among the museum trustees out to curtail his kind of scientific research in favour of popular exhibits.

Museums in Germany, France and England are now returning artefacts pillaged from former colonial possessions, notably the famous Benin Bronzes of West Africa. In Australia, campaigns have been mounted for the return of Aboriginal artefacts taken by explorers and Aboriginal human remains collected as ethnological specimens by 19th-century scientists, and lodged in museums overseas. Less publicised are the extensive collections of Indigenous and Oceanic artefacts and human remains – mostly in the form of trophy skulls and preserved heads – that are lodged in Australian museums.

As well as the Hurley-McCulloch collection, the Australian Museum holds some 1300 images taken by Hurley in Papua, plus a dazzling assembly of Australasian and Oceanic art assembled from other expeditions, donations and acquisitions.

During his tenure, lieutenant-governor Murray built up what is now called the Official Papuan collection. He ordered his patrol officers to bring back samples offered voluntarily and forbade personal collecting, to record native culture before it was changed by European contact, or the people themselves died out. The collection is now at Canberra’s National Museum of Australia, but has only been exhibited in part from time to time.

The MacGregor Collection, named for an earlier governor when Papua was under British rule, is in the Queensland Museum. Both these collections are now essentially held in trust for the successor state, Papua New Guinea, as both MacGregor and Murray had stipulated.

Has the moment arrived for the Australian Museum to restore the stolen items? And if so, how? If brought back to Usakof, how would they be secured and preserved? Lodge them in Port Moresby at the PNG National Museum and Art Gallery? Or could they be given some special recognition at the Australian Museum?

There are precedents for return. The Australian Museum has been turning over objects to Indigenous Australian communities for nearly 50 years, as well as to New Zealand and Pacific island nations. To commemorate Vanuatu’s independence in 1980, the museum returned a large slit-drum, collected and donated by the Burns Philp trading company in the 1890s.

As for the MacGregor Collection, Australian National University scholar Anna Edmundson has written that the Queensland Museum reached agreement with the then prime minister Michael Somare after PNG’s independence in 1975 to return 60 per cent of it to Port Moresby, retaining the rest as a mark of shared history. These official collections contained very little of the “inalienable patrimony” of Papuan tribes, such as ancestor figures, bullroarers and sacred flutes, which simply would not have been traded at any price. Most items are the everyday weapons and utensils of the time, easily replaceable and not necessarily the result of unequal barter. Papuans and others often astutely traded them to get the manufactured items they wanted.

The Hurley-McCulloch collection seems different. That the administration confiscated and returned two of its sacred bullroarers suggests, in retrospect, the entire collection was understood to be suspect. As Atkins found in a note written by McCulloch to his museum:

“All the time there was the feeling that I was violating the genuine beliefs and fears of a large crowd who would certainly have refused permission to even see these things had it not been for the fear in which white men are held in villages “under control” of the government.”

When repatriations of artefacts do happen, they are mostly to national museums. To send items to an isolated community with buildings primarily made from bush materials and the only electricity from small solar panels would risk their rapid deterioration, or possibly theft and sale on the market for “primitive art”.

In the case of Usakof, one difficulty might be singling out which items Hurley and McCulloch took from its longhouse. The Australian Museum gave Atkins a list of objects from the Hurley-McCulloch expedition. But the list gives only the dates they were consigned to the museum in 1923, not the dates collected, and only the province in which they were found. Possibly, McCulloch left notebooks listing acquisitions as they happened.

Out of the collection’s near 1400 objects, some 845 are listed as coming from Western Province. The vast majority are items of everyday life in those times: bows and arrows, clubs, stone adzes, baskets, fish traps, personal ornaments, drums, flutes, clothing. The items from Gulf Province, by contrast, include numerous story-boards, which would clearly have deep spiritual significance.

But in the list from Western Province are five “human skulls” and one “human cranial”, which could fit with the collective memory in Usakof of what was taken. These human skulls could be the distinctive heads kept at Lake Murray, where the skin and neck are retained, stuffed with clay and plant material. Such “over-model skulls”, as seen in some photographs of McCulloch posing with collected items, were unlikely to have been willingly traded.

The heads do appear to be still in the museum’s possession. In 2015, a group of community leaders from Western Province along with Queensland academics visited the museum’s secure storage and, with correct protocols, saw all the human remains from that region. The Lake Murray heads appeared to be in good condition, more than 90 years after they were taken.

Handling them is a delicate matter. “These objects hold great power to this day, especially for people from those cultures,” says Atkins, who keeps open in his book the idea that in some kind of “karmic trouble” they might have affected McCulloch’s health.

Across Melanesia, from Fiji to Papua New Guinea, fear of sorcery runs deep. People accused of witchcraft, mostly older women, are still being lynched in PNG. Tim Griffiths says he can’t persuade many Papua New Guineans to come with him to the national museum in Port Moresby, for fear they might see or touch some object with bad powers.

Just before I left Usakof with Clarence Jambura in his dinghy, the villagers said they would discuss the options in coming months, but hoped for a resolution soon. These men, in their fifties, said the survivors of their parents’ generation needed to know the fate of the powerful objects before they died. They expressed a wish that the Australian Museum would send some staff to talk to them.

The option that seemed to strike most accord was to bring the objects back to Usakof, to be secured in a small museum. As well as restoring spiritual power, it could be part of an eco-tourism venture, attracting visitors to the beautiful village. The villagers spoke of maybe building a small guesthouse, serving meals of barramundi and other local food, and putting on traditional dress to show off their ceremonies and dances. This way, some more cash could come to a village reliant largely on what its people can grow and catch. They get some money from rubber, vanilla and fish-maw (the swim-bladders of large fish, traded across the Indonesian border for use in traditional Chinese medicine), but are often short with what’s needed for outboard fuel, medicine, mobile phone accounts and schooling.

Some scholars think sacred objects such as the heads have no place in a foreign museum anyway. “The best place for them is to be returned,” one said, asking not to be named. “There’s no point keeping things in storage that can never be displayed, and ethically cannot be used as teaching aids or be researched. So it’s logical that they’re returned to the place where they can be used.”

After I relayed the plea from Usakof’s people, Melissa Malu, the Australian Museum’s manager for Pasifika collections and engagement, said she would discuss it soon with a visiting curator from PNG’s national museum. “That conversation will include what the next steps are,” she said. “It’s not that we don’t want to. It’s just that we want to go about it the right way. We should have some sort of direction by the end of the year. The repatriation of ancestral remains back to their communities of origin is a priority of the Australian Museum.”

Some Pacific specialists I spoke to suggested that the first step should be to compile a list of the items taken from the village and present it in Usakof to start discussions about what should be done, with PNG’s national museum involved. This process could receive Australian and PNG government support as an act of reconciliation and engagement, a legacy of Australia’s United Nations trusteeship in the former territory.

The exercise is fraught with risk, the specialists say, stressing the importance of partnership with the PNG museum and getting a clear wish from the community. The remains have to go to the right owners, to avoid giving spiritual harm or causing dispute. Then, there is the question of preservation: without dehumidifiers and air-conditioning they could rot away in a generation. A recent issue is the entry of new Christian sects to Melanesia, whose converts are encouraged sometimes to destroy customary emblems. And there is a lucrative underground market for rare Oceanic objects.

Jambura took me across the lake for about 40 minutes, to a resort run by Trans Niugini Tours where – by contrast to largely subsistence-level Usakof – anglers pay some $900 a night to fish Lake Murray for its huge Papuan black bass, though some other well-off visitors do come just to see this place of lotus-filled wetlands and rare birds, and meet the local people.

From Lake Murray’s only airfield, a grass strip on Boboa Island near the government station, Trans Niugini Tours founder Bob Bates flew me out in his light aircraft, cruising at eye-level past two extinct volcanoes on the way to Mount Hagen.

Watching the trackless jungle of Western Province pass below, I thought back to the yearning for recognition felt among Usakof’s people, expressed to me in a remark made by Muji’s great-grandson, the local pastor Adrian Umaka: “The world does not know us.”

Hamish McDonald travelled into Lake Murray as a guest of North Fly Rubber aboard the MV Kuku, and left by air courtesy of Trans Niugini Tours.


Council of Australasian Museum Directors c/o Lynley Crosswell, Museums Victoria, GPO Box 666, Melbourne VIC 3001, © CAMD 2023
Disclaimer: The content of this website is provided for information purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for professional advice. No claim is made as to the accuracy or authenticity of the content of the website. The Council of Australasian Museum Directors does not accept any liability to any person for the information or advice (or the use of such information or advice) which is provided on this website. The information on our website is provided on the basis that all persons accessing the site undertake responsibility for assessing the relevance and accuracy of its content. No responsibility is taken for any information or services which may appear on any linked web sites. Hostgator.