Accepted Paper:

Gifting, Barter, and Auctions: Currencies in the Biography of a 19th Century Ethnographic Collection from Papua New Guinea  


Robin Torrence (Australian Museum)

Paper short abstract:

Between 1888-1898 Sir William MacGregor orchestrated the collection of over 15,000 cultural objects from British New Guinea. Tracing their biographies from villages into museums highlights the variety of social and economic currencies that underpin current ethnographic collections.

Paper long abstract:

In the decade 1888-1898 Sir William MacGregor, Administrator and later Governor, orchestrated the collection of over 15,000 cultural objects from British New Guinea. A significant proportion can now be traced to ethnographic collections widely dispersed throughout the former British Empire. Constructing a biography for the items exchanged multiple times as they moved from their original owners to the museums where they are now held highlights how mostly ordinary, everyday items became currencies within a wide range of social and economic contexts.

Within cross-cultural interactions within British New Guinea objects were gifted, bartered, and stolen. Once transferred into a Western economic setting, the material was further gifted strategically, exchanged as 'duplicates,' and sold in commercial contexts both by individuals and institutions. The management practices of the multiple museums enmeshed in this century-long networked biography reveal differing attitudes toward ethnography including cultural object, art, or specimen.

The wide variety of ways that ethnographic collections were used as currency to sustain cultural values, strengthen personal ties, re-enforce self-identity and support nation building are also highlighted within the biography of the MacGregor field collection.

Panel P100
Collections as Currency? Objects, Exchange, Values and Institutions