Accepted Paper:

Viewing Landscape and Livelihoods: Some Ecological Affordances of Material Culture  


Stefanie Belharte

Paper short abstract:

Ethnographic collections, particularly when originating from subsistence economies, can provide a window onto human-environment relations. Here, I will specifically illustrate the embodiment of landscape and livelihoods in artefacts with an example from Papua New Guinea.

Paper long abstract:

The holdings of ethnographic museums abound with objects produced in subsistence economies - that is, they would by and large have been made from craft materials sourced locally. Embodying local environments, they can serve as a lens through which to regard multiple dimensions of their makers' human-environment relations, ranging from subsistence practices to life worlds. Here, I specifically focus on land use, as manifested in landscape and livelihoods, and its change over time. For illustration, I rely on my own ethnographic collection and field research from the far northwest of Papua New Guinea. There, land use has revolved around small-scale swiddening since time immemorial. Yet the intensity of swiddening has shifted over the last few generations - from the sporadic cultivation of long-lived perennials coupled with extensive hunting and gathering around the time of contact, towards more intensive cropping of both annuals and perennials at the turn of the millennium. This shift can be traced in the artefact collection and its accompanying documentation. Overall, object types and craft materials associated with oldgrowth forest and the respective activities have lessened in their importance for daily life, while those associated with cultivation and regrowth have increased. This evidence confirms, corroborates, and details more general conclusions reached through long-term field research and archival study. It takes its potency from meticulous documentation; ethnobotanical interest; collection-driven elicitation; and the local desire to contribute heritage objects. Without such assets, existing collections might yet afford ecological insights, in particular through biological identification of the craft materials used.

Panel P032
Museum Affordances: Collections, Interventions, Exhibitions