Collecting Colonialism: Material Culture and Colonial Change

Collecting Colonialism: Material Culture and Colonial Change

Collecting Colonialism: Material Culture and Colonial Change

Collecting Colonialism: Material Culture and Colonial Change

Synopsis

Colonialism has shaped the world we live in today and has often been studied at a global level, but there is less understanding of how colonial relations operated locally. This book takes twentieth-century Papua New Guinea as its focus, and charts the changes in colonial relationships as they were expressed through the flow of material culture. Exploring the links between colonialism and material culture in general, the authors focus on the particular insights that museum collections can provide into social relations.Collections made by anthropologists in New Britain in the first half of the century are compared with recent fieldwork in the area to provide a particularly in-depth picture of historical change. Museum collections can reveal how people dealt with changes in the nature of community, gender relations and notions of power through the shifting use of objects in ritual and exchange. Objects, photographs and archives bring to life both the individual characters of colonial New Britain and the longer-term patterns of history. Drawing on the related disciplines of archaeology, linguistics, history and anthropology, the authors provide fresh insights into the complexities of colonial life. In particular, they show how social relationships among Melanesians, whites and other communities helped to erode distinctions between colonizers and locals, distinctions that have been maintained by scholars of colonialism in the past.This book successfully combines a specific geographical focus with an interest in the broader questions that surround colonial relations, historical change and the history of anthropology.

Excerpt

Colonialism was made up of a mass of small processes with global effects. In thinking about colonialism we are still happier with Wallerstein's (1974, 1980) core/periphery theory or thought about present globalism (Hannerz 1996) than with detailed, local understandings of colonial times and places (Thomas 1994). Smaller scale events are not purely contingent on local circumstances, but provide a scale of analysis focusing on the points at which the strategies and histories of individuals meet broader economic and cultural forces. Broader processes would not exist without local forces and events, so that the study of the local can provide us with new insights into broader forces. Our aim here is to develop a series of detailed case studies from Papua New Guinea to throw light on broader historical and intellectual developments.

Our raw material for this study is provided by museum collections and their attendant documentation. One of our main arguments is that colonial New Guinea was not made up of two separate societies, New Guineans and colonials in collision and confrontation, but rather came to be a single social and cultural field of mutual influence, in which all people, black and white, were linked through the movement of goods and the definition of roles, statuses and forms of morality. Chemists make a distinction between a mixture and a reaction. A mixture is a solution in which different chemicals combine, but retain their original form, whereas a reaction creates something new out of its original constituent parts. Colonial New Guinea was a reaction to which all parties contributed, so that there can be no question that all had influence and agency. Anthropologists have tried to undo or ignore the reaction and focus upon one part, New Guineans, creating a partial and static picture in the process. Museum collections made in New Guinea were created through flows of goods between various parties within this colonial society and museum collectors were part of a much broader and bigger set of collecting activities by many of the whites in New Guinea. Collections were part of a broader flow of payments made in cash and trade items by Europeans for labour, food, cash crops or sex. These museum collections are not what their collectors took them to be: partial, but well-documented records of New Guinean societies. Rather they are complete, although particular, outcomes of individual sets of colonial practices. The study of collections necessitates consideration of all the parties contributing to them, their interests, ambitions and failures. The collectors themselves are documented through their own recording activity and we need to . . .

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