Sydney’s ‘buried’ Pacific treasures

Sydney Diary

By Dev Nadkarni

When the coordinator of Maketi Ples, the annual show of Pacific island arts and crafts in Sydney, invites me to accompany about a dozen Pacific island artists to visit the Australian Museum I’m delighted. Because she tells me the museum has one of the biggest collections of Pacific artifacts – some of it dating back hundreds of years.

In my mind’s eye I begin to think of the collections at Te Papa displayed tastefully in Wellington and the Auckland Museum’s considerable collection showcased in the huge, high ceilinged halls of the splendid edifice, with excellent lighting and explanatory plaques. And of course the many interactive displays that are such an increasingly common feature of modern museums.

But I am decidedly underwhelmed when the group is ushered into one of the three basement like levels of the Australian Museum. I assume we’re being taken into the museum through a back entrance because we are a largish group. I am wrong. These three levels with rack upon storage rack haphazardly crammed with all sorts of artifacts and objets d’art is where we will be spending the next couple of hours, I gather.

This is where the Pacific collection of the Australian Museum lies like buried treasure. “Unfortunately, there isn’t room for displaying all this in the main galleries,” a museum staffer tells me. “They think not too many people are interested in looking at this sort of Pacific stuff,” says another, who later turns out to have a pretty intimate knowledge of all the Pacific stuff under her care and whence it came from – and a lot of passion, too. I wonder who “they” is. I decide not to ask.

Indeed, the main galleries, as I later discover, are full of dinosaur reconsturctions and other natural history stuff along with glimpses of Australia’s geological and paleontological phenomena and records. The three levels of storage that house all the Pacific artifacts are loosely divided into Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia. A lot of the stuff is ancient and fragile. We are allowed to touch them albeit with gloved palms. OK to take pictures, we’re told and the artists go about the narrow aisles wide eyed, cameras at the ready, looking for objects of interest.

A lion’s share of the collection comes from Papua New Guinea, classified province-wise: there are weapons, armours, headgear, pots and pans, masks, objects of rituals, textiles, fabrics – everything. It is indeed a rich, varied collection and undoubtedly invaluable. Unfortunately, all tagged with an alphanumeric museum code and no description or date, though some have approximate dates of when a specific object came into the collection.

Then there are things from Vanuatu, Micronesia, Kiribati, the Solomon Islands as well as Fiji, Samoa, Tonga and the Cook Islands. I discover that some of the toughest ancient reed armours were made in Kiribati. I’d never known they were a warlike people that were sought after around the region for their fighting skills.

Suddenly there’s a delightful moment in the somber, night-at-the-museum type environment when one of the accompanying artists discovers her own work of art in the labyrinthine racks of the collection and is clearly pleased to bits. She is all over it with child like glee and poses endearingly as her colleagues’ cameras go pop, pop, pop, capturing this memorable slice of life.

The museum has acquired some of the Pacific artists’ work over the past couple of years, I am told. Simple and unassuming, it scarcely bothers them that their works of art are stacked in a musty, dark backroom that nobody visits.

How does one access the collection? I ask. Upon request and a payment of A$150 a pop, one can have access. But happily, for indigenous visitors, the fee is waived and natives of Pacific island countries who want to their forebears’ creative works, they can hope to view them for free.

I also discover that Fiji is classified under Polynesia among the collection racks. How so, I ask. “Yes, a bit politically sensitive, eh?” says an accompanying museum staffer. “But we’d better leave it at that.” I notice that there is no Fijian artist in the group – there were meant to be, but not unexpectedly, they had visa problems.

As I pore over this yellowed but rather well preserved 88-year-old issue of the Fiji Times dated April 25, 1925, I wonder if the editorial staff that put it together could ever have had an inkling of the shape of things to come.

Global warming on hold, top expert admits

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) head honcho R.K. Pachauri is in the country (in Melbourne) on a day’s whistle-stop visit speaking on climate change, as he continually increases his carbon footprint while jetting across the world.

Rising temperatures have actually been on hold, he admits, alluding to increasing scientific evidence that global temperatures have not risen in nearly two decades. Studies show they won’t rise at least until 2017. Dr Pachauri tells an audience at Deakin University that people have the right to question the science no matter what their motives are.

But, says the scientist, that doesn’t mean global temperatures are not rising – they have over the past 50 years and they will. He now gives more credit to natural factors for causing warming rather than stressing on anthropogenic causes, contrary to Al Gore’s populist-alarmist messages.

Reports of the most recent northern winter seeing record accumulation of ice in the polar region hasn’t received as much press as reports of the record melts of last northern summer. It is increasingly becoming clear that natural factors play a huge role in climate change though their effects might well be exacerbated by human factors. But by no means does anyone believe anymore that humans are the exclusive cause of the so-called global warming.

In his address in Melbourne, IPCC’s high profile chief also said his organisation was yet to finalise estimates of sea level rise owing to melting ice sheets. With such unpredictability, it is unlikely that we will get a definitive answer to these continuing questions. None of which should detract us humans from doing whatever bit we can do for the planet in no matter how small a manner.