The renowned Australian photographer Frank Hurley made two expeditions to Papua: the first time under the aegis of the Anglican Board of Missions, in 1920 and 1921, and the second as the leader of his own more ambitious expedition, in 1922 and 1923. Now, many of Hurley's stunning black-and-white photographs - which reveal him to have been part Edward S Curtis and part Ansel Adams - and artefacts from his time in Papua are on display at the Australian Museum in Sydney.
Having already tasted international success with his photos of the Antarctic and the Western Front, Hurley had in Papua stumbled across his own colonial outpost, a country that provided exotic natives and little real photographic competition. On the first trip he glimpsed the opportunity, and he soon returned with his own privately funded but officially sanctioned expedition, which included a respected biologist from the Australian Museum, Allan McCulloch, and two planes, the first aircraft to be seen in the colony. In Port Moresby, Hurley bought a boat and set sail for the Gulf of Papua.
It didn't take long for him to find what he was searching for: "truly," he wrote, "we seem to have entered another planet." His nirvana was found in the sacred men's longhouses, enormous palm-thatched buildings often more than 200 metres long. Their spiritual organisation was reflected in the physical structure, with a wide public opening at the front eventually tapering to a much smaller, restricted end where the most sacred objects were kept. Only initiated men were allowed inside.
In a longhouse at Kaimare, Hurley and McCulloch sat down for discussions with the local men, who finally agreed to part with 17 bullroarers in exchange for 17 sticks of tobacco and a "present" of rice. (Bullroarers are small wooden objects that are swung on a string to create the sound of a spirit. They were stored in the restricted part of the longhouse.) The men of Kaimare were uncomfortable about selling their cultural heritage, but capitulated after the intruders used threatening language. Hurley wrote in his diary that the men's anxiety about this outside interference in their customs would be rectified by "the slow progress of civilisation, and the enlightening which it brings". McCulloch noted that he had stolen an extra bullroarer, a theft discovered later by the authorities when he accidentally left his Register of Collections in Port Moresby.
Not satisfied with their bounty, Hurley and McCulloch entered the Kaimare longhouse a second time - the local men were away attending rites for a dead man - and removed the barrier at the sacred end to reveal 17 spirit figures, each with a bundle of bullroarers beneath them. Hurley took several photographs, one of which appears in this exhibition. McCulloch then let off fireworks in the village to distract the locals' attention while Hurley and an aide replaced the barrier.
Some of the stolen objects, along with decorated human heads and spirit figures, are part of the Australian Museum's collection, but as they were not separated from the 800 items handed over by Hurley and McCulloch, the exhibition's curator, Dr Jim Specht, says that it is impossible to identify them. There is a bullroarer on display, as well as a spirit figure, which on the day I visited elicited laughter from two young boys due to its naked wooden penis.
Hurley's expedition then ventured inland to the huge Lake Murray, in the remote Western Province. It was only the fourth group of white men to enter this region, so tantalisingly far from government scrutiny. Hurley and McCulloch were soon up to their usual skulduggery, raiding another deserted longhouse, the former describing it as "the most primitive dwelling I have visited in New Guinea".
Ever the self-promoter, Hurley was sending back accounts of their exploits to the Sun newspaper in Sydney:
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.
On returning to Port Moresby, Hurley's team received a hostile reception from the colonial government. The administration accused the expedition of "irregularities" in its collecting methods and seized its loot. Hurley went home to Sydney and began a newspaper campaign to clear his name and get the collection released. He appealed privately to the minister for home and territories, Senator GF Pearce, and to Prime Minister Billy Hughes, imploring that the trip had been conducted "at my own expense, purely in the interests of the development of the possessions of Australia and the empire". The collection was eventually returned, minus an ancestral board and several bullroarers, which were sent back to their original owners. Six months later, Allan McCulloch shot himself in the head.
The controversy continued. Not only did Hurley take several thousand glass-plate negatives on his two Papuan expeditions; he also took thousands of feet of film, which started out as the travelogue Pearls and Savages for its Australian tour and became With the Headhunters of Unknown Papua when it screened in the US. And he could not resist playing the amateur anthropologist one last time. At Lake Murray he had observed that the features of the people in the village of Dukoif were "remarkably Hebraic". As box-office takings flagged, Hurley renamed his film The Lost Tribe and likened the people of Lake Murray to the ancient Assyrians. "It seemed," he wrote with typical exaggeration, "we had discovered one of the lost tribes of Israel. That was news. Big news. It kindled the imagination of the young Jewish reporters and soon flamed up in front-page headlines." The original Pearls and Savages is screening as part of the Australian Museum's exhibition.
Nearly all of Hurley's portraits show people posing stiffly and staring sullenly at the camera. Most of the time Hurley and his subjects simply did not understand each other, and the relationship between photographer and sitter remains obscured. Yet these photos, however disturbing their provenance, are a vital document of Papua under Australian rule and, in particular, of extinct Papuan traditions. No longhouses survive today. The shot of two masked dancers in front of the structure at Tovei village is, according to Jim Specht, the only record of the large mask ritual which was used to ban the eating of coconuts before a major ceremony.
There is a notice at the beginning of this exhibition warning visitors that several images show human skulls. The heads of enemies were decorated to create a lifelike image of the deceased, their ownership symbolising the most important ritual in a young male becoming an adult. As headhunting is no longer practised in PNG, the skulls still in existence, along with Frank Hurley's photos of them, are an incredibly valuable record of a vanished - and vanquished - era. Unfortunately, the skulls have also become a prized and hence illegally trafficked commodity, each said to be worth more than $12,000 on the private market.
During his 30-year stint at the Australian Museum, which ended in 2000, Jim Specht was a strong advocate for the repatriation of cultural property to Pacific Island countries and elsewhere. In 1977, the institution returned valuable objects to mark the opening of the Papua New Guinea National Museum. Australia still holds around 80,000 ethnographic pieces from PNG. New Zealand holds 16,000; the UK and Ireland, 40,000; the US and Canada, 70,000; and the PNG National Museum, 30,000. The number in European museums is not known, nor how much is held in private collections.
When I asked Specht whether he thought any of the Hurley-McCulloch collection should be returned, he replied, "I don't know." He shares concerns with other repatriation enthusiasts that PNG lacks the infrastructure to adequately care for the material - that it could even be stolen and end up in private hands overseas, lost forever to its home country and to future research and exhibitions. Such cautious pragmatism may rightly triumph over moral reasoning, but it seems also to echo the we-know-best colonial attitude that enabled the pieces to be taken in the first place.
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