Papua New Guinean Lake Murray villagers seek repatriation of long-lost artefacts from Australia

Papua New Guinean Lake Murray villagers seek repatriation of long-lost artefacts from Australia

Papua New Guinean Lake Murray villagers seek repatriation of long-lost artefacts from Australia

Updated 30 January 2018, 7:20 AEDT

There are tens of thousands of artefacts from across the Pacific sitting deep in the storage vaults of Australian museums, and now there is a push from at least one Papua New Guinean village to have them returned.

There are tens of thousands of artefacts from across the Pacific — thousands from Papua New Guinea alone — sitting deep in the storage vaults of Australian museums.

The majority were collected more than a century ago, when the region was just beginning to be opened up to the outside world.

However, there are often controversial stories about how some of these collections were first acquired.

Now, there is a push in at least one village in one of the most remote and undeveloped parts of PNG to have artefacts taken by the Australian photographer Frank Hurley returned.

The first foreigners made it to Lake Murray just under 100 years ago — one of them was the famous Australian photographer, and filmmaker, Frank Hurley — in 1922.

"He understood they were headhunter tribes and he was keen to make contact with them," Tim Griffiths, a lawyer working in Port Moresby, said.

"I think he thought that was rather exciting to be one of the first to make contact with tribes up here."

Fast forward nearly a century, and the only way to re-trace Hurley's voyage is hitching a ride on a cargo ship — travelling west of Port Moresby along the Gulf of Papua before heading up the River Fly, and into Lake Murray.

Mr Griffiths has written about Hurley's Antarctica adventures and, now inspired by Hurley's PNG expeditions, he is heading up the river.

Most villages he came across during voyage were deserted, their inhabitants thought to have fled in fear of the strange and noisy boat Hurley and his crew were travelling in.

But according to his diary, Hurley was able to meet a small number of men in late November of 1922, with whom he managed to trade and take their photographs.

"He's created a record of the life here, the different villages in Lake Murray at that time and it's a priceless, invaluable record," Mr Griffiths said.

"By and large, the people living in the Lake Murray area have not seen these photographs.

"And these photographs are of their ancestors and I thought it was important they did see them."

'We believe these things were taken': PNG chief

But Hurley's trip was not just about taking photographs — he was also very keen to collect artefacts.

"There was some controversy because there were issues to whether some of the people who provided artefacts felt obliged," Mr Griffiths said.

"Also on some occasions when they found villages deserted they basically took the opportunity to take things, that they found in those villages.

"They did leave some things which they considered recompense, usually articles of cloth, mirrors or knives."

But now the chief of Usikof village and his clansmen want items they believe were taken to Australia — whether traded or not — to be returned.

"The concern here is white men came into our place 100 years ago, and up until now, these artefacts have ended up in museums," he said.

"We believe when these things were taken, when Hurley took them to Australia, the Australian government has made a lot of money on these things, our artefacts, especially from our tribe."

The people of Lake Murray have a supporter in Jude Philp, senior curator of Macleay Museum at the University of Sydney.

"I'd say that for people of Lake Murray today, what's happening is their material is really being ignored. That very few Australian state museum show Papua New Guinean material and culture and they have storerooms full of it. So there's a good reason to say, 'Well you're not even using it'," he said.

But repatriations are complex, sensitive and expensive. Items very rarely make it back to the communities they were taken from; instead being given to a country's national museum.

"It's a very hard and difficult road repatriation, but I know that for some communities where things have come back, it has opened a door way again of a relationship," Ms Philip said.