92 year-old collector and former PNG resident Gabriel Keleny has decided to return between three and four hundred sculptures, art works and other cultural artifacts collected over the 30 years he spent living and working there.
It's now the task of Australia's Macleay Museum and students of the University of Sydney to sort through the astonishing collection before it's shipped to Port Moresby.
Presenter: Timothy Pope
Speaker: Macleay Museum's senior curator, Jude Philp
PHILP: It is a real variety of styles and cultural materials made by people across Papua New Guinea. So one wall I'm looking at a picture of has a feathered stone club from the Central Province, probably about 1920, a food hook from way up in the Highlands, a mud brick shield from the Avalam area with beautiful red and yellow and white designs, bark from inside such a men's house, all kinds of things really, but an enormous diversity and a real quality of style.
POPE: Can you tell me a bit more about the donor, Gabriel Keleny, he sounds like an interesting character?
PHILP: Yes he's a charming gentleman. He came from Hungary at the end of the war with an intention to go to Australia, to migrate to Australia, but when the boat got to Papua New Guinea, he thought well this looks good, I'll get off here, and so he did. And he started to work for the Ministry of Agriculture there, which was his field as a scientist. And he worked in the agricultural ministry for the next 30 years, leaving only as a case of early retirement in 1975 just at the brink of independence. But he took an interest in the people and their culture, and became really fascinated by the art styles and the diversity of art styles across New Guinea, which I guess is where he started his collection.
POPE: And how would the collection have been acquired? How does someone go about putting a collection like this together?
PHILP: He would acquire things that were offered for sale, but occasionally he'd also get things through more stranger sort of encounters. So the hospital used to get, and probably still does today, people who were brought into hospital who wouldn't have a lot of cash with them would bring a cultural item in exchange for their medical attention. And the hospital would notify people who were interested in collecting that something had come in, and this was the case with one canoe model that is in Mr Keleny's house today. An elderly man in for hospital had left it as his payment, and then Mr Keleny paid the hospital for this object.
POPE: And why has he taken the decision to donate them now?
PHILP: Partly because he's 92 and he wants to make sure that they are looked after into the future after having such a long life with these things. They really become almost like family I think we find this with a lot of collectors, who are really unwilling to divide up their collection to suit the interests of a particular museum or gallery or sales pitch. And so it was in this search for finding a home for the entire collection that the National Museum of Papua New Guinea put up their hand and said yes, this is something we would really like.
POPE: Yes so what happens to the collection now?
PHILP: One of the things is that the Minister for Tourism, Culture and the Arts, the Honourable Boka Kondra as well as the President of the Trustees of the National Museum of PNG, Julius Violaris and the Director of the National Museum, Dr Andrew Moutu, have all come out to Australia to thank Mr Keleny for his generous donation. Once this official visit has finished, next week the University of Sydney's museum studies students will be under instruction from the Macleay Museum and myself to itemise and photograph and document each of the pieces before they're packed and shipped off to Papua New Guinea.
POPE: And when can the people of PNG expect to see it on display?
PHILP: Probably not 'til mid next year. It takes a very long time for museums to really work through material. So it might be that some items come into that exhibitions are already planned, or that they put a selection together of the finest sculptural works or masques into their art gallery space as a recognition of this exciting donation.