Figuring Faces in Museums: Notes on the Pacific Cultures Gallery of the South Australian Museum

Hiding from the rain in Adelaide last week prompted a visit to the Pacific Cultures Gallery of the South Australian Museum. This is the largest collection of Pacific material culture in Australia, and includes items from Papua New Guinea, the Solomon and Santa Cruz Islands, Vanuatu, New Caledonia, Fiji and New Zealand. Naturally, I was on the lookout for faces. This was a very different context from my usual early modern British sources, but a fruitful excursion as I start to think about facial disfigurement and difference in eighteenth and nineteenth-century global and colonial encounters .

The Pacific Cultures Gallery is also the oldest part of the museum, largely preserved after its opening in 1895. Many of the exhibits were obtained and cataloged in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when these islands were under colonial occupation by the Netherlands, Australia, Germany, Britain, and France. As a billboard at the entrance to the exhibit relates: “This gallery has stood still for several decades” thus it “gives us a view into the past of the Pacific and its peoples, and into the history of museum collecting and display.” Artifacts are shown “with minimal text or images. This is in marked contrast to contemporary methods of display which use fewer objects and place a greater emphasis on display.” (A useful comparison for layout and style is the upper levels of the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford.) The South Australian Museum assures the visitor that they are in the process of augmenting the existing displays with more contextualising electronic information, and contemporary artifacts that offer a better understanding of the region’s cultures as they now stand (which has started already, and is certainly the approach in the museum’s more recent galleries. I will look forward to visiting again as the project progresses).

Yet the current impression in the Pacific Cultures Gallery is still very much that of walking into a late-Victorian display on colonised peoples—thinking of Rosemarie Garland-Thomson’s work, it’s definitely a place for “staring”.[1]  Here, facial difference is spectacle, with a number of deliberate body modifications including the face and head presented without much by way of context for cultural practices. There is a striking cabinet of (to quote the museum label) “DECORATED HUMAN SKULLS. / SEPIK RIVER” (New Guinea), which includes skulls decorated as memorials after death.

Another cabinet of artifacts from New Britain, Papua New Guinea, includes photographs and skulls of individuals whose heads have been elongated as children—a practice known historically in several cultures. The early twentieth-century labels of the images negatively frame these as examples of deliberate disfigurement, starkly showing how culturally contingent this category can be: the skulls are labelled “DISTORTED SKULL” with their location; a photograph of three men describes their heads as “artificially deformed”; another as “distorted in childhood”; and a woman carrying a baby is captioned, “BABY WITH ITS HEAD BOUND TO FORM IT INTO THE DISTORTED SHAPE ADMIRED BY HIS MOTHER”.

Also from Papua New Guinea is a skull and photograph of a “Lihir Islander with forehead grooves incised in the bone during infancy as an aid to beauty”. The museum director 1914–1928, Edgar Ravenswood Waite (1866–1928), had apparently photographed this woman in the course of his collecting expedition to the South Sea Islands in c.1918.[2] A short Google has not provided me with anything further about this practice, but a paper by Martha Macintyre, et al, does highlight that trepanation, including through the forehead, is a traditional medical procedure  with significant spiritual associations (still practiced, but in decline) in the Lihir region.[3] Is it possible Waite confused a medical practice for an aesthetic one? His diaries and the newspaper clippings reveal that the masks I found most striking in the exhibit were collected at the same time: they have no individual labels in the exhibit, but the news clipping Waite includes in his diary describes them as “four quaint masks, in two of which human hipbones have been employed to simulate ears, albeit of generous dimensions. Boars’ tusks are also utilized, together with the valves of barnacles, the determination of which, as such, provided a zoological puzzle for some time.”[4] Does including these and other seemingly fantastical masks (including with the grotesque detail of the human hipbones) alongside the physically modified human faces (pierced, scarred, moulded), with limited contextualising or differentiating information, exacerbate the sense of non-normativity in the human faces for the viewer?

A useful juxtaposition against these older displays is the first ‘face object’ to have caught my eye in the exhibit: an eighteenth-century Maori feeding funnel. I had initially guessed it might be used for people with congenital or acquired mouth problems (eg. cleft palate, or elderly tooth loss). But the object’s modern label instead explained its use in relation to Maori tattooing (ta moko)—the sort of deliberately inflicted facial difference shown very differently elsewhere in the gallery. As Juniper Ellis discusses, the body and face tattoos of Pacific cultures have figured prominently in colonial narratives as signs of otherness: in Herman Melville’s Typee (1846) the ship captain uses the threat of facial tattooing by Taipi Valley locals to keep his men from deserting, and the narrator, Tommo, who does flee the ship, then escapes the valley to avoid “being disfigured in such a manner as never more to have the face to return to my countrymen” (original emphasis).[5] Here, however, the object’s craftsmanship and role in care and the specific cultural practice are foregrounded: “An intricately carved feeding funnel used in feeding pre-masticated food to certain persons who, for tapu reasons, could not handle food directly. Chiefs, whose faces were swollen after tattooing sessions and who were under tapu restrictions, would have relied upon this method of eating. This rare Maori artifact was among those given to the Governor of Norfolk Island (Philip Gidley King) by a Maori chief in 1793 when he repatriated two kidnapped Maori men, Huru and Tuki, to the northern tip of New Zealand. / A35469”. While this is a significant step forward, I was reminded of Ellis’ remarks on Endeavour botanist Joseph Banks’ reaction to facial moko. Banks thought the marks had “the Effect of making them most enormously ugly, the old ones at least whose faces are intirely coverd with it” but that “it is impossible to avoid admiring the immence Elegance and Justness of the figures in which it is form’d”: to separate this “Elegance” and “ugliness”, Ellis notes, “the observer must separate the tattoo from the human face” (p.75). I wonder if, in a similar vein, removing the feeding funnel from proximity to a tattooed face[6], and emphasising features such as its intricacy, spiritual role, and rarity, is intended to allow the viewer to appreciate the “elegance” of the object and process in isolation from possible “ugliness” in the the physical reality of moko as a deliberate marking of difference on the human face?  Something for me to think about further.

The exhibition also brought to my mind Mandy Treagus and Madeleine Seys’ paper from the Australian Historical Association conference earlier in the month, which included discussion of some contemporary Pacific art as responses to colonial representations of the region, such as that self-consciously preserved in the South Australian Museum gallery.[7] Yuki Kihara’s series A Study of a Samoan Savage (2015) in particular engages with nineteenth-century anthropometric studies of colonised peoples. The series’ facial photographs (especially ‘nose width with vernier calliper’) made me think about cultural contingencies of facial normativity, as well as the use of what Garland-Thomson discusses as “staring back” (84) (for this also see Kihara’s film Maui Descending a Staircase II (After Duchamp) (2015).

How facial difference is represented across and between cultures will be a prominent theme of research in the future Effaced project, including within our own planned exhibitions, so look out for further discussions!


[1] Staring: How We Look (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009).

[2] In his diary entry for September 27, 1919 (now digitised by the Australian Museum), Waite includes a clipping from the Express newspaper: “Curious Native Custom. / The Chinese use artificial means for keeping the feet small, but in the Pacific Islands, which were formerly held by Germany, the natives interfere with the natural growth of the heads of children. As the result of a visit of the Director of the Adelaide Museum (Mr. Edgar R. Waite) to the South Sea Islands about twelve months ago there is now on view at the institution a case of human skulls. Perhaps the most noticeable exhibit is the artificially distorted skull of a New Britain native. Soon after birth the heads of infants are tightly bandaged, which prevents the skull growing to normal shape. Photographs show a baby bandaged in this way and boys whose heads have thus been deformed. Mr. Waite photographed a girl from Lihir Island on whose forehead two deep grooves are shown. There it is a practice to beautify the head by cutting or breaking the frontal bone of a very young infant, so that permanent grooves are formed. One skull exhibited shows four such grooves.”

[3] Martha Macintyre, Simon Foale, Nicholas Bainton, Brigid Moktel, ‘Medical Pluralism and the Maintenance of a Traditional Healing Technique on Lihir, Papua New GuineaPimatisiwin: A Journal of Aboriginal and Indigenous Community Health 3:1 (2005): 87–99.

[4] ‘A Unique Shark Trap’ The Register 13 September 1919, in Edgar Waite Diaries 13 September 1919.

[5]Typee p.219; in Juniper Ellis, Tattooing the World: Pacific Designs in Print and Skin (New York: Columbia UP, 2008), p.134.

[6] To the best of my memory there was no accompanying photograph of a face, but if anyone has visited the gallery recently I welcome correction here.

[7] ‘The Colonial Context of Yuki Kihara’s Contemporary Art’. From Boom to Bust: AHA Conference 2016, Federation University (Ballarat), 07/07/2016.

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