Celebrating PNG’s audiovisual heritage

Weekender

By VICKY BARNECUTT
and DON NILES
CELEBRATED on Oct 27, 2020, the World Day for Audiovisual Heritage is an opportunity to share the importance of audiovisual collections and archives around the world.
The Institute of Papua New Guinea Studies is working in collaboration with the British Library concerning three collections of wax-cylinder recordings that were made in Papua New Guinea between 1898 and 1918. These include the earliest known recorded sounds from our country.
The recordings have been digitised, and form part of a research project called True Echoes, with funding from the UK’s Leverhulme Trust and the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. The project also includes collections from Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, New Caledonia and Australia.
The earliest Papua New Guinea recordings were made in 1898 by members of the Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to Torres Strait, led by Alfred Cort Haddon. The expedition travelled from London by ship to do their main research in the islands between Australia and Papua New Guinea. But some members also travelled to Port Moresby in May 1898 and visited villages in what is present-day Central Province. In September, they then made a separate trip to Kiwai Island and the Western Province coast.
In 1904, the Daniels Ethnographical Expedition to British New Guinea took place. British anthropologist Charles Seligmann, a participant of the 1898 Cambridge expedition, joined the funder, American businessman William Cooke Daniels, and a number of other men.
They travelled extensively around the south coast by ship. Forty cylinders were recorded in Port Moresby, and various parts of Central and Milne Bay.
The third and smallest collection is the most recent. It includes five cylinders recorded between 1915 and 1918 by anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski, who was undertaking pioneering “participant-observation” fieldwork on the Trobriand Islands at the time.
The collections contain a variety of spoken materials, including a story about a brown heron, and sample sentences in local languages. But the collections are abundantly rich in sung materials, such as songs associated with long-distant trading voyages, mourning, dugong and wallaby hunting, and public dances.
While traditional genres predominate, there are also local versions of Christian hymns and “God Save the Queen,” reflecting changes from missions and the colonial government.
The True Echoes team is working with national cultural institutions and local communities to increase the visibility of the recordings and to ensure that they are more accessible for the communities that they represent. In Papua New Guinea, they are working with the Institute of Papua New Guinea Studies, based in Boroko. IPNGS’s Music Archive reflects all music and dance-related research carried out in Papua New Guinea.
Research with Papua New Guinea communities is expected to begin later this year after compiling documentation available from the British Library, publications, and unpublished sources. The True Echoes team looks forward to reconnecting this rich archive of early sound recordings with the communities from which they originate and learning more about what the recordings mean to people today.

  • Vicky Barnecutt is a research fellow for the True Echoes Project, based at the British Library. Don Niles is Acting Director of the Institute of Papua New Guinea Studies and co-investigator for the True Echoes Project.

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