'History calling', Discussed by Sydney University Museums' Curator of Ethnography, Rebecca Conway

‘Durom tribe - girl calling to friends across valley’, lantern slide, photo: E P W Chinnery, 1912-13, Rigo District, Central Division, Papua (Papua New Guinea), transferred from the Department of Anthropology, the University of Sydney 1999, Macleay Museum HP99.1.480

My job involves contact with thousands of people. They variously go about their business or stare out at me from photographs, most taken more than a century ago. Some faces and images stay with you, continuing to remind you of their presence. It can be intimate and often feels like a form of communication across time.

The joyful exuberance of this young Durom girl as she calls to a friend across a valley in the Rigo District, New Guinea caught my attention. I can’t play favourites, but her image in particular is one of a number featuring people that I have wanted to return to and know more about. The Macleay Museum’s historic photograph collections number some 80,000 individual images, the visual memory of faces, scenes and places cannot extend to all.

A curator colleague once lamented that our work is “rotational neglect”. We are pulled in many directions: cataloguing, digitisation and exhibition, other people’s research agendas. It is unfortunate that poorly documented photographs tend to receive the least attention in collections.

The collection in which this lantern slide resides includes more than 2,000 slides accumulated for teaching purposes in the University of Sydney’s, Anthropology Department. From 1926 - 46 it was the only such department in Australia and in its early years one of only a handful internationally. One condition imposed on the department’s fieldworkers was that photographs should be taken as part of their research and a set of slides provided for the illustration of lectures on their return.

Under the heading, “Central Division Papua - Rigo District”, the “Durom tribe - girl calling to friends across valley” is one of the series of mostly Pacific images that make up the first entries in the original Anthropology Department catalogue for the collection. Unlike the later entries which were annotated with the initials of the returned photographer-anthropologists, these are all listed without reference to who took them.

Who took these images? When? What was the context? In the giant game of “snap” or “memory” that is sometimes my curatorial work, by chance I encountered in the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge, “Durom woman smoking bamboo pipe; the mountainous interior of Rigo district”; not the same girl, but a match to another in the series. Scribbled on the reverse, “E. W. P. Chinnery”, and separately, “Probably not wanted”. Well, I welcomed her gladly!

Although there’s much work to be done, I have matched most in the series of undocumented slides with E W P Chinnery’s photographs (some 1850 images) now held at the National Library and Archives. Chinnery joined the Papuan service in 1909. Starting out as a clerk he progressed through the ranks to District Officer and to a number of senior positions in the Australian colonial service in Papua and New Guinea in the 1920s and 1930s.

Following the passing of the Papua Act 1905, the colony of British New Guinea was handed over to Australian administration. An understanding of “the natives” was seen as integral to the development of the region; the control and management of land, resources and labour. District Officers were to gain a comprehensive anthropological understanding of the regions to which they were assigned, including mapping the numbers and distribution of culture and language groups, villages, agricultural and other resources and to try and implement law and order in the western sense.

In 1912 Chinnery began working in the Central Division, which included the Rigo District where the first patrol station outside of Port Moresby had been established. In June 1913 he was sent to search for some Ailiwara hill tribesmen from Mount Obree who had murdered men and women during a raid on a nearby valley. The image of the Durom girl was possibly taken during this patrol. Intertribal violence quite likely a fact of life for her mountain-dwelling community, but something the colonial administration was desperate to quell. By the end of the year Chinnery was in new territory, Mambare on the northern coastal border with German New Guinea.

During World War I Chinnery served in the Australian Flying Corps and, following service, studied anthropology at Cambridge University under Alfred Cort Haddon and with whom he had corresponded while working in Papua. As part of the response to the League of Nations Mandate, Chinnery secured the position of Government Anthropologist in the new Mandated Territory of New Guinea, a position he held from 1924-37.        

Chinnery’s surveys and insights into the cultures of Papua and New Guinea led him to play an integral role in identifying sites for intensive fieldwork for up-and-coming researchers affiliated with the newly established Department of Anthropology at the University of Sydney. These included the likes of Ian Hogbin, Camilla Wedgwood, and Margret Mead and cultures as diverse as the Sepik-dwelling Abelam and the Baining of New Ireland. He was also a strong supporter of anthropological training for New Guinea administrative cadets, ensuring they completed courses with the University as part of their career preparations. 

The Durom girl called to her friends across the valley. Her image echoed in my mind, eventually leading to a reconnection with her photographer, his history and research, if only dating and exposing a tantalising moment in hers. Chinnery exchanged patrol officer cadets and early career academic anthropologists between Sydney and New Guinea. The images Chinnery and others took as part of their work have since travelled multiple pathways, their presence echoing in the collections of various institutions globally. They have likely been used in slide shows and for other purposes far beyond their original intent. These scattered resources will continue to provide insights on our region; history reverberates through collections.

Read more about Rebecca's fascinating work with lantern slides and the Maclaey collection in the mid-year edition of Muse

Conway, R & J Philp, People, Power, Politics: the first generation of anthropologists at the University of Sydney, catalogue Macleay Museum exhibition 1 February–20 July 2008, the University of Sydney http://sydney.edu.au/museums/publications/catalogues/people-power-politi...
Gray, G, There are many difficult problems: Ernest William Pearson Chinnery, Government Anthropologist, Journal of Pacific History, vol. 38 (3), Dec. 2003, pp. 313-30
Lawrence, D, The early ethnographic writings of EW Pearson Chinnery: Government Anthropologist of New Guinea, Public lecture for the National Archives of Australia, presented in Canberra 23 March 2006 http://www.naa.gov.au/Images/Lawrence_tcm16-35760.pdf
West, F, Chinnery, Ernest William Pearson (1887-1972), Australian dictionary of biography online http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/chinnery-ernest-william-pearson-5583


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