- Tikopia Collected: Raymond Firth and the Creation of Solomon Island Cultural Heritage by Elizabeth Bonshek
Tikopia Collected, which Elizabeth Bonshek originally wrote as a master’s thesis while at the Australian National University, makes a useful and engaging contribution to a central issue in contemporary museology. In the postcolonial moment, a dispersal of institutional authority is taking place. The relationship between objects and donor communities to the museums that own, store, and maintain them is being refashioned and reimagined polyphonically. In some quarters, this refashioning has even gone so far as to attribute moral agency to objects themselves. This book, written by a museum curator, takes as its exemplar of this problem the itinerary—or “social life,” to use Arjun Appadurai’s phrase (The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective, 1986)—of an “ethnographic collection” that was made by Raymond Firth in 1928 during fieldwork among the Tikopia people of what is now Solomon Islands.
In a forthright and unassuming way, Bonshek assembles the voices that might be said to speak for and about the collection and, in so doing, for and about centuries of transformation in Tikopian culture. We hear from the original Tikopian vendors, who were, by and large, male chiefs; from Firth, the British social anthropologist; and then from more contemporary [End Page 596] Tikopians, who are still male chiefs but whose culture became Christian in ensuing years. We also hear from urban youth, from subsequent anthropologists who studied Tikopia, and, finally, from museum curators. The author’s hope is that all of these voices will make her book a meaningful resource for Tikopians.
For Firth, one of Malinowski’s many students at the London School of Economics who was under the sway of the great man’s functionalism, the things he collected during his Tikopia fieldwork were not particularly interesting in and of themselves. Instead, the shell adzes, betel-nut mortars, turmeric flasks, bonito hooks, weaponry, plaited mats, headrests, ornaments, and the like were meant as one small part of a larger “scientific anthropological record” (27). They were data that contributed to Firth’s analysis of Tikopian society as a whole. The acquisition process, relying on barter exchange most of the time, provided him with information about technology and local concepts of value. The latter were voiced by elite exponents of hereditary ritual hierarchy, who explained how objects asserted agency, were part of ceremonial exchange practices, required the observation of gender taboos, and were understood as embodiments of Tikopian ancestor-spirits. Firth’s main donors and informants were male chiefs with whom he entered into exchange relationships and who wanted to share in his and the objects’ prestige. But their willingness to sell sacred objects also expressed the widespread abandonment of custom that was going on in favor of Christianity.
Decades passed. On a return visit to Tikopia in 1966, Firth investigated Tikopian concepts of a museum, or at least discussed the topic with people. He visited storage houses where old, sacred objects were stored, and there was some debate among the chiefs about who should be allowed or forbidden to see the things in these museum-like spaces. By the late 1970s, Firth’s collection, which had been housed in the anthropology department at Sydney University and then moved over to Canberra before being moved back to the Australian Museum, had become viewed as “cultural heritage” (112) in Tikopia and was thus subject to a repatriation request. Firth supported the request, but it failed for a number of bureaucratic reasons both in Australia and in Solomon Islands.
In the 1960s and 1980s, Eric Larson and Judith MacDonald conducted separate periods of fieldwork on Tikopia during which they both observed urban and rural migrants and villagers who lived apart but still viewed themselves as distinctively Tikopian, wearing necklaces with turtle-shell hooks to express their emerging cultural identity. The Tikopian subsistence economy had persisted, although chiefly authority had waned. Despite mass...