The Contemporary Pacific 13.2 (2001) 610-612
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Cracks in the Mask
This film is really two films. The visual images document the journey of two Torres Strait Islanders from their home in the Torres Strait to several museums in Europe that hold collections of objects taken from the islands at the end of the nineteenth century. The dialogue reveals a story about museums and about objects--about what museums do and about their rationale for continuing to hold such objects, and about the meaning of these objects for Torres Strait Islanders today. The effect is a moving, often poignant, representation of the issues surrounding the return of such collections to the descendants of their original owners.
The Torres Strait Islands are part of Australia and lie between Australia and Papua New Guinea. From the mid-nineteenth century the lives of Islanders were changed by an influx of pearl fishers, missionaries, and then government administrators. Missionaries suppressed traditional religion, many of the objects associated with ritual were destroyed, and their production and use ceased. Some objects found their way to Europe via European visitors to the islands, but by far the biggest collection was that removed by the scientists of the Cambridge Anthropological Expedition of 1898. More than twelve hundred objects were removed and preserved.
The narrator of the film is Ephraim Bani, a Torres Strait Islander who is a well-respected linguist and expert on Torres Strait culture. With his wife Petharie he visits each collection. For the viewer of the film there is enough to hold both interest and emotion as the first Torres Strait Islanders to view these objects since they were taken behold, exclaim, and discuss their significance. But a century after their removal, Ephraim Bani is also on a mission to investigate the curators' attitudes to the return of these objects, even if that means only an exhibition in Australia.
The real substance of the film lies in the questions that arise from the conversations between the curators and Bani, and Bani's reflections. For Torres Strait Islanders there is a certain irony in the fact that by the taking of these objects, the objects were preserved. Preserved though they are, they are still lost to the Torres Strait Islanders. Lost also is an important material link in history, for these objects embodied meaning, and both the skills and practices associated with their production no longer exist in the Torres Strait. Curators may acknowledge that objects embody memories, that they see the museums' role as the storage of culture for the future. They may acknowledge that they display material culture as art. They may talk [End Page 610] of more effective or honest ways of displaying objects and argue that future collections will be virtual and able to be stored and viewed on disc and available to all. But the Islander Bani has other considerations.
The central question is why are museums keeping these things? For whose future are they stored? What and how do they represent and interpret Torres Strait Islanders? For Bani, these objects are an important link for Torres Strait Islanders in reclaiming both their history and their knowledge of precontact times. They are no longer made or used in the islands but they are kept in memory and they represent the discontinuity with their own history and cultural practices wrought by the intrusions of colonization. In European museums a dead exotic culture is portrayed, but Torres Strait culture is living, and material objects from times gone by are not just "traditional art" but history whose traces of meaning remain in contemporary cultural forms and practice. Bani says "I thought to myself that this is where our ancient wisdom is buried so when I saw these objects I thought I need to take these images back. . . . Not to do anything about [returning these objects] is like a...