ALFRED CORT HADDON is a little-recognised pioneer amongst those anthropologists and ethnologists who have made a name for themselves by their work in Papua New Guinea, some of them by exploiting the local people.
Not so Haddon. Born in 1855 and living until 1940, he was one of the first to recognise that indigenous cultures were being destroyed by white colonial influence, particularly of the religious kind, and that traditional beliefs, art, history and culture needed to be documented and examples preserved before they disappeared forever.
He also believed firmly in the principle that all cultures are of equal merit and are capable of sublime artistic, religious and symbolic creation.
Haddon pioneered the use of technology, combining some of the earliest use of movie film (at the time ‘silent’) with wax-cylinder recordings, which can be synchronised to produce sound films of performances which can still be viewed after 114 years old.
He worked for some years in both Papua and New Guinea, but is perhaps best known for his Torres Strait Expedition of 1898. He arrived to find an amazingly rich culture of rituals, beliefs, dances, art and music which was at that very time being threatened by the invasion of missionaries.
He was particularly scathing about the over-zealous work of the London Missionary Society, which he found had, on some islands, rounded up all the masks, carvings, costumes and art it could lay its hands on and burned them as 'works of the devil'.
Haddon sought to preserve as much as he could through film, sound recordings and collection of local art works - for which he insisted on paying a fair price agreeable to the owner.
Many of his several thousand items collected can now be seen in the Cambridge University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and the British Museum. Some of his film and sound recordings can be seen and heard at the National Film and Sound Archive in Canberra.
Haddon was recently the subject of a program Hidden Treasures on the ABC. Presenter Griff Rhys Jones walked in Haddon's footsteps through the Torres Strait to rediscover the meaning of a magical and mysterious mask he saw in the Cambridge Museum.
It was a great program, neither patronising nor sensational, deriving much of its appeal from it's simple ploy of letting the local artists and people do the explaining, augmented by Griff's sensitive and amusing commentary.
Watch it on ABC iView while you can (http://www.abc.net.au/iview/#/program/25516).
Some other links to information about Haddon: