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Thousands of antiquities returned to PNG after more than 100 years

STEFAN ARMBRUSTER | SBS

Sir William MacGregor (1846-1919)
Sir William MacGregor (1846-1919) - "....very much had the people of Papua New Guinea in mind"

PORT MORESBY - Australia’s long, deep ties with Papua New Guinea were celebrated at last weekend’s APEC meeting in Port Moresby and included the largest return of traditional artefacts by an Australian museum.

The decades long project involved thousands of PNG objects being repatriated to the National Museum, with thousands more still to go.

Everyday disposable items from PNG make up the MacGregor collection at the Queensland Museum, assembled more than a century ago.

Kari Thomas from the PNG community in Brisbane is at the museum contributing to the ‘kambek’ [come back] book to help interpret one of Australia’s great collections of PNG artefacts.

Holding a plain woven, palm-leaf bag that is more than 100-years-old, she was overcome with emotion. “Sorry,” she said with a tear in her eye.

"Because I’ve been in Australia for a long, long time, when I see these things, it takes me back home.” 

Ms Thomas is from Hanuabada but in the decades since she came to Australia the palm leaf bags are now rarely made or used there.

This PNG collection consists of rare, fragile daily items sent to the museum by Sir William MacGregor, the colonial governor of Queensland colony of British New Guinea in the late 1800s.

“It gives a glimpse of ordinary lives,” said Queensland Museum’s head of cultures and history Chantal Knowles. “Usually the flashy gets collected and the mundane forgotten about.

“MacGregor very much had the people of Papua New Guinea in mind.

"His vision for the collection was to have legacy material for the future generations to connect with, and that was very much the future generations of New Guineans.”

Kambek’ grew out of a collaborative project with the PNG National Museum and Art Gallery and Sydney University which has uncovered about 11,000 items.

They have been stored at the Queensland Museum and other institutions for 120 years.

Since PNG independence in 1975, about 4,000 pieces have been returned to the country's National Museum to form its primary collection.

"It’s the largest return of objects in Australia,” said Ms Knowles.

“I struggle to find its equal in the world. We’re not talking small numbers. There’s at least 1,000, if not 2,000, to go home.”

Spanning two countries, the two museums wanted the collection to reconnect with PNG people in Australia and at home.

Not all the objects are going home. Thousands of duplicates will remain in Australia.

"We are so far away from home, and, coming to the museum, you come and see the things and it brings you home,” said Ms Thomas with a laugh.

“I’m glad that they are here and I can see them and my children can have that opportunity too.”

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