Culture and meaning
‘It is good to see them here in Sydney, so far away from home’, commented Novita Wenda on viewing bags and skirts from her Papuan culture in the Museum’s collection. Novita is one of two young Indonesian interns hosted by the Museum under the Australia-Indonesia Youth Exchange Program recently.
Her fellow intern, Putu Ayu Yunita Yastini, from Bali, agreed. ‘It surprised me that other people have such interest in and reverence for my culture.’ During a three-week visit, both interns offered insights about selected objects from their cultures in the Museum’s collection.
Novita sent home images from the collection to be identified and interpreted by her family; Putu wrote a number of blogs about shadow puppets, guardian statues and, her special interest, the mind-boggling complexities of the Balinese pawukon calendar.
Their visit focused on personal perspectives about Papuan and Balinese cultures through objects in the collection – cultures that are evolving and changing due to population change, tourism, commercialisation and modernity. Putu and Novita are the bearers of their tradition as well as witnesses and even agents of change, which is why their personal stories are important.
‘I was born and educated in Jayapura but my family are all Dani people from the Central Highlands’, Novita said. ‘I was surprised and excited to see objects I hadn’t seen before and immediately felt a strong sense of connection.’
Although she lives away from her homeland she has an interest in and understanding of her cultural tradition – kept alive by the network of relatives and friends. While examining the Museum’s collection for the first time she was surprised and impressed to see that bags, skirts and body decorations used by her people are carefully kept and looked after in our stores.
Among the collection was a selection of string bags, noken, commonly used by people in the highlands of Papua and beyond. Novita wrote a story about noken to explain how they are made and used (traditionally for carrying babies or piglets, or worn as a body cloth or headdress). She said that young people are now using this versatile container for carrying books and mobile phones.
Novita sees the valuable role of museums in preserving and nurturing Papuan culture in a rapidly changing world. She mobilised some of her relatives in the Central Highlands to help with the identifying and explaining a number of Dani artefacts from the collection.
‘My brother showed great interest and organised a meeting with members of the Dani and Huwulama peoples. The photos of the objects were circulated; there was great curiosity and interest to identify and discuss relevant objects to their own tribal group. And questions were asked why they were in a museum in Australia!’
Putu resolutely expressed similar sentiments. She was surprised that the objects and practises employed by Balinese people daily should be the subject of scholarly interest, collecting effort and considerable admiration.
Nurtured in Balinese traditions by her community and extended family, Putu was considering becoming a priestess, but she decided to follow her mother and train as a teacher. Putu has sharp cultural awareness and participates in orthodox and contemporary spheres of Balinese culture.
As a teacher who interprets her language and culture to foreigners she needs to be able to connect with the modern world and also explain her traditions. As a skilled dancer and language teacher she is also inclined to a leadership role.
While at the Museum Putu wrote a number of stories about aspects of Balinese culture: shadow puppets, offerings, guardian statues and textiles, but one of her great interests is the Balinese calendar. The calendar, in its many forms, foretells auspicious or unfavourable days for everyone and their undertakings, as well as for scheduling ceremonies. With embedded cultural knowledge it provides a window, like a compressed introduction, to Balinese culture and its complexity.
Revealing just a tiny snippet of this complexity, Putu said: ‘The pawukon calendar – believed to be based on the rice growing cycle in Bali – has 10 different week-cycles, all running simultaneously. The lengths of the weeks are from one to ten days, all with their very own set of names for each day. It means the same day often has different names, depending on which of the cycles is used.
‘Most of the celebrations and rituals are held every 35 days or 15 days, on a day when the three-day week and five-day week or five-day week and seven-day week coincide. Balinese consult their calendars to schedule rituals, rice-farming, business and even personal-related events such as paying debt or cutting hair.’
We hope that Novita and Putu will continue to collaborate in uncovering meaning embedded in the Museum’s cultural collections.
This is an edited version of a story that first appeared in Explore 36(2).