Historical context.

This mask from Torres Strait will be displayed at the Australian Museum again. Rightly so! Despite its menacing expression it is visually striking and viewers can easily imagine its symbolic potency when used in dance ceremonies during tropical nights. The mask was previously displayed (until the 2000s) with a short text saying that it is from Mer (Murray Island) - the eastern Torres Strait. It was factually correct yet misleading.

On a few occasions I saw the Torres Strait Islanders examining the mask in the exhibition and turning their heads. ‘This is wrong’ – some said. ‘Masks like this are from western Torres Strait.’ We attempted to explain that this mask of the western tradition was indeed collected on Mer (Florek 2005). But I have the impression that such an explanation was not satisfactory. People may like to know ‘why?’

In the absence of an explanation that could have been given by Charles Hedley and Allan McCulloch who collected this mask on Mer in 1907, we are left with circumstantial evidence - embedded in the history of Torres Strait people.

In 1907 the Miriam people of Mer could claim well over a century of contacts and trading with Europeans. At least since the 1870s some people were involved in commercial fishing and pearling as crew members and, later, as entrepreneurs and boat owners within the indigenous fishing company Papuan Industries Limited. They had nearly 30 years experience of dealing with, and self-governing in the framework of, colonial administration.

People on Mer were dedicated Christians with their own church, pastor and various religious duties performed by respected and influential ‘elders’. By chance, they had the benefit of an excellent teacher, John Bruce, who had run the local school for 25 years. The school was compared to the best schools in the Queensland Colony, and some held it equal to schools in England. So, many members of this small community of a few hundred people spoke English and were fluent in reading and writing. Many understood the commercial and social realities of their times and were engaged in political activism as well as attempting to address the problems of income and employment.

Collecting artefacts on Mer has a long history. Many people had witnessed and some were directly involved in major anthropological studies and collecting conducted on Mer in 1888-89 and 1898. The work was done by Professor Alfred Haddon and his Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to Torres Strait. Islanders told researchers about their ‘old’ pre-Christian traditions, giving examples of songs and dances, explaining a cosmology of their previous beliefs. They made drawings to illustrate some ceremonies that were no longer practised, as they conflicted with the Christian faith. People made various replicas of artefacts that were used no more. Some ‘turtle-shell’ masks were made of cardboard. A few people continued, directly or not, sending Professor Haddon information about their ‘old’ culture for many years after the fieldwork was over.

In the 1907 Collection many artefacts were made as replicas. It is important to understand that people from Mer were informing curious collectors about some aspects of their pre-colonial culture, which was then held mostly as a cherished memory. It is possible that the Miriam people, more cosmopolitan than many European Australians of that time, felt they could show and sell Charles and Allan an example of a mask from beyond their own tiny island. Did our collectors understand this fine distinction? Probably not.