Michael Mel grew up in an idyllic village in the Goroka region of Papua New Guinea. In this episode, the AM's West Pacific Collection Manager describes the food, home and community life of his childhood.

Michael Mel - Manager of Pacific and International Collections
Portrait of Michael Mel taken in Feb 2018. Image: Abram Powell
© Australian Museum

Michael recalls how his parents experienced the arrival of the first white people to the village.

"It was in 1933 that the Leahy brothers headed up into the Highlands. They were gold fossickers. They set up a whole mining structure there and started to dig. Following the gold fossickers came the missionaries... A lot of changes happened – the emergence of alcohol, cash economy, paid employment and of the local economy. It was challenging times but also very exciting.

"People started to become aware that the world was now defined in a different way. Days and night were not necessarily days and nights in the old way, but they were days of the week when you had to work or didn't have to work. It was a completely different system... you couldn't get away from it."

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Kim McKay: Welcome to AMplify, the Australian Museum's regular podcast series where I get to talk to some of the amazing people who work behind the scenes at the Australian Museum. I'm Kim McKay, the director and CEO, and today my very special guest is actually one of my favourite people on the team, Michael Mel. He's the manager of our West Pacific collection, which is a fantastic collection. Welcome to AMplify.

Michael Mel: Thank you Kim, I'm very happy and very delighted to be here and to talk with you, but also to engage with everyone out there.

Kim McKay: Exactly, because it's fun to talk about our collection, especially this particular one that you manage. And of course, Michael, when you joined us about 11 months ago, I think 11 or 12 months ago, the thing about you is you had been living in Highlands of Papua New Guinea for most of your life. Of course you've study in other places, visited Australia many times. I think you've got your PhD here, yes?

Michael Mel: Yes, I did.

Kim McKay: That's right, but you were at Goroka University. And of course it's the magic of Papua New Guinea and the Highlands that fascinates us all. Would you tell us a little bit about how you grow up there because you were at Mount Hagen, right?

Michael Mel: Yes.

Kim McKay: So tell us what it was like.

Michael Mel: Well, growing up in the Highlands I have very vivid memories of growing up because it had such an impact on me. You're dealing with a place that is absolutely wonderful in terms of climate. You're up about 1,500 to 2,000 feet up sea-level, so in that sense the air is not too thin but then not too heavy with all the things that you would find on the coast.

Kim McKay: So it's not humid.

Michael Mel: No, it's absolutely wonderful and very, very good air. As well as that, the mountains are there but you've got very lovely, lovely valleys, and of course a lot of the agriculture that is very well known for in that part of the world, it's very much part of the river systems and the valleys that have been created over time. So lots of food, great communities, wonderful families, and a great environment to really grow up.

Kim McKay: It sounds a bit ideal.

Michael Mel: It is very much ideal. I mean, everybody can have theirs but I'll go to Hagen, I'll go to Goroka, I'll go to those places any time. I love the Highlands in Papua New Guinea especially.

Kim McKay: So tell us about the agriculture there and what is grown there.

Michael Mel: The main staples, the locals call it kaukau, but it's sweet potato. There are lots of varieties and different tastes that the women especially have been able to cultivate and to feed our pigs but more importantly to all the men and women and children. I grew up on kaukau. It's good stuff. And unlike some of the niceties that you get now, I remember kaukau quite vividly and the way it was prepared. And then of course you get lots of vegetables. And our favourite ingredient in cooking was ginger, together with a local salt that was prepared from burning timber and ash and the way they did it and it was quite an important commodity that was sold or at least exchanged in the community. So a lot of our food involved ginger and involved the local salt, and also cooking not in necessarily pots per se but in earth ovens, if you like, and on open fires and so forth. So it was a very different way of life. I can still remember that, and when we cooked in our saucepans and boiled stuff…

Kim McKay: So you lived in a village?

Michael Mel: Absolutely, and in a hut, and you had a hut where it was all smoke. It was quite nice as well because I used to spend more time with my grandfather, and he had a lovely round house and very warm and very cosy. And in it you'd have…you'd get tired, you'd go to him, he'd have a nice couple of kaukaus roasting in the fire, and then a nice log fire and all warm. And in the evenings it's quite cool, and when it's like that outside you go into a nice warm hut and it's really beautiful.

Kim McKay: So what was the hut constructed of?

Michael Mel: Basically it was constructed of very fine wood that was harvested from the mountains, and then around it surrounding the walls were woven mats made out of local material, and then a thatched roof. And of course all very tight and packed, just so that you can contain the heat at nights, and then during the day if there was a warm day or indeed a wet day, everything would be kept out. So it was always fresh and cool during the day and really nice and warm at night. It was always lovely.

Kim McKay: Sensible building.

Michael Mel: Absolutely. And they knew how to do it in those days.

Kim McKay: So you came from a family where I believe your parents remember when they were young children seeing the first white people visit the area.

Michael Mel: That is correct. It was in 1933 that the Leahy brothers headed up into the Highlands. They were really gold fossickers, and they went up to our community. And at that time my father and mother…of course at that time because they were youngsters, living away from the community, separately obviously, but they remember them coming in, and they remember them going up to especially to my mother's place where they found the soil and the river systems very much in favour of it having gold, alluvial gold. So they set up, they dug around and did that and then they could find that there was something in there. So they really set up the whole structure there and started to dig up, goldmining, that's what they did.

Kim McKay: So it changed that community.

Michael Mel: It's very much did.

Kim McKay: But you said your parents, even though they were only young, four and five years of age, they remember it very clearly.

Michael Mel: Very vividly. And of course following the gold fossickers, on the back came the missionaries. So the Catholic missionaries on the one side and then the Lutherans on the other side, and then eventually the Seventh-day Adventists, a lot of the mainstream started to come in. And there was a bit of a fight between the churches as to which ones belonged to the Catholics and which ones belonged…so there was a bit of a bunfight amongst the churches about the locals.

Kim McKay: And as we know, when gold fossickers, gold miners come into a community like this and then the church comes, then the alcohol comes, doesn't it, the bars open up.

Michael Mel: Yes, and a lot of changes did happen, and the emergence of alcohol, the emergence of a cash economy, of paid employment, all of those things where you now needed to come in and you were paid cash, or initially you were paid not cash of course, you were paid in bush knives and tobacco and axes and the like. But gradually you could see that then following the church and the gold fossickers, the government agency started to step in, established law and order, established administrative structures and local councillors and so forth and so on, which then led to paid employment. And then the emergence of a local economy where the gold fossickers, of course you then bring on the traders who brought the goods from outside in because everybody needed one thing or another. And the traders came in, Chinese traders, Australians, others, and so a commercial…so the village community, my parents grew up in that kind of emerging economy where money now was introduced as a means of exchange, not necessarily the traditional stuff. So yes, it was really a challenging time and very exciting at the same time.

Kim McKay: And I imagine for their parents it was a very shocking time because their whole way of life began to change.

Michael Mel: Of course. And they had to rearrange their days. Suddenly instead of saying today, tomorrow and the next day in language, you would say it's a Monday, it's a Tuesday, Thursday and then it's Saturday, and then of course Monday to Friday were known as work days, and Saturday was rest day, and then Sunday was a holy day or you had to go to church. So they were naming those. And so people started to become more like…become aware of the fact that the world was now defined in a different way. Days and nights were not necessarily days and nights in the old way but they were days of the week where you had to work and when you didn't have to work. And then of course Saturday was when you went out to town. Every other day, there was only one day that was set for the government where you had to do road cleaning or road maintenance or do a range of things. So it was a completely different system that was introduced. They basically recruited a lot of young men who went out and said 'you listen to the white fellas and do as they say'. And there was a lot of discipline, a lot of order that was set amongst it, so you couldn't get away from it. If you got away from it you were put into a workload or you were sent into some sort of jail or some arrangement where you were harangued and harassed.

Kim McKay: But Michael, you did get away from it in a different sort of way, didn't you, because you obviously were good at school, I'm imagining.

Michael Mel: I've got to give credit to all the nuns because they were very, very tough. Discipline of the highest order. But at the same time they made sure that we learned to speak the language, add up the numbers, do the correct spelling. So I could look in a way negatively, but at the same time in the way that things have been able to…I've been able to go to the places I've been, I think that early education in the way that these nuns and people educated and trained us provided a lot of good I think. But I've also gone back to my village now, and because much later now I appreciate my own culture and my own heritage, and I went to school, I forgot my language or I didn't speak it as well, but I went back and I started to speak it more and more.

Kim McKay: And really Michael you've become somewhat of a leader in promoting Papua New Guinean culture to our world and to understanding it and to being able to help make the modern interpretation of that relevant to Australians today.

Michael Mel: I think that's very, very important. I can never, if you like, remove who I am in terms of my community, my parents, my heritage. I think that's a significant part of me, and I have to appreciate and I have to actually live it, talk about it and enunciate it in many ways and many forms and on different platforms. But at the same time I realise that I'm dealing with communities where my language is not their language and therefore we have to find a medium where we can communicate with each other, and therefore learning of the English language, reading, writing and speaking it has been a very important aspect as well. And so if I want to talk about my culture, which I very much like to and very often do, and hence being involved in the museum has made it a significant aspect, and finding that platform of the English language to now exchange and cultivate and bring that forth, and that has been a wonderful experience, and it's all the more important.

Kim McKay: So you went to the University of South Australia, did you, or…?

Michael Mel: I went to Flinders University in South Australia.

Kim McKay: And did your PhD. So what did you study there?

Michael Mel: I basically started…my background is in performing arts because in my own heritage and history I grew up listening to some wonderful stories and watching a lot of performances, both by my mother and my father and members of my community. So in many ways I think some of those early encounters did shape me in a way that I stuck onto the arts, and when I went on to doing later studies in higher degrees I basically went into performing arts and particularly focused on drama and storytelling. And I really enjoyed doing that, and I tried to do that where I could go back and talk about my ways of telling stories, whereas Western theatre, Western performances and playwriting, I could see it and I valued it but I realised also that I had traditions that are very rich and I need to bring it out and share it.

Kim McKay: And so then you returned to the Gorokan Highlands and I think you spent 32 years at Goroka University, is that correct?

Michael Mel: That is correct, that is correct…

Kim McKay: Teaching…

Michael Mel: Yes, teaching drama and training young teachers or at least teachers who are going to go out and do secondary schools. And I really did that first of all advocating that our own cultures are very important and our own performing traditions are very important. We could never forget, we could not deny all of those in the face of changing times. So that was very important. But at the same time trying to cultivate youngsters that could manage their own culture and at the same time engage with the world that was changing.

Kim McKay: So you first became involved here at the museum I think back in 2011 with the beautiful birds of paradise exhibition.

Michael Mel: Absolutely, and that was a fantastic exhibition because for the Australian Museum to really see and connect with the Highlands and particularly with the birds of paradise. And one of the things about the Highlands is the variety of aviary life that is abundant in the Highlands. And of course significant among those is other different species of birds of paradise. And given the plumage and the colour and the vibrancy of those, Highlands communities found great value not only in an economic sense but also in a cultural sense, in a spiritual sense in those birds. And so connecting with that heritage and then coming to the museum setting and how they found that kind of connection was very important. But what was important about that exhibition and for that I appreciate now the different attitude and approach they took where, one, they went and worked with communities who were very knowledgeable and familiar with the birds of paradise and the way in which they engaged with them, the way in which they performed, and in many ways became them. And of course the Australian Museum is very well known in terms of the science and the research in the way that they've gone about studying animals and plants in our region.

Kim McKay: That's right, the collection is quite large, isn't it.

Michael Mel: Yes, very. And for the Pacific we have in excess of 60,000 objects. Half of that almost, a little over half of it is from Papua New Guinea, an extraordinary collection of birds of paradise feathers and a whole host of cultural material that is now here at the Australian Museum.

Kim McKay: The other big project you are involved in most recently was of course with the Asaro Mudmen and making those masks, and we had a wonderful delegation of Asaro Mudmen come to the museum and making their traditional mud masks.

Michael Mel: Yes, and once again I think that's really the step that the Australian Museum is taking, wanting to actually engage with communities, communities who are the owners, if you like, of culture, and of how they now need to engage with not only the museum but also with members of the communities that surround the museum, sharing cultures and sharing an engagement and having a conversation, if you like, and that has been one of those exciting parts of that particular exhibition as well.

Kim McKay: It's incredibly important to have you here to work on the West Pacific collection and the Papua New Guinean collection because it does create that direct link back to PNG, and it also gives more value to the collection to have you here for us interpreting it as well and creating those community links. Here at the Australian Museum you can see some of that collection in our new Westpac Long Gallery, you can see it up in Pacific Spirit on level one. But most of it is not on display unfortunately because we don't have the space as yet, I hope to in the future, that we could show more of it and have more community performance here on site because every time people visit us from the West Pacific it is so exciting to share that culture firsthand.

Michael Mel: Absolutely, and more recently of course we've had the Solomon Islanders that have come in, the choir community from Malaita, and this is not the first time obviously, but the fact that they've connected with the science researchers but also with the cultural collection and in the way that they've really connected with some of the cultural material that we have on the collection and also providing workshops, and in the workshops where they have engaged with the public and the community here in Sydney of showing and sharing, of skill sharing, of knowledge sharing. I think that goes a long way now to our museums, that this is a shared space of our historical linkages. One can quite easily go into it was them and us, how destructive it was. But on the other side, on the flip side we have all this shared…we were affected but they were affected too. So it's a sharing, it's our ability now to share the stories and connect with each other and begin to appreciate what we have now and then navigate together for whatever the future might be. So in that sense the museum is such a wonderful and lovely space.

Kim McKay: It is, and I'm very committed to us exploring that nexus between culture and science because only in a museum like this can you really see that link coming out, through these collections, through the stories, through the community connection, and that's very exciting for the future, don't you think?

Michael Mel: Absolutely, and I think in many ways, particularly for indigenous communities and communities in the Highlands for example, the use of science in a very practical way, in a very application kind of way, they did think about how and why and how things worked, but utilising all of that knowledge into doing things, from making things, and how certain things seem to work together, and having that science and yet science serving a cultural aspect to making sense of life and forming great relationships, and in those great exchange ceremonies that the Highlanders are well known for, and all of that is really relationship between science and culture, how to remain separate but quite often work together to create human life and make life meaningful.

Kim McKay: Well, thank you Michael Mel for being with us at the Australian Museum, we love having you as part of the team here. But also I think it's so important that Australians come to know more about Papua New Guinea. You're our closest neighbour to the north, and we've been so involved in the development of Papua New Guinea but few Australians really understand it. So having you with us at the Australian Museum I think can help bridge that gap a bit too. So thank you for sharing your story with us today.

Michael Mel: An absolute pleasure, and a great joy to be here, thank you Kim.