Paipa has replaced the Alfred Haddon Collection of Torres Strait Islander treasures in the First Australians Gallery at the National Museum of Australia.In 5 sections - The Coming of the Light, Pearling/Fishing Industry, Cane Cutting Industry, World War II, and Young People and their Environment - Paipa is about the winds of change. The aim is to show how "the four directions of the wind ... drew people to and from the Torres Strait, and how the beliefs, customs and traditions of the Torres Strait Islanders have been influenced by migration and industry."
In The Coming of the Light you'll see the "Mother Hubbard" dresses, which covered women's nakedness (and became wonderful colour creations). Have a close look at an old diver's suit and imagine how claustrophobic it must have been fathoms under water - you had to bend your knees and keep your back straight to pick up the pearl shell. If you leaned forward the headpiece was so heavy you might not be able to stand up again. And what callouses your hands would have grown using the simple hooked machetes to cut tons of cane a day!
World War II relics still litter the islands, and here there are bits of planes and many photos. While modern young Islanders are as up to date in sunglasses as anywhere in Australia.
The exhibition is a deliberate shift from an anthropologist's view of Islander people to a presentation of the people's experience through their own words, photographs and iconic objects since the Rev Samuel McFarlane of the London Missionary Society introduced Christianity on 1 July 1871, a date now celebrated each year by Islanders throughout Australia.
So what should we expect from such an exhibition? A strong positive appreciation of the people's culture surviving all that was thrown in their way, I imagine.
I certainly found an accentuation on the positive achievements, but not enough about the forces which might have destroyed them. We need to know these truths.
Dawn Casey, NMA director, has done the right thing by employing an Islander, Leilani Bin-Juda, to curate the exhibit, and she has done a great job collecting materials, including people's stories. But I fear that the legacy of the old Queensland Department of Native Affairs still casts an awful shadow. We are given only snippets of the dangers of pearlshell diving and the hardships of cane cutting. So I sought more from Uncle Seaman Dan, of Darnley Island and Harry Pitt from Mackay.
From them I heard stories that should be in the exhibit. Seaman Dan told me of the pearlshell diving bank off Darnley, more than 30 fathoms down, where an unknown number of young men have been caught in the reef, in their bulbous divers' suits, while their supply boats, pushed by tides and winds, shifted beyond the reach of safety lines and air hoses. From that depth, he says, you must come up slowly, stopping to acclimatise at 5 or 6 levels. That's with your air hose attached. Father Dalton Bon from Torres Strait said at the opening last Monday that nothing happens by accident: everything is part of God's plan. Well, I wondered about such belief when I heard Seaman Dan's story.
I found that Harry Pitt has also wondered since his life as a cane cutter and merchant seaman has taken him around the world and among people of many cultures. If you leave the cane too long, he said, the molasses start oozing out. So, I asked, you get fumes or something? No, it's the bees. You go to take hold of the cane to cut it, and you get a handful of bees. Without a glove....
I showed Harry the description, quoted from someone named Jeremy Beckett, about 1947, when the pearling industry was declining and "the Department [of Native Affairs allowed] 80 men to go down to the cane fields where there was a shortage of canecutters .... The experiment was successful and repeated several years running." Their wages were paid straight into the bank, explained Harry. They could ask for a sub, say £2, but that's all they got. Harry was fortunate that his family were evacuated during the war, which was why he was brought up in Mackay. This meant he was a free man and could go contract canecutting in 1960 on the same terms as other contractors. But people who remained on the Islands, and of course other Aboriginal people like those on Palm Island, were still controlled by the infamous Department.
I thought, too, that Islander Eddie Mabo's taking on 200 years of British law, and winning, should be mentioned, and a link made to the Rights Area in the First Australians Gallery. Maybe many people feel that a museum should just be a nice place to enjoy the remains of the past, but director Dawn Casey said she is proud that "The Museum in fact is the only one which presents Torres Strait Islander culture in the national context." The exhibit has a 3 year run, so I hope more stories like Seaman Dan's and Harry Pitt's will be brought in to show us the total picture. Then we will really see the amazing resilience of Islander culture.
© Frank McKone M.A., F.A.C.E.
Return to Frank McKone'sHome Page