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[Open] Secrets / Positions

Relational Secrets

by Anita Herle

Melanesian Techniques of Concealment and Revelation. On the Benefits of Anthropological Research for Curatorial Practice

Museum audiences and the discipline of anthropology have a long history of fascination with secrecy and sacred knowledge, as exemplified by the many studies of secret societies and initiation rituals, as well as the vast numbers of related objects in museum collections. The Humboldt Lab Dahlem project “[Open] Secrets” prompts us to consider the potential of displaying sacred objects in a museum and experiments with different mediums and processes through which secret/sacred objects might be made visible. Drawing on collaborative work with Torres Strait Islanders and other colleagues in the Pacific this article briefly explores Melanesian techniques of concealment and revelation and compares them with the processes of museum display. What are the ‘secrets’ that are being revealed and to whom? How can anthropological research best inform curatorial practice?

In the Torres Strait, as elsewhere in Melanesia, there is a propensity for particular forms of knowledge to be owned, restricted and selectively distributed. The process of concealing and then revealing arcane knowledge, often as part of a performance or ritual, has tremendous efficacy and dramatic presence, which imbues people and objects with power and produces a heightened emotional response. It is not just material objects that are used to contain and transmit secret knowledge, but associated stories, dances, music, bodily decorations and landscapes. These typically refer to an ancestral past and are managed through complex systems of rights and responsibilities linked to genealogical precedence, gender and personal disposition. Secret knowledge is not an intrinsic property – it is created and maintained through social relations.

Different levels of knowledge are contained within, and mobilized through, objects and performances, often simultaneously for different audiences. Knowledge is nested, and the delineation between the secular and the sacred is porous, variable and context dependent. For example, Torres Strait Islanders are well-known for their elaborate choreographed dances which incorporate hand-held ‘dance machines,’ articulated ornaments which refer to elements of the natural world such as stars or sea creatures. Performed for both secular and ceremonial occasions, dances are linked to particular stories, totems, places and events. Members of the audience readily recognize certain elements of the performance but relatively few understand the esoteric or ‘inside’ knowledge that may also be referenced. In other cases people may be privy to secret knowledge but do not have the right to speak about it.

Sacred objects in themselves are not necessarily secret and the same object may be deemed sacred and/or secret in one context and not in another. In many areas of Melanesia, powerful objects are sacrificed, destroyed, discarded or sold to outsiders once they have fulfilled their ritual purpose. New Ireland Malagan are a salient example of objects whose potency and value is limited to the religious circumstances for which they were produced. Alternatively, objects such as commissioned models may be deemed sacred. Among the most important Torres Strait objects in the extensive collections at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (MAA) in Cambridge are a pair of Malo Bomai masks, commissioned by anthropologist Alfred Haddon on the island of Mer in 1898. Malo was the predominant cult hero and agad (god) associated with a powerful religious fraternity. The masks, originally composed of turtle-shell, were secretly made by Wano and Enoch away from the disapproving eyes of missionaries and non-initiates, using cardboard from Haddon’s packing cases. The production of the masks encouraged a re-enactment of the Malo Bomai ceremonies in which numerous Meriam men actively participated, selectively making visible aspects of a secret initiation ritual that had allegedly been forgotten. The masked dancers were photographed and filmed and the sacred Malo Bomai songs recorded on wax cylinders. As this example demonstrates, it is important to acknowledge the agency of local people in determining which aspects of elements of secret knowledge may be revealed and to whom.

In the absence of earlier extant examples, these cardboard masks are sacred objects for many Islanders today. When MAA organized an exhibition to mark the centenary of the 1898 Cambridge Anthropological Exhibition to the Torres Strait, produced in consultation with Islander representatives, we sought advice about their presentation. Here, the concern was not the public display of masks, but the associated stories outlining the arrival and movements of Malo Bomai on the island of Mer, which have continuing socio-political implications. Thanks to the island’s chairman Ron Day, the exhibition text describing Malo Bomai was written with the assistance of Meriam elders. The consultative approach that was developed during the creation of the exhibition has been extremely productive, providing opportunities for cross-cultural exchange and leading to numerous ongoing collaborative projects.

Many anthropological analyses of secrecy and sacred knowledge attend to political power and the maintenance of control by initiates over non-initiates, men over women and elders over youth. Anthropologists thus recognize the mutually constitutive relations of power and knowledge in the communities in which they work. Likewise we need to acknowledge the asymmetrical relations of power and knowledge between museums and the communities that are represented by museum collections and displays. Open secrets thus involve associated political and ethical concerns. While there has been much debate over issues of curatorial authority and the complexities of collaborative research, recent work has demonstrated the potential of developing mutually productive relations with our colleagues and assistants in the Pacific and elsewhere.

So what kind of secrets might be revealed through museum display? The Humboldt Lab  theatrically experiments with techniques of concealment and revelation. Screened areas restrict the viewer’s perspective and frosted glass momentarily clears to show sacred flutes from the Sepik. Tjurunga, secret objects of great significant to Aboriginal people from Central Australia, are shown in the form of plaster replicas, anthropological drawings and publications. The displays are intriguing, and highlight the experiential aspects of both ritual processes and museum display. “[Open] Secrets” demonstrates processes through which esoteric knowledge is revealed, but although visitors may glimpse restricted objects, the content or substance of associated secret knowledge remains unknown.

Given the ontological basis of different knowledge systems, museums can never fully decode the multiple meanings of objects such as sacred flutes and tjurungas. Nor, in keeping with various anthropological codes of ethics, would it be appropriate to try to do so. Yet the objects in museum collections continue to act as mediators between source communities, museum staff and broad public audiences. Fieldwork and consultation with colleagues in the Pacific and elsewhere, combined with an informed but less proprietorial form of curatorship, provide the opportunity to cultivate interest, respect and understanding for diverse knowledge systems, beliefs and practices as well as developing insights into our own subjective positions and perspectives.

Dr. Anita Herle is senior curator for world anthropology at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge (UK). She participated in the workshop “Discussing [Open] Secrets” in Berlin-Dahlem in November 2014.