War Trophies or Curios? The War Museum Collection in Museum Victoria

By Barry Craig, Ron Vanderwal and Christine Winter

When World War One broke out, Britain requested Australia and New Zealand to seize German wireless stations in the Pacific. The Australian Naval & Military Expeditionary Force (AN&MEF) was assembled and set out for Rabaul in East New Britain to secure the surrender of the German administration and seize the wireless station at Bitapaka. 1500 Australian troops arrived in German New Guinea, where just under 700 Germans resided. Australian military occupation began on 12 September 1914 and continued until 9 May 1921 when the civil administration of the Trust Territory of New Guinea began under the terms of the League of Nations.

 From 1915 on, the AN&MEF sent ‘war trophies’ from ex-German New Guinea to the Department of Defence, and from 1918 to the newly established Australian War Museum.  In ex-German New Guinea, where little fighting had occurred, ‘war trophies’ were scarce and by 1918, most Mauser pistols, cartridges, bayonets and German flags had already been souvenired as mementos by members of the AN&MEF. Thus instead of enemy army equipment, local cultural objects were collected and sent: Crates and boxes containing ethnographic artefacts such as spears, pottery, dance costumes, large and small carvings arrived progressively in Melbourne and were placed into the care of the Museum of Victoria for storage. The Australian War Museum was then still without a permanent home.

 When it was decided that these New Guinea collections were not really ‘war trophies’ but more in the nature of ‘native curios’, they were given to the Museum of Victoria on ‘permanent loan’ in 1925. They lay there unexamined until the Curator (Dr Ron Vanderwal) and Dr Barry Craig (South Australian Museum) decided it was time to look at the collection in detail. Ron sent Barry the registration details of all the objects in the collection and began systematically photographing them.

On the basis of a few archival documents from the Australian War Memorial archives in Canberra and the photographs, Barry commenced the process of identification of the objects so that they could be linked to comparable published objects and associated cultural information. A grant from the Gordon Darling Foundation in late 2012 made it possible to contract Dr Christine Winter (REGS, University of Sydney) to look for further relevant archival material in Canberra and write a chapter on the historical context of the collection. Museum Victoria is providing professional photographs of the 272 items that will be illustrated in the book, and is publishing it. Around September 2014, the 100th anniversary of the Australian military take-over of the German colony, announcement will be made of the book launch.

The most magnificent of the New Ireland objects is X31994, a vanis (wanis) mask, often referred to as a ‘walking mask’, collected by District Officer Captain T.L. McAdam (Figure 1). Michael Gunn states (1997, Ritual Arts of Oceania. New Ireland in the Collections of the Barbier Mueller Museum, p.58) that, on Tabar and in northern New Ireland, these ‘walking masks’ are used at the beginning of the final malagan ceremony to commemorate the dead. A mask with remarkably similar facial features from either the ‘north-west coast’ of New Ireland or the Tabar Islands is VI 51633 in the Berlin museum (Klaus Helfrich 1973, Malanggan I, Plate 72).