Objects of Enquiry: Insights Offered by Museum Collections

By Andrew Z. Lorey. Andrew is an M.Phil student in the Division of Archaeology at the University of Cambridge. His research focuses on the historical archaeology of Oceania and on the effects of climate change on archaeological heritage.DSC02268

Object E 1919.5.19 – Photograph of a hair comb from Malekula, Vanuatu. Photo by the author. Courtesy of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (MAA), Cambridge

Though we do not frequently acknowledge them, material objects present themselves in innumerable instances during our daily lives. They serve many functions within our lives, often aiding us in accomplishing tasks or simply entertaining us.

Each of us owns a variety of material possessions, and the same was true of people in the past. Objects created and used by people, also called artefacts, represent one aspect of the material record. This material record, in turn, forms the primary data set studied by archaeologists and museum professionals.

The Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (MAA) at the University of Cambridge contains objects from all over the world and from many different time periods. As is the case with most museums, curators may only display a small fraction of their total collections, and many artefacts lie hidden away in storage spaces waiting for researchers to come along and rediscover their stories.

Object E 1919.5.19, pictured above, is one such object. It provides a somewhat jovial impression at first glance, and its grinning face and shell bead eyes draw our attention to the centre of the artefact. Its white and red pigments also capture our attention, and upon reflection and well-reasoned discernment, we may successfully infer that the object was designed to function as a comb or hair adornment.

But can this artefact tell us anything else? Can it reveal anything about the people who originally created it? Where is it from? How did it come to be housed at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge, England?

Although the physical characteristics of Object 1919.5.19 cannot reveal a great deal about its collection, consultation of museum archives showed that the comb was added to the museum’s collections in 1919 and donated by a man named E. G. McAfee. The artefact’s location of origin is listed as the island of Malekula in the country of Vanuatu (formerly the New Hebrides). Beyond this information, however, museum records do not reveal a great deal concerning the comb.

To better understand the life history of this comb, we must also examine the broader social and economic considerations that shaped relations between Europeans and Melanesians at the turn of the 20th century.

The years leading up to 1900 were especially tumultuous in the South Pacific. Australian, Fijian and Samoan plantation owners had been conscripting islanders in Oceania into labour through a process labelled blackbirding since the 19th century, and a variety of missionaries sought to spread Christianity to the indigenous populations throughout the region. Aside from blackbirders and missionaries, historical accounts often note the presence of private merchant vessels travelling through Melanesia as well.

E. G. McAfee may have obtained our hair comb through direct trade with islanders on the island of Malekula, islanders may have produced the comfb specifically for the burgeoning tourist trade or one of McAfee’s contacts in the region may have obtained the comb and then given it to him. No matter the context of origin, the comb’s origins within the early 20th-century period of Melanesian history ascribe many important meanings to it beyond its simple aesthetic characteristics.

Within our example of this comb from Malekula, we have discussed the important meanings and values that inhere within what could easily be disregarded as a static and insignificant object in a museum collection. As disciplines, archaeology and museology offer important insights regarding material objects that may inform our understanding of social and economic concerns. As we have seen, any object may yield a number of important insights.