Cultural heritage in modern PNG

The role of tradition and heritage in contemporary Papua New Guinea is a complex topic, and one that is commonly debated in communities and households throughout the country.

Dr Moutu, Martin Brash and Marie Mondu listen in on Sharlene Gawi

An expert panel and an engaged audience voiced a variety of perspectives at a public event themed ‘Cultural Heritage in Modern PNG: Protecting Our Values’, which was held on Monday 23 September at the University of Papua New Guinea.

The discussion was part of the Toktok Bilong Strongim Nesen series and among the areas covered were the relevance of custom to commerce, agriculture, society and the environment.

Dr Moutu discusses tabu – a traditional Tolai form of currency – as a case study for the discussion

Speakers included Dr Andrew Moutu, National Museum and Art Gallery director; Marie Mondu, Catholic Bishops Conference development secretary; Sharlene Gawi, Bilum Culture owner; and Martin Brash, Tanorama Limited executive director.

Dr Moutu said cultural heritage connects to communities in a way that expands beyond possession, inheritance and succession.

“It relates to material structures, institutional complexes and social practices,” Dr Moutu said, “and carries a powerful emotional charge and value structure emanating from the idea of belonging, association or identity bound up with a certain form of cultural heritage.”

“What is consistent in the story of its origin is the view that cultural heritage is set on a mission to civilize the nations of the world anew.

“This is based on understanding a country’s historic past and present and a commitment to enact certain program actions to enable individual countries to progress towards a better future.”

Marie Mondu said maintaining traditional relationships with the natural environment will be vital in building climate change resilient communities.

“If you take the environment away from a Papua New Guinean you extinguish part of that person and their identity,” she said.

“Our environment is our lifeline – we get our food, our oxygen, our identity from the forest, land and ocean.

“We take from them, but respectfully. There are limits and the elders will tell you when you start doing harm to the environment,” Ms Mondu continued.

“Go to our indigenous knowledge about food preservation and drought resistant crops – in a way you are bringing that cultural knowledge back.”

Sharlene Gawi explored the commoditisation of cultural artefacts and said that understanding their meaning is key to continued relevance.

“We have to respect the traditional knowledge that’s passed down,” she said, “we need to be respectful in how we commercialise our culture.”

“It’s not a bad thing – it provides economic empowerment – but you have to go about it respectfully so the beneficiaries are the people.

“Our stories, the meaning of our names, the significance of bilum making and ways of building houses – it really does shape our values, attitudes and decision-making going forward.”

Ms Gawi said Papua New Guineans need to take responsibility when it comes to learning the cultural significance of bilums, the symbolism of their patterns and the respecting the labour the goes in to production.

“There are stories about the bilum and the value they hold in society that we haven’t really brought through – they are so important and so unique,” Ms Gawi said.

“Some are made with three different plants – three different natural fibres – which vary in strength and colour, but each playing an equal role.

“That’s like us – every one of us is like a link in that bilum,” she continued, “once one loop unravels, it all unravels.

“Each year we celebrate Independence and we should also celebrate our dependence on each other as Papua New Guineas.”

The Toktok Bilong Strongim Nesen public discussion series is supported by the PNG-Australia Partnership to give Papua New Guineans a say on important national issues.