The National Museum & Art Gallery Port Moresby is a cultural hub in Papua New Guinea that has a rich history of collecting and preserving artifacts that reflect the diversity of the animal and cultural cultures of the region. The idea for a museum was first proposed by William Macgregor, the British Governor of Papua New Guinea in 1889. Macgregor started a collection to collect natural history specimens and other objects, but it wasn’t until much later that the museum gained traction.
In 1953, an Antiquities Ordinance was created, and a new collection program began. In 1954, a board of trustees was established for the proposed museum’s establishment, and in 1956, the Papua New Guinea Public Museum and Art Gallery were created through the Public Museums and Art Galleries Ordinance.
The museum’s development was a slow process, but in 1960, it finally moved to an old hospital. However, the lack of skilled staff and facilities made progress difficult until the Cultural Development Program was established by the Australian government in 1973. This program was committed to the development and maintenance of the museum and recognized the influence that the Australian colonial administration had on Papua New Guinea.
The museum has over 50,000 ethnographic items, but there are still many cultures and regions that aren’t well represented despite the large collection. Researchers have collaborated with the museum to study the pottery trade in the Gulf of Papua, and the findings showed that trade between Australia, Papua New Guinea, and Australia was possible in the previous two millennia. The Smithsonian staff also visited the museum and collaborated with them to share their knowledge about song traditions and ecological knowledge.
In 1974, Prime Minister Michael Somare wrote: “We regard our masks, and art, as living spirits with fixed homes. It is wrong that they should be kept in New York, Paris, or Bonn.” In response to this sentiment, the museum has actively pursued the repatriation of cultural artifacts that have been taken out of the country. The museum has successfully repatriated items from the William Macgregor collection, and in 2020, they received 225 objects from Australia’s National Gallery as part of an agreement program of repatriation.
The museum’s collection houses artworks and objects that reflect Papua New Guinea’s rich indigenous cultures. The museum considers itself to be a Haus Tumbuna, or a place for the ancestors, and the objects relate to music, body ornament, ceremony, and navigation. The galleries were recently equipped with new technology, including a display of the Second World War, as part of a refurbishment managed by the Australian firm Architectus in 2017.
Many institutions abroad have material culture collections from Papua New Guinea because of legacies of colonialism. These include the Hood Museum, Science Museum, British Museum, Pitt Rivers Museum, Field Museum, Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Metropolitan Museum of Art, and others. The legality of some objects in the De Young Museum’s Melanesian collection was questioned in 2006, and nine objects were claimed to be national property and should, therefore, be returned to Papua New Guinea.
The National Museum & Art Gallery Port Moresby is an essential part of Papua New Guinea’s cultural heritage and a valuable resource for researchers and tourists alike. The museum’s commitment to the repatriation of cultural artifacts and the celebration of indigenous cultures makes it a unique and important institution in the region.