Barkcloth and the Baining: Masks in New Britain

Post written by Inna Yaneva-Toraman, University of Edinburgh
Baining masks are one of the most famous artefacts of Papua New Guinean cultures. A tourist cannot visit the country without encountering these masks in one form or another. They are printed on tourism brochures and post stamps, used in various advertisements, and displayed at museums and art galleries. Made from white bark cloth, and painted with natural black and red dyes, these masks have become a symbol for Baining culture and society.

As a PhD student working on Baining masks, I am grateful to Chantal Knowles and Eve Haddow for inviting me to join them on their review of the collection of masks and headdresses from Papua New Guinea at the National Museum of Scotland stores.

Eve excitedly unpacking the mask so we can study it's construction and style

Eve excitedly unpacking the mask so we can study it’s construction and style


During this visit we had a brief discussion on the use of new materials in the composition of masks made after European contact. The Baining mask at the museum stores, for instance, contained a layer of printed paper (probably pages from an old book) underneath the bark cloth, which seemed to stabilize the structure while at the same time keeping the mask as light as possible. When we compared the Baining mask with other Papua New Guinean masks made from bark cloth, we saw that there was a considerable difference in their weight. This led us into a discussion about the use of these masks and the characteristics of the dances for which they are made.

The Baining are a non-Austronesian speaking people, who live on the Gazelle Peninsula in northern portion of East New Britain. They are best known for their spectacular masked dances performed at night. The name “Baining” means “inland people” – bai as “to go inland” and nig or nig-nig as “wild, uncultivated area” (Corbin 1976). Therefore, it is assumed that the name originated among the Tolai people, who live along the Northeastern coasts of the peninsula.

Mask from the Baining people, early 20th century (A.1968.736)

Mask from the Baining people, early 20th century (A.1968.736)


The mask at the museum is an example of the smaller Baining masks called Kavat, which are used in the Baining Fire dance. In the anthropological literature this dance is also known as the Baining Snake dance because it used to include snake handling (Bateson 1931/1932). The Kavat dances are the most vigorous and ecstatic performances at the Baining night dances. The dancers jump in and over a large bonfire, wave burning sticks in the air, and kick the embers to create waves of sparkles around themselves. A good Kavat performance is said to be the one that draws attention with its energetic moves, thus accounting for the need of lighter masks.
A view inside the mask showing the construction of barkcloth stretched over a cane frame

A view inside the mask showing the construction of barkcloth stretched over a cane frame


This particular Kavat mask had been made of a single layer of fine white bark cloth and thin flexible branches. In order to keep the mask light, it is possible that the Baining man who made it chose to use printed paper rather than an additional layer of bark cloth. This example shows that the characteristics of the dances for which these artefacts were/are made, can also tell us about why particular ‘innovations’ in mask making were incorporated into the mask designs. Similarly, by looking at the composition of specific artefacts, we can understand how they were used. In many Melanesian dance contexts, features such as light/heavy, bright/dark, shiny/matte, and high/low, play a significant role in the composition, display, and reproduction of social relationships (A. Strathern & M. Strathern 1971). Thus, by examining the structure and design of artefacts such as masks, we can also learn something about the people who have made them, and the meaning of particular qualities like lightness and heaviness.

Works Cited:
Bateson, G. (1931/1932). ‘Further Notes on a Snake Dance of the Baining’, Oceania, Vol.2, pp.334-341.
Corbin, G. (1976). ‘The Art of the Baining of New Britain’. Ann Arbor: University Microfilms, (doctoral dissertation, Columbia University, 1976).
Strathern, A. & M. Strathern (1971). Self-decoration in Mount Hagen. London: Duckworth.

An Island Adventure

Sign in Gaelic welcoming visitors to Great Cumbrae

Sign in Gaelic welcoming visitors to Great Cumbrae


We recently visited The Museum of the Cumbraes in the Garrison building in Millport on the island of Great Cumbrae to see their collection from Papua New Guinea. For the project team this was the first time we had visited an island. Sadly we weren’t going as far as the Pacific but we were pleased to find palm trees (technically New Zealand cabbage or ti kouka – EH) in the garden outside the museum…
Museum of the Cumbraes in Millport, Great Cumbrae

Museum of the Cumbraes in Millport, Great Cumbrae


On the ferry from Largs to the island of Great Cumbrae (L-R: Chantal Knowles, Eve Haddow)

On the ferry from Largs to the island of Great Cumbrae (L-R: Chantal Knowles, Eve Haddow)


We visited the museum specifically to look at the collection made by Andrew Goldie. A Millport man, he followed his father into the trade as a nurseryman and in the 1860s left Millport town, on the island of Great Cumbrae in the Firth of Clyde on Scotland’s west coast to spend ten years in Auckland, New Zealand importing plants for the gardens of New Zealand settlers. At the end of the ten years he returned home but soon gained a contract with a garden nursery business in London to travel through the South Pacific and supply the firm with bulbs, plants and seeds. Although a knowledgeable gardener, giving him some expertise in Natural History, Goldie was a Victorian ‘plant hunter’ seeking exotic species for the fashionable gardens of Britain.

In 1877 Goldie travelled to Brisbane where he expected to catch a mission vessel to Vanuatu to begin his search for plants, unfortunately he arrived too late to board and on the toss of a coin changed his plans and headed for New Guinea. Goldie spent the next few years exploring, trading and developing businesses. He acquired land, discovered new species of plants and birds, and named the Goldie River after himself. Over the years he became very much a part of New Guinea life and an important contact for missionaries, museums and colonial officials. He set up a trade store and acquired a sizeable piece of land in the capital Port Moresby and became a well-known figure in New Guinea and Brisbane.

Over the years Goldie’s business grew, he invested in various companies and built relationships with museums supplying Natural History specimens to the Australian Museum, Sydney and later Queensland Museum, Brisbane among others. He also supplied dealers and taxidermists worldwide. On our return to National Museums Scotland we were able to discover through our records that one such dealer E. Gerrard and Sons, London based taxidermists, supplied the museum with 103 items attributed to Goldie. How many other Goldie collections may there be?

These 4 lime spatulas from Papua New Guinea are some of a number of objects at National Museums Scotland we have discovered to have been collected by Andrew Goldie

These 4 lime spatulas from Papua New Guinea are some of a number of objects at National Museums Scotland we have discovered to have been collected by Andrew Goldie


The small but significant collection of Goldie material in the Museum of the Cumbraes has been published in the Queensland Museum reports (see http://www.network.qm.qld.gov.au/About+Us/Publications/Memoirs+of+the+Queensland+Museum/MQM-C+Vol+6#.UvqluPbn1VQ ) and can also be seen on-line (http://www.futuremuseum.co.uk/collections/people/key-people/collectors-explorers/andrew-goldie.aspx). It is supplemented with some associated archival material including Goldie’s journal documenting his first voyage to New Zealand, Goldie’s memoirs, the premature announcement of his death in the local paper, a few personal letters, and a photograph of his New Guinea display at the International Exhibition, Sydney. All this makes an interesting and valuable collection and highlights include the shield and hornbill ornament that are on permanent display. The collection didn’t arrive in the museum until the late 1970s having resided in the home of the Goldie family all those years. Whilst clearing the building prior to sale the Goldie family unearthed the objects and donated them to the museum.
There is a permanent display at the Museum in Millport of material from Papua New Guinea donated by Andrew Goldie

There is a permanent display at the Museum in Millport of material from Papua New Guinea donated by Andrew Goldie


At the time the museum curator was assured that nothing remained in the house, however, in the last few months a further collection of bamboo pipes and stone-headed clubs were brought in having been found in the attic. The pipes and clubs add breadth to the collection already in the museum and one of the pipes is decorated by, most likely, a European, depicts stylised ships, men in elaborate dress and fanciful creatures and animals. It is difficult to ascertain who the artist might be – a bored sailor or Goldie himself?
Close up of part of a tobacco pipe which has been in the attic above the old Goldie family home. It was discovered with several other pipes and stone headed clubs last year. We believe this pipe was decorated by a European, possibly a sailor?

Close up of part of a tobacco pipe which has been in the attic above the old Goldie family home. It was discovered with several other pipes and stone headed clubs last year. We believe this pipe was decorated by a European, possibly a sailor?


There are probably other artefacts in Millport and there were certainly a greater number in the past. On our visit Museum Officer Mark Strachan introduced us to Sandy, one of the museum’s volunteers. A retired television and radio shop owner, Sandy remembered fitting the Goldie’s TV aerial in their attic and removing boomerangs and spears to take up on the hills to try out. Sandy also remembered ‘a catamaran’ boat model – most likely a model outrigger canoe – which may yet turn up. So the collection in Millport is Goldie’s mementoes, those souvenirs he brought home with him to Scotland not long before his death. The objects with which he could describe the places, people and things he had seen to his family and friends.
 Mark Strachan, Museum Officer for North Ayrshire Council. Mark is responsible for the Goldie collection and hosted our visit to the museum in Millport

Mark Strachan, Museum Officer for North Ayrshire Council. Mark is responsible for the Goldie collection and hosted our visit to the museum in Millport


Goldie and his collections are well documented but just like the NMS collection we are sure there are more items to discover. For the project it is interesting to connect Goldie’s collections with Custom Officer Ballantyne’s collection in Greenock and Governor McGregor’s collection in Aberdeen giving a sense of Scottish – New Guinea collections and the interactions and interrelations between traders, missionaries and government officers in the early years of the colony.
– Chantal

Exploring Papua New Guinea collections at University of Aberdeen

Today we began week 2 of our review at University of Aberdeen museums. A large part of the Pacific collection is from South East Papua New Guinea. This material came to the Museum from Sir William MacGregor (1846-1919). The son of a crofter from Aberdeenshire, MacGregor was one of 9 children who was to travel the world. He studied Medicine at Aberdeen University before working in Fiji as Chief Medical Officer. He was Administrator of British New Guinea for the British government from 1888-1894 before returning as Lieutenant-governor fro 1895-1898. Later, MacGregor became Governor of Lagos, Newfoundland, and Queensland.

The MacGregor collection includes several shields unique to the Trobriand Islands, situated off the eastern coast of New Guinea:
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A large part of MacGregor’s collection relates to the ‘kula’. This complex system of exchange, which has been a subject of great interest for anthropologists, involves trading of manufactured valuables between islands in the Massim area of South-East Papua New Guinea. The two most valued items were shell necklaces (soulava) and pairs of shell armbands (mwali).

University of Aberdeen were given a number of Mwali by MacGregor such as these two:
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We have been studying these armbands closely, which were adorned with other materials to increase their value. The adornments include seeds, glass trade beads, pink spondylus shell discs, and pandanus leaves:
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MacGregor’s collection at Aberdeen University was his personal one. However he left an even bigger collection, about 8000 objects, in trust with the Queensland Museum in Australia with the wish that they be repatriated to Papua New Guinea for the people there when a suitable museum was created. Much of the material has been repatriated and is housed at the PNG National Museum and Art Gallery in Port Moresby.

– Eve