20 Jul 2012

Return of cultural artefacts hailed as way to grow economy

4:47 pm on 20 July 2012

Overseas museums are being called on to return all Pacific Island artefacts to enable the cultural economies of their countries of origin to grow.

The call comes from the head of the organising committee for the recent Festival of Pacific Arts in Solomon Islands, which included a forum on building the creative economy.

Annell Husband reports.

Thousands of pieces of precious Pacific art are in the hands of museum curators and private collectors all over the world.

Earlier this year a rare, centuries-old Cook Islands pole club was listed at the United States auction house Bonhams' inaugural Oceanic art sale.

The akatara sold for more than 146,000 dollars, almost 50,000 dollars above its estimated sale price.

Doreen Kuper, who is from Solomon Islands, says bringing treasures like that home is an integral part of attracting more tourists.

But she says it'll be too expensive for island countries and she hopes museums with Pacific collections will cover the costs of their return.

"One of the reasons why some of these people who have taken them have said, well, you don't have anywhere to look after them, you don't have air-conditioned museums and so on and these things are just like lying there and deteriorating. And now we need to look at how we can best look after these items, you know, building bigger museums and protecting our treasure. They're our vaulables and we need them to come back here."

Doreen Kuper says preservation work could be funded by donors if they re-examine how to be most effective in the different Pacific Island countries.

And from my point of view it'll be very effective to Solomon Islanders to have identity, recognition, the preservation of culture and artefacts and so on. You know, when you do that to a nation, it gives them pride and it also helps them develop themselves.

But preserving artefacts is only one aspect of strengthening the creative arts and increasing their contribution to the economy.

A British teacher, Julian Treadaway, who has been working in Solomon Islands schools since 1978, says culture must be a part of the curriculum - which it was in the early years of independence.

But he says a lot of schools dropped cultural tuition to allow students to concentrate on the examinable subjects - English, mathematics, social studies and science.

And of course subjects which are sort of seen to be the subjects that are going to get you a job and economically useful and this kind of thing, ignoring the fact that, as we were saying in this conversation here, particularly nowadays , that many of the other, the cultural aspect...we have many people here now, particularly musicians, who have gone overseas, become famous... reporter: but they've done it themselves?... they've all done it themselves, it's not been brought back into the curriculum.

The appropriation of culture is an issue Pacific Islanders feel strongly about.

The creative arts manager at an Australia-based agency that helps the island countries increase their exports, investment and tourism industries says the artists must retain control over their work.

Pacific Trade and Invest's Ruth Choulai, who is from Papua New Guinea, says her organisation serves a niche market, affirming where creators come from and who they are, as it gives them the information they need to profit from their work.

So I have in the pipeline probably about 10 creators that we're bringing through that process that allows them to say, No, actually I don't want it to go to national televsion, I only want it to be exhibited in x, y, z. So we're empowering them to make decisions about where they want to go and guiding them. .

Alasdair Foster of Cultural Development Consulting urges Pacific artists and performers to value both what they have and who they are.

Value what you have, which is very much the traditional heritage from which you come but also value in each individual their individuality, creativity which they will need to engage as a living person within a tradition, and they will also, as has been said a number of times, a tradition is always evolving slowly as it is reinterpreted and relived by each generation.

Dr Karen Stevenson is a longtime observer of the Festival of Pacific Arts and a lecturer at the Oceania Centre for Arts, Cultures and Pacific Studies at the University of the South Pacific in Fiji.

She says urbanisation has had an impact on the festival, which was first held in 1972 as a way of preserving cultures under threat.

I was watching kind of like a hip-hop dance thing where they were hurling themselves over a truck and doing all sorts of things like this, I mean very very much, kind of what is happening in urban societies and situations. And then you turn around and you have people that are dancing their custom and their traditional dances, wearing bark cloth, wearing mats, wearing shells and all of their traditional ornaments.

Dr Karen Stevenson says the festival is now about maintaining and providing a venue for innovation and the integration of one's culture into modern day society.