Jewels from Oceania

The Lajos Bíró Collection 30/Sep/2011 - 1/Apr/2012
It was as a natural scientist that Lajos Bíró (1856-1931) arrived in German New Guinea, but he had also been commissioned to collect ethnological objects. Europeans had first taken possession of New Guinea barely 10 years before Bíró's arrival which meant that researchers were able to document a culture relatively untouched by western civilisation.

 

His collecting work brought him very close to the Papuans. He learnt a number of local languages and through his wives there were times when he lived in their villages rather than in the European settlement. It was because of these close ties that in a number of cases the Papuans asked him to settle their conflicts with the authorities.

The full Bíró collection, including the group of objects from Huon Gulf is outstanding not only for its documentation but also for its quantity. Its 5,519 items represent more than a third of the total Oceania collection containing 14,600 items (the museum's second largest non-European collection.

In societies living a traditional way of life any practice or object related to shaping the body is part of a symbolic language. It is a visual means of expression and form of communication with which individuals are able to express a number of things for their environment about themselves and their world view. This system of symbols is culturally determined, known and understood by the members of the given community and its respect is strictly regulated on the basis of their norms. A piece with a certain symbolic function, for example, cannot be worn by just anyone to suit their own personal taste, but only by members authorised to do so by the community.

His collecting work brought him very close to the Papuans. He learnt a number of local languages and through his wives there were times when he lived in their villages rather than in the European settlement. It was because of these close ties that in a number of cases the Papuans asked him to settle their conflicts with the authorities.

The wearing of jewels differs by gender and age and is influenced by the norms, fashion and practice. Jewels and body ornaments also play an important role in manifesting social status, political power or economic situation. They also represent the social situation as a life stage. There is a striking difference between everyday combinations of simpler, fewer pieces and the highly ornamental, festive collections of numerous jewels. There are special pieces that can only be worn on particular occasions and even then only by prominent persons, leaders or, for example, those who are to be initiated. Some accessories can only appear at certain feasts and there may be strict rules for their destruction after the rite. In this case the collector needed to be very lucky to obtain them. The jewels may also convey information about the wearer's magic and religious world-view. In addition to their marking role they are generally also linked to the aim of influencing the supernatural in the individual's interest. These amulets and talismans serving a protective function are the prefigurations of many types of jewels. At the same time these objects can also signal a closer, positive relationship with the transcendent, for example, the connection with the ancestors and "knowledge" in the case of an initiated person. But the jewels and their combination worn on any particular day can also be influenced by local fashion that changes from one village or small community to another.

Curator: Anna Biró