Curating connections with Objects of the Heart

Personnel Image

Written By

Hannah Gray


College of Arts, Society and Education

Publish Date

1 November 2023

Bringing objects back to life

Each of us have objects that are close to our hearts. Keepsakes, heirlooms, hand-me-downs, treasures — every one of them are symbols of our stories, experiences, relationships or heritage. In cherishing these objects and sharing them with others, we keep our connections and identities alive.

These material connections were recently celebrated at the Papua New Guinea Objects of the Heart: Connection to ‘ples’ event at The Cairns Institute. Held just two days before Papua New Guinea’s (PNG) 48th Anniversary of Independence, the event involved JCU students, staff and academics sharing their connections to PNG through objects with great personal significance.

In addition to the submitted objects, there were also many items from JCU’s Bragge Collection. Laurie Bragge spent more than 45 years living and working in Papua New Guinea after taking a job with the Australian administration as a Patrol Officer (or kiap in Tok Pisin) in 1961. During this time, he developed a deep appreciation and respect for PNG and the peoples of the Sepik.

He also collected more than 600 material culture artefacts (some of which were gifts) as well as various resources, which he used to write an extensive multi-volume history of the Sepik. Laurie Bragge generously donated his collection to JCU in 2019 to assist with research into the rich cultures of PNG.

JCU Anthropology Professor Rosita Henry, who manages the Material Culture Collection at JCU, was particularly excited to have much of the collection on display at the PNG Objects of the Heart event.

“When the artefacts are sitting in storage, you feel like they are almost dead objects, but they have life in them still,” she says. “Bringing them out of storage gives them that sense of being able to speak to people again and to have agency in the world. So, I jump at any opportunity where we’re able to bring those objects out. Especially when it’s initiated by students themselves, as was the case with this exhibition.”

Maggie Wilson's memoir, A True Child of P.N.G. in a glass exhibition case, surrounded by Maggie's multi-coloured shawl.
Laurie Bragge stands in front of a glass exhibition case holding pieces of his collection.
A woman looks at Maggie Wilson's memoir in the exhibtiion case.
Left: Maggie Wilson's memoir and shawl in the exhibition. Top right: Laurie Bragge in front of several pieces in his collection. © James Cook University 2023

We live on in our stories

Rosita contributed two objects of her own to the exhibition: a memoir titled A True Child of Papua New Guinea and a shawl worn by the memoir’s subject. This contribution represents the very beginnings of Rosita’s connection to PNG.

“My first trip to Papua New Guinea was in 1974, in my first year as an Anthropology student,” Rosita says. “I had a friend who lived up there, Maggie Wilson, and I kept my connection with her, her people and her village.

“After I completed my PhD at JCU, she invited me back to Papua New Guinea to do some research together on the topic of women in politics. We were really interested in women’s issues within her village.”

Sadly, Maggie passed away in 2009. Due to their strong friendship, Maggie’s family invited Rosita to finish her memoir. “I went to PNG every year for ten years, interviewing people and getting to know Maggie’s family, her place and what she had done there. She was a really powerful woman who started several businesses in the highlands of PNG, stood for elections — many things like that.

“Slowly, slowly over those ten years, between doing my other research and teaching, I finished Maggie’s memoir, A True Child of Papua New Guinea, which is now published. So, most of my work and connection to PNG is through my friend, Maggie Wilson.”

In addition to Maggie’s memoir and shawl, Rosita also screened the first half of a documentary she made called Bride Price, which documented a significant occasion for members of Maggie’s family. Being able to share tangible expressions of her connection to PNG and its people is something Rosita describes as powerful.

“Objects are more than just objects,” she says. “They say something about our identities, and about our sensory feelings for family, for home, and connections to place. Whether we keep these objects on our bedside table or hidden carefully away to be taken out and appreciated, these items contain our connections and our stories.”

"Objects are more than just objects. They say something about our identities, and about our sensory feelings for family, for home, and  connections to place."

Professor Rosita Henry

The main group of contributors to Objects of the Heart event stand in front of exhibit.
Simaema Wickham mid-spin, with her traditional grass skirt flaring around her.
Left: Main facilitators of PNG Objects of the Heart event, with Simaema Wickham, far left, and Rosita Henry, third from left. Right: Simaema Wickham's opening performance. © James Cook University 2023

Connection to 'ples'

Another contributor to the event’s exhibition was JCU Law and Arts Student Simaema Wickham. As a member of the JCU-PNG Wantribe Student’s Association, which collaborated with The Cairns Institute to host the PNG Objects of the Heart event, Simaema was excited to participate in showcasing connections to ‘ples’ (place).

“It’s important for people to share and celebrate their culture with others, as it reinforces pride in identity,” Simaema says. “By showcasing our traditions and beliefs, we encourage others to do the same.”

Simaema and her fellow Wantribe members were tasked with selecting pieces from the collection or choosing artefacts that they had brought from PNG. They also conducted research on each item they contributed, so they could share the story behind the piece.

Simaema submitted two items for the event, the first being a decorated kina shell gifted to her by her grandmother. “Being of mixed descent, elements of my Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands heritage were intertwined, each coming together in the form of a necklace. My second submission was two toea shells, a form of traditional currency in my Motuan culture of Papua New Guinea. These are significant representations of my cultural heritage.

“As individuals who form part of the Papua New Guinea diaspora [those who live away from their homeland], seeing objects and artefacts that hold value in our cultures connects us to home,” Simaema says.

“Many students at JCU, particularly international students like me, have left our families in search of education and employment opportunities internationally. Living in a foreign country, there is always the threat of losing touch with our culture and language. By participating in projects like PNG Objects of the Heart, we are encouraged to stay connected to ‘ples’.”

Studying at JCU because of its proximity to PNG, Simaema says she found unexpected connections to her homeland. “I was surprised to find out that several of my lecturers had connections to PNG and to the Pacific. Throughout my Arts degree, I learned that JCU has a strong presence within the Tropics. And whether it’s through research, material taught in lectures or even conversations with the staff, I have always found that the University encourages a strong sense of place.”

Want to know more about the engaging events happening at The Cairns Institute? Explore their calendar or catch up on the latest events.

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