Of colonial photographs and cultural resources: The photographic archive of the Sarawak Museum
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The photographic archive of the Sarawak Museum was established in the early 1950s in Sarawak, a Malaysian state under British colonial administration on the island of Borneo. Together with his staff, the curator Tom Harrisson documented the work of the museum through photographs taken in the various indigenous communities in the region. Over time, the archive developed into an extensive collection containing thousands of images. Before becoming the curator, Harrisson had been involved in a research project called Mass-Observation, which he and two other researchers launched in the late 1930s in order to investigate the views and habits of British citizens.
In this article, I draw parallels between Harrisson’s work at the Sarawak Museum and his previous projects. I explore the background of the photographs, including the ways in which the material differs from other contemporary collections, the theories and aims that informed its creation, the museum staff who created the images, and the communities they show. From 2010 to 2012, I circulated a number of photographs from the museum in these source communities, aiming to test if Harrisson’s methodological claims about potential uses of material he collected applied to the Sarawak Museum archive.
There has been significant debate about the role of government archives, among them those containing photographic material, in societies under colonial administration. As Appadurai and others have pointed out, ethnographic photographs from the period tended to reinforce social and cultural stereotypes that supported the unequal power relationships between local communities and the colonial administration (Appadurai, 1997; Hight and Sampson, 2002; Poole, 2005). Used in the process of “differentiating, ordering, and controlling the various peoples and landscapes under western occupation” (Hight and Sampson, 2002, p. 7), the images supported the frameworks of governance and provided the knowledge that colonial governments used to organize their administration. The tendency to produce images focusing on specific racial “types” (Poole, 2005; Banks, 2003) extended to commercial photography, particularly in the case of images of indigenous peoples, which were often represented through “primitivist” clichés (Prins, 2002).
More recently, researchers have been reconsidering such colonial documents. An increasingly nuanced approach to them has uncovered complex relationships at the source of ethnographic and colonial photography, which has led to a reevaluation of the colonial archive (Edwards and Morton, 2009; Banks and Vokes, 2010; Buckley, 2005). The context of the creation of each image and the subsequent trajectory of the material objects, or, as Elizabeth Edwards puts it, the “social biographies” of colonial photographs, have become relevant for the discussion of this material (Edwards, 2002, 2004; Edwards and Hart, 2002). Through their “random inclusiveness” (Morton and Edwards, 2009; Morton, 2009) and their detailed reproduction of the elements in a scene that ultimately cannot be controlled, alternative interpretations of photographs become possible. The technology situates the photographic subject in a “potentially democratic visual public sphere” (Appadurai, 1997, p. 5). Because of these processes, photographs have been rediscovered as “contested sites of encounter and cultural exchange even within asymmetrical power relations” (Edwards and Morton, 2009).
The critical appraisal of colonial archives has also called into question the proprietary and moral rights to the material. In the past decade and half, the debate over ownership of colonial and ethnographic photographs has sparked the repatriation of visual archives and the discussion of such images with source communities (Edwards, 2001; Binney and Chaplin, 2003; Peers and Brown, 2009; Bell, 2008; Smith, 2008).
From 2010 to 2012, I returned scanned and printed copies of some fifteen hundred photographs from the Sarawak Museum archive to the source communities along the Baram River and its tributaries in the north of Sarawak. The museum holds one of only a few collections of historical photographs from the region, and the people in the source communities showed great interest in the material. They searched the images for pictures of their own families and friends, and in response to what they saw, they recounted oral histories and re-created elements of their cultural heritage. The institutional background of the images and their role in the ethnographic description of the communities for foreign audiences—for example, when the photographs accompanied academic publications of anthropological research conducted in the villages—were rarely acknowledged. Instead, the discussions in the source communities focused on the content of the images and the capacity of the material to create a visual traditional heritage.
My analysis of the material critically reflects on theories of colonial archives by suggesting that a closer examination of the Sarawak Museum archive is necessary to provide the context to its material. This article focuses on the parallels between Harrisson’s work with Mass-Observation and his projects at the Sarawak Museum. I argue that Harrisson applied the methods established during Mass-Observation to his later work: a wide, open-ended approach to the subject matter, an attempt to present subjective rather than objective viewpoints of observers and collaborators, and a reluctance to submit the material to analysis through documentation and description. I discuss the collection of the Sarawak Museum in the context of other collections at the time, pointing toward the differences in modes of production, subject matter, and textual description. I then describe how the photographs were discussed among members of the source communities.
‘The science of living with ourselves’: Tom Harrisson and Mass-Observation
Mass-Observation was the result of the collaboration, beginning in 1937, among Tom Harrisson, the surrealist poet Charles Madge, and the budding documentary filmmaker Humphrey Jennings. Their goal was to document the opinions and life experiences of British citizens—to conduct what they termed “anthropology at home” (Hubble, 2006). Harrisson never completed a university degree but he had a keen interest in the natural sciences. His primary interest was ornithology. During his first trip to Borneo, in 1932, and a subsequent two-year expedition to the New Hebrides, his focus shifted to anthropology.
When Harrisson returned to England, he realized that he knew little about the views and habits of the people living in his home country. “It was gradually borne in upon me that the things I was doing, at great expense, in these difficult jungles, had not been done in the wilds of Lancashire and East Anglia,” he wrote in 1943. “While studiously tabulating the primitive, we had practically no objective anthropology of ourselves” (Harrisson, 1943, p. 5).
Harrisson came to the conclusion that this situation ought to be addressed: “We needed to study our own anthropology, or wider than that, the science of living with ourselves” (Spender and Harrisson, 1975, p. 1). Public opinion was, Harrisson believed, “endlessly misinterpreted” in the press (Spender and Harrisson, 1975, p. 1), and this could be detrimental to the functioning of democracy (Harrisson, 1943; Hinton, 2013). At the time, opinion polling was emerging as a social and political interest, and methods for sampling public opinion were still being established. Mass-Observation projects were based on questionnaires, interviews, participant observation, and audience participation through which researchers assessed public opinion regarding a variety of subjects. Harrisson, Jennings, and Madge’s aim was to create a democratic form of social science “free of academic trappings” and built on the participation of its subject communities to ensure accurate representation of people’s lives, interests, and views (Sheridan, 1984, p. 42).
The research conducted by Mass-Observation was to be carried out by participants from the group under investigation, who were also the proposed audience—mainly members of the lower or working class. The people among whom the research had been conducted would be able to benefit from the outcomes of the projects more than would a small group of academics: “Mass-Observation does not believe that social science can effectively operate only at the academic level,” states a Mass-Observation publication in 1943. “Its job is to study real life; and the people it studies are people who can be interested immediately in the results, which often directly concern their everyday lives” (Mass-Observation, 1943, p. vi). When criticized for the absence of methodology and lack of academic focus, Harrisson and Madge were unfazed. Compliance with academic standards had not been their goal; instead they intended to “inform the British people about their own behaviour” (MacClancy, 2001).
Mass-Observation research had a wide focus and covered a range of topics, from the patterns of discarded tram tickets on the pavement to female cyclists; other suggested topics were the “Behaviour of people at war memorials, Shouts and gestures of motorists, The aspidistra cult, Anthropology of football pools” (Calder and Sheridan, 1984, p. 4; see also Hinton, 2013; MacClancy, 2001). This diverse selection of research engagements was due in part to Madge’s surrealist affinities; more important, however, Harrisson believed it was impossible to foresee what would be of interest to researchers and that therefore a maximum amount of detail should be recorded (MacClancy, 2001). “It is the trivial of the present day that may prove significant tomorrow,” Harrisson wrote later. “The observer or photographer must shed the preconceptions about what is good to observe and what is bad to observe; and shed all habitual frames of reference which may inhibit fresh observation and obscure the unexpected” (Spender and Harrisson, 1975, pp. 3–4).
Informants and participants in Mass-Observation’s research were thought of as subjective witnesses whose personal views on their topic of research were reflected in their reports. Although the lack of academic training of Mass-Observation’s contributors was criticized as unprofessional (Mass-Observation, 1938), Harrisson, Madge, and Jennings saw this fact as an important part of what the project was about: “Mass-Observation has always assumed that its untrained Observers would be subjective cameras, each with his or her own distortion,” they wrote in a first-year report, published in 1938. “They tell us not what society is like but what it looks like to them” (Mass-Observation, 1938, quoted in Calder and Sheridan, 1984, pp. 5 and 6).
Likening observers and their reports to “the cameras with which we are trying to photograph contemporary life” (Mass-Observation, 1937, quoted in Mass Observation, 1938), Harrisson and his colleagues based their research on the observations recorded by participants who were neither trained nor briefed to be impartial. Rather than suggesting that an objective approach was possible, Mass-Observation’s masterminds insisted that the personal bias of the material was part of its relevance (Mass-Observation, 1938).
Critical of their own methods, however, Harrisson, Madge, and Jennings recognized that interviews and questionnaires could lead to inaccurate results. They suspected that respondents would not communicate in the same way with their investigators as they would with friends and family, and put emphasis on observation as a more accurate method (Hubble, 2006). Harrisson in particular, with his background in the observation of the natural world, felt that words could be misleading to the point of suggesting that observers wear earplugs (Hinton, 2013). Photographs and artwork were therefore deemed worthwhile media for observations: “It was because we distrusted the value of mere words,” Harrisson wrote in 1975, “that we were so keen to employ artists and writers, and photographers” (Spender and Harrisson, 1975, p. 3).
Mass-Observation has been criticized not just for lack of methodology and academic rigor, but also for a tendency to rely on well-educated middle-class participants instead of the working-class informants they had sought to engage and for the lack of experience of its investigators (Hinton, 2013; Sheridan, 1984; Mass-Observation, 1938). Nevertheless, sociologists, historians, and other researchers have made considerable use of the Mass-Observation material, since 1970 located at Sussex University.
Mass-Observation flourished until the outbreak of World War II, at which point the organization worked on several projects for the British Ministry of Information. Madge, who opposed the collaboration, in 1940 pulled out from Mass-Observation (Sheridan, 1984). Earlier that year, Jennings had left to join the Crown Film Unit (Richards and Sheridan, 1987). In 1944 Harrisson returned to Borneo, which was occupied by Japanese forces. He entered Sarawak, as part of a military mission, by parachuting behind Japanese lines and into the interior of the Fourth Division in the north, with a team of soldiers to consolidate local resistance against the Japanese military. He returned to Britain in 1946 but soon set off again for Borneo to take the position of curator at the Sarawak Museum.
‘Measuring change in a way which cannot be preconceived’: Tom Harrisson’s Work at the Sarawak Museum
The Sarawak Museum was established in 1888 by Charles Brooke, the second in a dynasty of “White Rajahs” who ruled the region from 1841 to 1946. The collection and research work of the museum focused on local flora and fauna and the diverse ethnic groups of the area. The staff and curators conducted research and traveled throughout the region to acquire specimens and heritage artifacts for the collection, and also assisted foreign researchers in their projects. Starting in 1911, scientific papers were published in the Sarawak Museum Journal. After the Japanese occupation, the third Rajah Brooke ceded Sarawak to Great Britain and it became part of the British Empire. Tom Harrisson worked as curator of the museum from 1947 to 1966. During his tenure, he published more than a hundred and fifty articles in the journal. He extended the museum’s scope of research to include archaeology, and introduced documentation techniques such as audio recording and film.
Harrisson’s legacy, however, was not all positive. According to his biographer, his volatile personality alienated those around him, and because of a perceived lack of professionalism, some of his projects were discredited by the academic community (Heimann 1998). Nevertheless, much of his work at the museum resulted in original research that is still relevant.
Harrisson’s interest in photography led to the increased use of the medium to record and document research work and conservation projects. In the early 1950s, Harrisson created the position of staff photographer and promoted former museum driver Junaidi Bolhassan to fill it. The collection grew to contain portraits of museum staff, pictures of museum buildings, photographs of indigenous artists working at the museum, and images of functions and events. The material also documented museum work, such as archaeological digs; the arrangement of exhibition displays; and the objects of the museum collection. A large number of pictures were taken by museum staff during research, collection, and conservation trips. Many of these photographs focused on life in the villages: images of local people and their environment, buildings, landscapes, arts, crafts, practices, and rituals.
Harrisson himself, whose favorite method of conducting research was observation (Hinton, 2013), contributed copious amounts of material. “During the year the Curator of the Museum made another visit to the Kelabit country,” noted the annual report of the British colonial administration in 1949. “The main [objectives] of this expedition were . . . to take photographs of the lesser-known tribes. . . . More than a thousand photographs were taken” (Sarawak Annual Report, 1949, p. 95).
The archive grew in size and importance, and more resources and facilities were added. When Harrisson and other museum staff returned from their trips with exposed film, Bolhassan, who was both photographer and archivist, dated, classified, and indexed the images and stored them for future use. Harrisson and other authors used the photographs to illustrate their publications in the Sarawak Museum Journal. Researchers, journalists, and members of the public could order prints from the archive for a small fee. Museum staff also used material from the archive for exhibition displays and showcases.
Although much of the initial material was produced by Harrisson, other members of museum staff contributed to the archive. “Before Junaidi there were all sorts of people all working at the museum, they were all photographers, they were all working in the field and they would bring along a camera,” said former museum director Datuk Lucas Chin in a 2011 interview. “I myself carried a camera when I went to the field, when Junaidi was not around to help me. When all these films were taken, back at the museum they were passed on to Junaidi to develop them.” Current Sarawak Museum Director Ipoi Datan confirms this: “Different sections had their own cameras, and we knew how to use them,” he says. “And if you are going to be out for a while, maybe one month, then you can’t bring the photographer along, you have to do it on your own.”
To facilitate travel and communications, Kuching-based museum staff took part in fieldwork and research projects involving their own ethnic communities. According to Ipoi Datan, “[The curators of the Sarawak Museum] tried to recruit as many staff as possible from different communities. Malay, Chinese, Iban, we have Orang Ulu, Bisayah, Kelabit, Bidayuh, I think they tried to make sure that the museum is owned by the locals. . . . [Y]ou go to the Iban areas, so you bring one of the staff that is Iban, there will be no problem with translation or understanding. Likewise, you go to Bidayuh areas, you bring along the Bidayuh staff.”
Harrisson had moved on from his work with Mass-Observation, but some of the same methods and objectives were evident in the way material was collected at the photo archive. For Mass-Observation projects, the organization had tried to enlist collaborators from the working-class communities that were to be investigated. In Sarawak, Harrisson relied on local collaborators from the different ethnic groups to conduct the museum’s projects under his leadership. The wide scope of the content of the photographs likewise indicates that Harrisson applied the principles he had established for his “anthropology at home” to the investigation of the people he was now invested to represent at the Sarawak Museum. Throughout his work with Mass-Observation, Harrisson had insisted on recording as much detailed information as possible, without concern for redundancies. In his new research environment, he similarly believed it was necessary to collect as much material as possible, “without fear of ‘being swamped in trivial data.’ ’’ In his view, “for an investigator to be afraid of being ‘overwhelmed by fact’ is about as idiotic as for a Kelabit [one of the ethnic groups with which Harrisson worked] cutting down a tree for fear of being crushed by his own work” (Harrisson’s personal notebooks, quoted in Heimann, 1998, p. 156).
In his work with Mass-Observation and during his time at the Sarawak Museum, Harrisson had been criticized for the lack of a theoretical framework or working hypotheses for his projects. This approach was deliberate, suggests his biographer Judith Heimann; instead of setting out with a specific focus, Harrisson preferred to let the issues emerge from a wealth of data and information he had collected: “[A]s with Mass-Observation, Tom wanted to collect more and more data rather than try prematurely to draw out underlying principles and patterns” (Heimann, 1998, p. 257). As a result, the collection at the museum’s archive became a repository of diverse material awaiting future analysis.
Harrisson noted that the methods he had established during Mass-Observation had prepared him for the observation and investigation of indigenous peoples in which he was now involved (Heimann, 1998, p. 256). Likewise, his methods for the accumulation of data were informed by the same strict guidelines for empirical investigations used in Mass-Observation. In Harrisson’s view, one of the great shortcomings of anthropological research was that its projects were rarely subject to reevaluation in the field after the results had been published (Heimann, 1998, p. 258). It was Harrisson’s conviction that the material collected in sociological or anthropological research needed to provide a comprehensive record to enable future researchers to compare and substantiate the data.
This is why, for his Mass-Observation data, he wanted to provide material that could be revisited: “The record must be clear, factually precise, and stated in such a way that it can be understood by anyone at a later date, years or even centuries later,” he wrote in 1975 (Spender and Harrisson, 1975, p. 3). The Mass-Observation archive was meant to provide material that researchers could investigate for social, cultural, and economic change with the advantage of historical hindsight. “Ideally,” he wrote, “it should be possible for another observer to go back to the same place at the same time on the same day of the year, years later, and repeat the same observation, whether in words or film, thus measuring change in a way which cannot be theorised about or preconceived” (Spender and Harrisson, 1975, pp. 3–4).
Harrisson did not explicitly mention the material from the Sarawak Museum when he articulated his hopes for the future uses of the Mass-Observation material. However, he created the museum archive according to the objectives he had formulated during his time with Mass-Observation. The archive resembles that of Mass-Observation in the substantial amount of detailed material, its variety of subject matter, and the ways in which the material was assembled. The visual repatriation project with the museum collection was meant to explore whether Harrisson’s hopes for the eventual uses of the material could be realized in Sarawak.
‘Iban girls splash and play like otters’: The Sarawak Museum Archive and Other Sarawak Collections
The archive of the Sarawak Museum probably contains the largest collection of images from the state’s colonial period, but other photographers worked in the region at the same time, and sometimes in collaboration. The museum occasionally used the services of the Anna Photo Studio, in Kuching, to develop and print photographs. The proprietor, K. F. Wong, was acquainted with museum staff photographer Junaidi Bolhassan and had helped Bolhassan hone his photographic-processing skills after being promoted from driver. Wong, who was a professional photographer, assembled his own extensive collection from around the state in his private archive and also contributed to that of the Sarawak Museum. He published a number of his pictures in books with titles such as Pagan Innocence (1960), Borneo Scene (1979), and Vanishing World (1972). Vanishing World was produced in collaboration with other photographers, among them Hedda Morrison, who spent almost twenty years in Sarawak with her husband, Alastair, a British colonial government servant.
During her years in Sarawak, Morrison assembled a collection of beautiful and expressive images taken throughout the state. She also published photographs taken in the state in two other books, Sarawak (1957) and Life in a Longhouse (1962), and her photographs appeared in numerous other publications. Whether Morrison also collaborated with the museum is not clear. Alastair, whom Morrison accompanied in his postings throughout the state, strongly disliked Tom Harrisson (Heimann, 1998). In his memoir, Alastair describes Harrisson as having “a vicious temper and an unbridled tongue and by nature he was intensely jealous. I never knew a man with such a capacity for quarreling” (Morrison, 1993, p. 99).
The collections of Wong, Morrison, and the Sarawak Museum show distinct differences in their subject matter, the way in which the photographs were taken, the audiences of their publications, and how they were contextualized. Wong’s photographs were created for the commercial market, and thus provide picturesque compositions of good-looking people in serene surroundings. His publications represented indigenous communities in what Prins (2002, p. 60) has called a “primitivist” genre: The photographs, through their arrangement and accompanying descriptions and captions, glorify the traditional indigenous lifestyle, at the same time suggesting that its extinction through the influence of development and modernization was both unavoidable and desirable. Wong’s approach to his subject was directed by his commercial interest in photography. Focusing on representations of local indigenous groups he presumed to be of interest to tourists and foreigners, his photographs, captions, and the introduction to publications such as Pagan Innocence reflect a view that objectified his subjects as primitive others, presenting a version of “bare-breasted native beauties” and “legendary tough, sword-wielding head-hunters” (Wong, 1960, p. 18). The captions accompanying Wong’s work also suggest a stereotypical, simplistic, and idealized representation of indigenous culture—for example, his description of a photograph of several Iban women bathing in a river: “Iban girls splash and play like otters at one of the many waterfalls in the upper reaches of rivers” (Wong, 1960, p. 50).
Morrison’s images show a greater range of subject matter and a more ethnographic approach. Portraits and photographs of arts and crafts, the agricultural cycle, and the longhouse environment as well as festivals and ceremonies feature prominently in her publications. They provide a varied and in-depth view of the different ethnic groups in Sarawak, the result of the access she was granted in the service of the British colonial government. Her descriptions provide detailed information she had gathered during years of working there. The captions in Life in a Longhouse, which contains photographs taken in Iban communities, are indicative of her attempts at inclusiveness. The texts accompanying the images are written in the four most widely spoken languages in Sarawak: that is, English, Malay, Iban, and Chinese.
Nevertheless, Morrison was later criticized for failing to acknowledge in her work that Sarawak society at the time was deeply ambiguous about the British colonial administration and its efforts at modernization. Another point of critique was that her work positioned traditional culture as backward and inferior and suggested “Western” development as the only possible and desirable outcome (Walker, 1994). In spite of this criticism, however, Morrison’s images have become important historical documents for the communities in which they were taken (Bala, 2000).
In contrast to those taken by Wong and by Morrison, the photographs produced for the archive at the Sarawak Museum were not aimed at a commercial audience. Most of them were taken to document museum work and to provide images with which researchers could illustrate their academic publications or for use in museum exhibitions. The archive was not the product of a single photographer; rather, it was assembled by a range of contributors. Under Harrisson’s direction, museum workers from different communities produced material and brought their own understanding of local culture to bear on the images they created. Through the contributions of staff working throughout Sarawak, the museum’s collection grew to contain many more images than those either Wong or Morrison published or otherwise made available, and as part of a public museum the collection is still accessible to the public.
During the time in which I was working with the images, the archive was not open to the general public but it was opened on request to individuals and researchers, not only academics but also secondary school students working on assignments and people from the villages looking for images of their families or friends. Some persistent visitors browsing the thick document folders had recognized the locations and subject matter and left handwritten notes alongside the contact prints. The primary limitation on the use of the material was the lack of information it, as there was little or no documentation about the content of the photographs available at the archive apart from these scattered handwritten remarks. The photographs were stored without an index, which made it difficult to look for specific content, dates, or locations.
Despite being a unique and extensive public resource, the Sarawak Museum photo archive has remained largely unexplored by sociologists and historians and by source communities. In 1963, the merger among Malaya, Sarawak and Sabah, in the north of Borneo, created the federation of Malaysia.. Harrisson continued as museum curator until 1966. Subsequent curators continued to use photography as a means of documenting the work of the museum and the communities in which they carried out acquisition or conservation activities along with archaeological projects and other research. Museum photographer Junaidi Bolhassan retired in 1985, after more than thirty years. Successive photographers and other members of the staff contributed material to the archive using a range of media and techniques. The archive of the Sarawak Museum grew to contain thousands of negatives, prints, and color slides.
‘Classificatory, taxonomic, penal, and somatic’: The Colonial Archive
In contrast to the material at the Mass-Observation archive, the photographs at the Sarawak Museum receive little outside attention. Part of the reason may be that colonial museum archives have been interpreted as repositories of the kind of knowledge and detailed information the colonial administrations used to govern local populations and thus have been considered tools of foreign dominance. In addition, ethnographic photographs from the period were criticized for reinforcing social and cultural stereotypes that supported colonial control, and were described as “decidedly classificatory, taxonomic, penal, and somatic” (Appadurai, 1997; see also Peers and Brown, 2003; Maxwell, 2010; and Pinney, 2012).
Theorists argue that colonial administrations attempted “to establish and stabilize the statistical and classificatory categories” of local populations in the colonies through such images (Poole, 2005, p. 46). Rather than focusing on the individual personalities of the people who were shown, these photographs were intended to illustrate traits and types thought to characterize local peoples and to underpin theories of cultural hierarchy (Maxwell, 2013; Banks, 2003; Hight and Sampson, 2002). Ethnographic photographs created for the consumption of the population back in Britain were usually described and synthesized by specialists from the museum or academe (Pinney, 2011; Peers and Brown, 2003) and rarely found their way back to the source communities. New nations and newly independent territories, coming to terms with their colonial past, often paid little attention to archives bearing witness to a period of foreign control (Buckley, 2005).
More recently, however, colonial photo archives and their content have been used to investigate counter-narratives inherent in the material, which incorporates traces of the complex interactions between photographer and subject (Pels, 1997; Maxwell, 2010; Eileraas, 2003; and Mathur, 2000). Most theorists agree that, as Roland Barthes put it, photographs are “polysemous” (Barthes, 1981, p. 274); they can be interpreted with a focus on the traces of colonial governance or as ethnographic studies, cultural heritage, or family portraits. Photographs contain a “visual excess,” a “random inclusiveness” (Edwards and Morton, 2009) that cannot be controlled by the photographer and which allows for a reassessment of colonial archives for traces of the subtler interactions among its actors.
These traces are visible in the photographs from the Sarawak Museum. The collaborations between museum staff and local artisans, the presence of a Western researcher in a local religious ceremony, the staged performances of traditional dances, passing snapshots of women preparing food and people performing their daily tasks: Many of these images contain hints of the interaction between photographer and subject, an “excess” of elements and details, clues to the interpretation of the images. Moreover, the principles that informed Harrisson’s establishment of the archive and the way the photographs were created resulted in images in which the agency of different actors can be traced; the images act as “contested sites of encounter and cultural exchange” (Morton and Edwards, 2009, p. 4).
Although the Sarawak Museum was part of and collaborated with the colonial administration—Harrisson also held the position of government ethnologist—these are the reasons why the museum cannot be easily subsumed among the institutions that supported colonial administrative power. The interpretation of the museum’s material informed by postcolonial criticism is possible, but it limits the capacity for other meanings and interpretations.
‘These things are part of our heritage’: Colonial Photographs and Source Communities
Since the late 1980s, museum theorists have looked more critically at ethnographic collections and the way in which they were obtained, and this has led to projects of repatriation of artifacts and closer collaborations between museums and source communities (Clapperton, 2010; Phillips, 2003; Clifford, 1999). Several such projects involved the return of photographic material to the indigenous communities where it had been created, which has been termed “visual repatriation” (Peers and Brown, 2003, 2009; Binney and Chaplin, 2003; Bell, 2008; Edwards, 2001; Smith, 2008).
In 2010 I digitized a part of the Sarawak Museum collection for a research project whose goal was to describe and contextualize the photographs in collaboration with source communities. Using fifteen hundred images from several indigenous ethnic groups, my intention was to investigate how people interpreted the images: Had they become evidence of the changes that had occurred in the last fifty years, as Harrisson suggested? Did they enable a reevaluation of the research he and others had carried out? Would the photographs be understood as cultural heritage or as the ethnographic endeavors of a colonial government institution? Included in the research were fifteen communities along the Baram River, in the north of Sarawak, and its tributary, the Tinjar, where photographs had been taken by museum staff on two trips, the first in 1956 and the second in 1968.
The region is home to a variety of small but distinct ethnic groups referred to as Orang Ulu, Malay for “People from Upriver.” In each village I discussed the photographs with members of the community. These talks were conducted both as dialogues and in group conversations in which everybody in the village could take part. The group discussions often lasted for several hours, as people came to have a look and went to get others they thought might be interested. Through these discussions, the people, places, and events in the photographs were identified. Participants described the objects and scenes in the images, and explained their cultural context. If some issues remained unclear, I was referred to people participants thought of as knowledgeable on specific topics. Village headmen and other community members then helped to set up interviews with these specialists. I visited the communities a number of times over several months between 2010 and 2012. Separate interviews with members of the communities were also held in Sarawak’s main cities, Kuching and Miri.
In the conversations with members of the source communities, we discussed the photographs from a variety of perspectives. They were family photographs, and at the same time they were historical documents that provided evidence of the cultural heritage as well as social and cultural changes. Some images showed community leaders and important events; others depicted longhouses that had burned down or had been abandoned or relocated. I came to see the photographs as “cultural resources,” or, as Joshua Bell has called them, “cultural property” (Bell, 2008, p. 124), because of the sense of ownership with which people from the villages spoke about them. I realized that although the photographs belonged to the Sarawak Museum archive, those people I discussed them with felt they also belonged to the communities that had participated in creating the pictures and whose members were the subjects.
The photos, taken according to Mass-Observation’s principle of documenting a maximum amount of detail, evident in the grand scope of subject matter, show different aspects of daily life. The museum photographer and other members of the staff contributing to the collection had provided the “subjective cameras” Mass-Observation had wanted to enlist. They used an undirected approach; the range of subjects reveal their broad interest in—as well as knowledge about—many aspects of the local environment they encountered. Their work resulted in large numbers of photographs showing all sorts of things they considered of interest during field trips.
The images also show a variety of modes of composition and levels of quality. Some photographs were blurred, over- or underexposed (contributors to the archive were not trained as photographers); others show the backs of groups of people; still others are of scenes obviously staged by the photographer (group photos, for example). The subject matter varied. We see dancers performing for the camera outside the longhouse, artists presenting their sculptures, musicians posing with their instruments. Some photographs show the activities of museum staff in the villages; in one set of images, a woman is presenting her heirloom ceramics to the camera. Here a series of photographs display both the front and the back of a large plate so the photographer could capture the pattern as well as the stamp of the Chinese manufacturer (see figure 6).
Some images show members of the community engaging with the photographer and contributing what they perceived to be relevant for inclusion in the image. In a series of pictures, an artist is demonstrating the process of making a sape, a local string instrument, from a block of wood. In one image in the series a member of the museum staff is holding the rough body of the instrument for the artisan to work on (see figure 7). Another photograph shows a man dressed in traditional loincloth and leopard-skin cap playing the keledi, a traditional instrument made from a hollow gourd and bamboo that has since disappeared from many communities. His pose, costume, and background suggest that the scene has been carefully staged around his skill and role in the community. In a later photograph we see the same man being recorded by someone, presumably a member of the museum staff (see figure 4 and 5).
These photographs are not generic “type” images in which individuals are visualized as representing a specific trait or attribute, as were some ethnographic photographs produced within the colonial setting (Poole, 2005). Rather, they conform to standards of portraiture, as they focus on the character, personality, and expression of an individual.
During the work with the photographs in the communities, many people found pictures of themselves as well as of friends and family members. Because cameras had been scarce in the rural communities in the 1950s and sixties, sometimes no other images of these people existed. Prompted by the photos, some people recalled the original visit of the museum group and the way pictures were staged to demonstrate crafts and customs. One shows women grating tapioca using the thorns of a rotan vine. In Long Loyang, one of the three women in the photograph, Melai Apui, had been called to look at the image by a friend who had discovered her there. Examining the print, she recalled the situation when the picture was taken. The photographer had asked her to pose, she said: “I was excited, and I went to dress up and then asked my friend to borrow her earrings,” referring to the white kebaya top and the brass ornaments she is wearing in her elongated lobes (see figure 19). The picture, which looks like a snapshot, is revealed as a collaboration between photographer and subject, one in which both sides contributed to the staging.
Other photographs portray scenes or objects that were contextualized through the description of local beliefs, myths, and legends. One image showed a jar lodged in the rafters of a longhouse roof. In Daleh Long Pelutan, a group of people were looking through a book of prints when one of them found the photograph. Ceramic jars are among the oldest items of trade in Sarawak, having been imported from China for centuries. The jar looked unexceptional, without any particular glazing or motifs, small and dusty.
“It is a spirit jar,” said Jok Wan Emang. Others, looking over to see what he was studying, agreed. “This picture must be very old,” he said. “We have not had any of those here in a long time.” Showing me the photograph, he went on: “The Tajau Busi [‘spirit jar’ in Kayan] can be found in the jungle by very lucky people. Once somebody finds a spirit jar, he needs to take care of it. . . . The jar can bring good luck when you take care of it, but will bring bad luck if it is neglected.” Jok Wan Emang remembered that his great-grandfather had found such a jar, in Long Miri. “The spirit jar can even breed and produce small jars,” he continued, “but you cannot leave it empty, so you must take care that something is always inside, like a piece of clothing, something simple, anything.”
The photographs illustrate some of the legends and stories that were part of the local oral history. During the group discussions, people contributed their opinions and talked about and sometimes argued about the stories connected to the content of the photographs. Some objects and practices were now rare in the villages but were present in communal memory. Whereas items such as burial poles, carvings, and statues were no longer widely used, they were considered important as part of the villagers’ heritage, things many had seen when they were younger. They were now viewed as part of the local culture rather than as the spiritual tokens of the old religion.
Many people who spoke with me were interested in their heritage but not in preserving it; they were more concerned with development and progress for their community. Others, however, were actively involved in reviving traditional practices. Penghulu Patrick Jelaman, from Long Jegan, planned to rebuild the belawing spirit poles that in the photographs rose from the ground in front of the longhouse apartments of the dayung, or spirit mediums. His mission was to continue one of the unique practices of his people, the Berawan, a small ethnic group. “It is not that we believe in the spiritual aspect of it anymore,” he said, studying images of belawing poles from his village taken in 1956. “It is because these things are part of our cultural heritage.”
This example of how the material from the Sarawak Museum was used suggests that the archive is a valuable resource not only for historians and social scientists but also for members of communities interested in the conservation of their cultural heritage. The archive, although it was established primarily to document museum work and provide visual material for research and exhibitions, now has a wider application: It provides a window into the past to the people from the villages the pictures show, and, as Harrisson had anticipated, documents the social and cultural changes that occurred in their communities. The extent of their value as a cultural resource is indicated by the ongoing uses and collaborations between the source communities and the Sarawak Museum.
‘A past that had not died in individual memories’: The Archive as a Cultural Resource
Critiques of the ideologies and practices of colonial governments’ cultural institutions have achieved some success in reframing long-standing forms of authority and proprietorship and in encouraging more democratic recognition of rights and expertise held by subject communities (Pratt, 1991; Clifford, 2002 and 2004; Cohn, 1996; Clapperton, 2010). The way in which images replicate a real moment and a real scene has enabled researchers to revisit colonial photographs in order to produce subtler evaluations of the circumstances that led to their creation (Banks, 2003; Hight and Sampson, 2002; Morton and Edwards, 2009).
Photographs are relevant for source communities even if they were created by colonial institutions and used by colonial administrations to maintain frameworks of governance. In the rural communities in which historical documents are scarce, the photographs from the Sarawak Museum archive provide points of reference for group as well as individual memory, showing people, places, activities, scenes, and objects linked to their history. For communities in which oral narratives are the dominant means of transmitting knowledge, photographs provide proof and context for their history, for the counter-narratives that concern “a past that had not died in individual memories, but which had been suppressed in the European-recorded historiography” (Binney and Chaplin, 2003, p. 100). Under these circumstances, photographs serve as “visual proof of a community’s account of past events” (Peers and Brown, 2003, p. 6).
The Sarawak Museum, with Harrisson at the helm, collaborated with the colonial authorities through which it was funded and to which it was responsible. The material’s background influences its interpretation today. This includes Harrisson’s employment of the methods and theories he had established during his time with Mass-Observation.
The responses from villagers to the images from the Sarawak Museum archive indicate that the creation of the images and their context within the colonial institution of the museum were secondary considerations for the source communities. Now the images provide detailed and often personal insights into the past. The material of the archive has thus become a cultural resource despite its provenance. The photographs document local cultural heritage in complex detail that can be interpreted only through the individual and communal memory of the participants.
Christine Horn is a PhD. candidate at the Swinburne University Institute of Social Research in Melbourne, Australia. She has worked with the photographs from the Sarawak Museum archive since 2010.
I would like to thank Ian McShane for advice and critique in writing this article. I would also like to thank Ellie Rennie and Helmut Lueckenhausen, and Michaela Callaghan for their feedback and support. The research was funded through a Swinburne University Postgraduate Research Award. Ethics approval was granted by the Swinburne University Human Research Ethics Committee.
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In the words of one of its early curators, “[T]he task of the museum was from the beginning limited to Borneo, and first of all objects were to be collected which were indicative of Sarawak. ‘Sarawak for the natives,’ such was the motto.” The museum, he noted, focused on the natural sciences as well as on its “rich ethnographic collections” (Mjöberg, 1929, p. 141).
For example, Harrisson and the anthropologist Derek Freeman clashed so dramatically that Freeman suffered a nervous breakdown. He subsequently embarked on an unsuccessful campaign to discredit Harrisson and have him dismissed from the museum (see Caton, 2009; Heimann, 1998).
According to the Sarawak Annual Report of the British colonial government, K. F. Wong donated a series of photographs to the archive in 1956: “The Photographic Archives have been further enriched by gifts from Mr. K. F. Wong, F.R.P.S. . . . which will undoubtedly be of great interest in the future, when much of what they record will be otherwise difficult to visualise or even imagine” (1956, p. 151). Unfortunately, I was unable to locate these images at the archive.