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University students sift through hundreds of PNG artefacts in landmark donation


8 July 2013

Sculptural work from Milne Bay Province, Papua New Guinea, part of Gabriel Keleny's collection.
Sculptural work from Milne Bay Province, Papua New Guinea, part of Gabriel Keleny's collection.

Museums studies students at the University of Sydney are preparing to sift through a highly unusual donation of hundreds of Papua New Guinean artefacts from a Hungarian-Australian collector, who is returning them to their original home.

Between 300 and 400 items from the collection of Gabriel Keleny are being donated to the Papua New Guinea National Museum and Art Gallery, the largest single collection to be donated to the museum.

Five University of Sydney museum studies students will descend on the King & Wilson Essential Art Services warehouse in Botany on Thursday 11 July, where the items are being transported before returning to Papua New Guinea. The students will document the items, note any conservation concerns, and give them a quick clean before they are formally packed for travel.

Mr Keleny, 92, is gifting his entire collection of artefacts from Papua New Guinea, where he lived from 1949 to 1975. Originally from Hungary, he landed in Port Moresby in 1949 en route to Australia and decided to stay, working at the agricultural ministry until his retirement in 1975 when he finally moved to Sydney.

While in Papua New Guinea Mr Keleny began buying artworks and local craft, gradually building a collection of pieces underrepresented in international collections of Papua New Guinean material. Among his collection are bags, food hooks used to hang food away from the reach of rodents, masks and contemporary sculpture.

"Until this week they occupied every nook and cranny of Mr Keleny's home," says Jude Philp, senior curator of the Macleay Museum, which is helping to organise the donation from Australia.

"We've brought them to Essential Art Services warehouse to put them in order for the museum in PNG so it will receive a collection that's ready for instant display and archiving. It also gives museum studies students hands-on experience in working and organising internationally significant artefacts.

The delegation from PNG: (L-R) Sylvia Pascoe, Dr Andrew Moutu, Julius Violaris, Dr Jude Philp, Hon Boka Kondra, Professor Jill White, David Ellis, Noel Sarei, Andrew Able.
The delegation from PNG: (L-R) Sylvia Pascoe, Dr Andrew Moutu, Julius Violaris, Dr Jude Philp, Hon Boka Kondra, Professor Jill White, David Ellis, Noel Sarei, Andrew Able.

For Mr Keleny, the most important concern is keeping the collection together. Some pieces have fond memories and fascinating back stories, such as a canoe model given in lieu of payment to the local hospital by a visiting patient.

"It is not unusual for museums to be offered a souvenir of an individual's time working in Papua New Guinea, and spears, masks and print works often come into museum collections from families whose grandfathers fought in the war or whose relatives worked for the Australian Administration. However, it is highly unusual for an Australian to offer their entire collection back to the people of Papua New Guinea," says Philp.

"By being part of the donation process in many ways we get it all," says Philp. "We can continue our role in teaching students at the University through material collection, increase our research knowledge on this period of Australian-Papua New Guinean history, and make new partnerships for future projects in collaboration with the National Museum of Papua New Guinea."

To cement the deal, on Friday 5 July, the Hon Boka Kondra, Papua New Guinea Minister for Tourism, Culture and the Arts, Julius Violaris, Director of the Trustees of the National Museum of Papua New Guinea, and Andrew Moutu, Director of the National Museum of Papua New Guinea, will travel to Australia to personally thank Mr Keleny and accept the donation at the Macleay Museum.


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Media enquiries: Katie Szittner, 02 9351 2261, 0478 316 809, katie.szittner@sydney.edu.au