Reflections on Buai (betel nut)

Despite its small appearance, buai – a cultural institution in itself - plays an important role within a construct of ritualised exchange and consumption in the lives of many Papua New Guineans. For sorcery, as a grassroots source of income, as ornamentation and usually seen as a red splatter on the sidewalk, buai is a little piece of culturally accepted norm to get you through the day beneath signs reading “Noken kaikai buai” [Don’t chew buai here]. If you can imagine deep in the depths of suburban Gordons – the fiery aroma of a hot and humid day, stretched bilums (net bags) carrying fresh vegetables for market, the dusty haze mixed in with the underlying aroma of buai and you have that scent unique to Port Moresby and for me, a heady reminder of home.

Buai equipment.

Figure 1. Buai equipment (left to right: MAC3171, MAC1217, MAC1188, MAC1184 and MAC2015). These buai pestles and mortar were transferred to Queensland Museum's care by MacGregor between 1892-1897. Image courtesy of the Queensland Museum, not for reproduction.

To enjoy buai, you need three key ingredients: the nut from the areca palm (known as buai, or betel-nut – not actually from the betel plant), mustard sticks from the betel plant (daka) and lime made of crushed and burnt coral (kambang). You prise the buai from its kernel with your teeth, chew it to a paste, dip the moistened end of a dakka in to a jar of kambang, take a few bites and await the chemical reaction which turns your saliva bright red and apparently makes your day just that little bit brighter.

Of course, an essential instrument in the chewing process is your teeth. And when one’s teeth give out with use or age, one must resort to mashing their buai and a little bit of kambang with mortar and pestle before popping it back into one’s mouth. However, the humble mortar was not just used to alleviate the disposition of those with chewing issues. It was also employed in other tasks such as being a vessel from which magic was imbibed as well as assisting in the application of paints for sing-sings and canoe painting, especially within the Trobriand Islands.

Governor Sir William MacGregor collected up to 78 mortars from Papua New Guinea and transferred them to the Queensland Museum in three separate batches during 1892, 1894 and 1897. With the exception of two mortars obtained from Tugeri (Marind Anim ‘pirates’) in Western Province during 1896; and two others with a collective field collection term of “Papua”, the remaining mortars were catalogued as originating from Milne Bay Province. The latter coming mainly from Woodlark Island or Trobriand (“Troubriand”) Islands, or else simply noted as “Massim style”. According to the Museum’s records, the mortars were acquired and given collection numbers following their transfer from Papua New Guinea during the 1890s. In 1918, the same objects were reassigned new collection numbers and placed within the MacGregor (MAC) Register. All the mortars are labelled in black ink and stamped with both the old collection number and its corresponding MAC register number. Fifty of the mortars were returned to Papua New Guinea and are now housed in the Papua New Guinea National Art Gallery and Museum, while the remaining mortars are still located in the Queensland Museum.

Covering a variety of styles, the mortars collected from Milne Bay Province come in the form of carved representations of animals, canoes, plain barrel shapes and the upper torso of humanoid figures. Facial features, zig zag patterns and elaborate scrollwork were engraved in to the ebony wood, many infilled with lime to enhance the patterned appearance. As well, in terms of size the smallest mortar from Milne Bay Province measures just 47mm in height and the tallest is 202mm. In direct comparison, the two mortars from the Tugeri measure 250mm and 272mm in height and are both open and barrel-shaped narrowing down to a point at one end.

Could the styles and types indicate a particular officer or collecting moment? Our work continues to tease out these puzzles in the collections. It would be interesting to investigate as to why these particular mortars were chosen by Sir William MacGregor, how they were acquired, as well as the distribution of these various styles within their localities. For the MacGregor project, we are looking to find out more about how and from whom the mortars were collected, and integral to this is understanding the collecting process implemented during that period.

Nowadays, when I see a betelnut mortar - it is intricately carved, usually from somewhere in the Sepik with two to four spirit figures carved in to the midsection and sitting placidly on someone’s shelf serving out its days in a purely ornamental role with the slight smell of buai nearly overcome by the overarching smell of Mr Sheen or a similar cleaning agent. With Port Moresby’s buai ban from 2013 being lifted in 2017, again you see pieces of daka sitting pen-like in a front shirt pocket or behind the ear of a local; buai safely ensconced in hand or within a small bilum; the kambang residing not in an incised bamboo container, but in a clear glass jar sealed with a bright yellow lid reminiscent of its Kraft-branded condiment days; and the brilliant red smiles of those who chew buai experiencing a bit of a lift in their day.

By Kiri Chan, Queensland Museum 2018.

Creating a Master List for the ‘official collection’

In 1897 MacGregor referred to the assemblage of artefacts which he had begun depositing in the Queensland Museum as the ‘British New Guinea Collection … the official collection of this Colony.’ After two years of solid work, we have now created a Master List of the 10,970 objects in MacGregor’s Official Collection! This is an essential element of our project since we plan to examine the collection as sets of multiple assemblages. Why did this seemingly simple task take so long? Recounting our methodology highlights the complexity of dealing with museum records from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, long before procedures were standardised, let alone converted into digital formats.

The first consignment sent by MacGregor, containing nearly 3,000 items, arrived at the Queensland Museum in late October 1892. The accessioning, storage and display of such a large collection of artefacts would present challenges for any contemporary museum let alone a nineteenth-century institution with few qualified staff. To make matters worse, it seems there was no list of contents. Curator Charles de Vis, assisted by untrained employees, appears to have been unfazed. He systematically gave numbers to the objects (Figure 1) and recorded object type, general description and measurements in the Ethnology Register (New Guinea). Subsequent consignments were accessioned into either the first or second volume of this register. The Ethnology Register (New Guinea) (Figure 2) proved to be the most reliable source for making a definitive Master List of MacGregor’s multiple consignments, for no contents lists have been located.

Lime gourd 9678.

Figure 1. Lime Gourd (9678). This lime gourd (9678) shows the distinctive style of red paint numbering which is largely associated with objects from Transfer 46. The ‘Mac 3239’ relates to the later re-registration of this object into the MacGregor Collection Register in 1919. Image courtesy of the Queensland Museum, not for reproduction.

Ethnology register (New Guinea), Volume 1, p. 56

Figure 2. Ethnology Register (New Guinea), Volume 1, p. 56. The numbers on the left side are the QM registration numbers (e.g. 9465). Transfer numbers are seen at the top of each page (right side), in this instance ‘T46’ (Transfer 46). Localities were recorded to the right of the Transfer number. Blanks in this area indicate that the object had no accompanying locality label. The red ink numbers are ‘Mac’ numbers assigned to objects from 1915. Image courtesy of the Queensland Museum, not for reproduction.

The task of transcribing data from the Ethnology Registers was not without problems. While the poor condition of some pages presented challenges in ascertaining localities and registration numbers, a more serious problem were duplicated numbers. Occasionally, MacGregor artefacts were given numbers that had been previously assigned to objects from other collections (Figure 3). From time to time registration was broken up by the arrival of non-related collections that were entered in and among the MacGregor objects. For example, the sequence of numbers related to Transfer 52 was interrupted by several hundred objects (mainly arrows). After much debate we eliminated these because they are not associated with a relevant transfer number.

Ethnology register (New Guinea), volume 2, p. 11

Figure 3. Ethnology Register (New Guinea), Volume 2, p. 11. Example of duplicated numbers. “P139” refers to Purchase 139 (Isles, Love & Co) purchased 23 July 1895 while T55 refers to the beginning of the Transfer 55, part of the official collection received 11 January 1896. Both P139 and part of T55 were allocated numbers which were previously assigned to other objects. Image courtesy of the Queensland Museum, not for reproduction.

To help understand problems identified when working with the registers and to confirm the receipt of official collections and any subsequent outwards transfers or exchanges, archival research was undertaken. Receipt of objects associated with the official collection was (with one exception) traced through the Queensland Museum’s Donor Register, Volume 3 (1887-1899). Collections of natural history and ethnology received from MacGregor were usually treated as an inwards governmental transfer. Each consignment was assigned a specific ‘Transfer’ number (e.g., Transfer 46; Figure 4). Twenty consignments dated 1889-1898 during MacGregor’s administration of the British colony were traced through the Queensland Museum registers. Eight contained ethnographic material (sometimes mixed with natural history specimens): 1892 (Transfer 46); 1893 (Transfer 47); 1894 (Transfer 52); 1896 (Transfer 55); 1897 (Transfers 60 and 68); and 1898 (Transfers 70 and 74).

Donor register volume 3 (1887–1899)

Figure 4. Donor Register volume 3 (1887-1899), p. 95. This page shows the receipt of the first collection of ethnology from MacGregor in October 1892. A single-line entry records the receipt of the collection as Transfer 46 (see column titled ‘Transfer’). Image courtesy of the Queensland Museum, not for reproduction.

A survey of the Queensland Museum Inwards Correspondence files and registers revealed letters from MacGregor (and others associated with the administration) concerning the shipment and general nature of collections. Other sources, such as the Minute Book of the monthly meetings of the Board of Trustees, provided some background information about the arrival of consignments and occasionally, progress with unpacking and accessioning. As previously noted, no lists of contents were found in association with any archival correspondence accompanying the collections. The laborious task of making lists of the collections appears to have been left to curator Charles de Vis as he unpacked the collections (Figure 5).

Charles de Vis list of contents of Transfer 55.

Figure 5. Charles de Vis list of contents of Transfer 55 (arrived 11 January 1896). Letter from Charles de Vis to MacGregor, 31 January 1896 (list attached). This handwritten list was found in Queensland State Archives. It was later published as part of the Annual Reports of British New Guinea. Note the discrepancy in date received. Image courtesy of the Queensland Museum, not for reproduction.

Several outwards transfers and exchanges from the official collection occurred between 1894 and 1906. Unfortunately, a large portion of the Queensland Museum’s Outwards Correspondence is illegible and thus some important information regarding transfers and exchanges has been lost. However, outwards exchanges of objects from the official collection can be traced through the 1890s Ethnology Registers, Donor Registers and the Outwards Exchanges Register (1884-1909), although the relevant registration numbers were often omitted from the latter (Figure 6). A separate Control Register (commenced 2 June 1897) documents the selection of approximately 4,221‘duplicates’ from the official collection which were then distributed among the Queensland Museum, British Museum, Australian Museum and National Museum of Victoria (now Melbourne Museum) in 1897 (Figure 7).

Outwards Exchanges Register (1884–1909)

Figure 6. Outwards Exchanges Register (1884-1909), showing part of an outwards exchange of objects from the official collection in 1894 (Exchange 140). Note the absence of registration numbers. Image courtesy of the Queensland Museum, not for reproduction.

Control Register, 1897.

Figure 7. Control Register, 1897. Sample page showing selection of ‘duplicates’ for Victoria. The register numbers in the first column are the QM Ethnology Register numbers. Those immediately to the right are the control numbers which were assigned to objects. The remarks column contained localities but some of these do not match the corresponding entries in the Ethnology Registers. Image courtesy of the Queensland Museum, not for reproduction.

The process of creating the Master List and database has involved careful transcribing of data from the Ethnology Registers (New Guinea) into a spreadsheet. All the peculiar spellings (and abbreviations) for localities (and objects) recorded in the registers were transcribed as they preserve the historical integrity of the collection. This is valuable because closer scrutiny of the localities shows that some are associated with specific government officers who were involved in their field acquisition. This method of documenting the collection greatly increases the capacity for extracting ‘collecting episodes’ and associating them with particular individuals and/or Papuan communities. Consequently, a much broader and more complex picture of the collection emerges, as one not solely connected to MacGregor himself.

The Master List database also tries to match the ‘de Vis’ number sequence (i.e. original registration number) with subsequent catalogue numbers assigned to the objects at the Queensland Museum and other institutions where they were transferred. At the Queensland Museum, ‘Mac’ prefix numbers relate to the MacGregor Collection Register, commenced in 1915. This document has been found to be seriously flawed and is a very poor account of the collections sent by MacGregor. Firstly, since this register was created to provide a record of the official collection in the Queensland Museum at that time, it does not record the duplicates dispersed to other museums in 1897 (around 3,000 objects) or objects exchanged or transferred out before 1906. Secondly, it includes some 650 non-Macgregor objects (comprising 16 various collections) which were inadvertently accessioned into the MacGregor Collection Register (Figure 8). E prefix numbers in the Queensland Museum relate to the period from 1911 when objects found lacking labels or information were re-registered into a new E Register (Ethnology Register). Seemingly no attempt was made to match the objects with items in the 1890s Ethnology Registers (New Guinea). Thus, it is possible that there could be objects with an ‘E’ prefix in the Queensland Museum which may be part of the official collection, since the location of around 700 objects on the Master List cannot be accounted for at present.

MacGregor Collection Register (commenced 1915), p. 59

Figure 8. MacGregor Collection Register (commenced 1915), p. 59. This register was supposed to record the official collection then remaining in the Queensland Museum. The numbers on the left side of the page are ‘Mac’ numbers (e.g. Mac 2333). The other numbers seen on the right side are registration numbers assigned by Charles de Vis in the 1890s and these can be cross-referenced against the Ethnology Registers (New Guinea) (e.g. Mac 2333; original Ethnology Register number was 12568).The crossed out entries on this page are objects not associated with MacGregor’s official collection (e.g. T28). Of the 26 entries shown here, only eight are part of the official collection.

While a Master list and associated database of the official collection is a major achievement that will be invaluable for future research, additional forensic and archival research is required to settle some issues regarding locality discrepancies and to take advantage of data recorded on original object labels. Trying to ascertain the whereabouts of the 700 missing objects is at the top of the list!

By Susie Davies, 24 March 2017.

Excavating Macgregor: re-connecting a colonial museum collection

Exploring the Macgregor collection at the British Museum

British Museum label made especially for the Macgregor duplicates. The De Vis catalogue number, written in black ink, is visible on the left.

British Museum label made especially for the Macgregor duplicates. The De Vis catalogue number, written in black ink, is visible on the left.

Original labels showing, on the left, the red “B” used to identify duplicates for the British Museum and, on the right, the De Vis catalogue number and collection locality.

Original labels showing, on the left, the red “B” used to identify duplicates for the British Museum and, on the right, the De Vis catalogue number and collection locality.

Soon after Sir William Macgregor began sending objects from British New Guinea to the Queensland Museum in Brisbane for safe keeping until the new territory had its own museum, the independent colonies in Australia demanded a share for their own museums, because they were contributing to the cost of administering their sister colony. After much discussion and debate, (summarised in Michael Quinnell’s (2000) seminal article), it was agreed that a set of artefacts would be selected for each of the museums in Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria, and a similar share would also be apportioned for the British Museum. The intention was for the museums to use the objects as a kind of ‘currency’ to exchange with collectors and other museums for material that they did not have. The ‘duplicates,’ as they were termed, were selected by the Queensland curator, Charles De Vis, and duly sent off between August-September, 1897. The Control Register at the Queensland Museum records what was supposedly selected and De Vis also sent the museums a contents list of the shipment. Reconstructing the history of what happened to each set of ‘duplicates’ is turning out to be very interesting. The subsequent biographies of the collections after they left Queensland reveal contemporary attitudes about (1) objects as a store of value, (2) the importance of ethnographic material in a natural history museum, (3) New Guinea and its inhabitants, and also, perhaps, (4) prejudices toward Sir William Macgregor himself based on his social class.

As noted in the blog about her trip to the UK, Jude Philp discovered that the material donated to the Cambridge Museum of Anthropology by Macgregor through his friend Barron von Hugel was not immediately showcased in the exhibitions. Instead, it seems to have taken a back seat to Alfred Cort Haddon’s field collections from the Torres Strait that arrived about the same time. In fact, much of the Macgregor material was not catalogued until many years later. Consequently, Jude, assisted by collection manager Rachael Hand, undertook substantial detective work in the registers and annual reports to identify the material gifted by Macgregor.

Since we know from the Queensland Control registers which objects were selected as duplicates, it was surprising to read on the British Museum website describing them as ‘Oceania (New Guinea) material from Macgegor Collection apparently acquired by British Museum in 1897, by uncertain means, and not listed or formally registered at the time.’ Six artefacts were entered into the Q register (set up for ‘Found unnumbered’), but it wasn’t until 1990-1996 that another 80 were given MCG numbers. What had happened to the remainder? In September 2015 Jude Philp and Robin Torrence set out for London to discover the fate of the substantial set of missing duplicates.

The first place to look for information was in the British Museum (BM) archives where original correspondence was kept and in the Annual Reports housed in the Anthropology Library. Following leads given to us by Jill Hassell, (Museum Assistant in the Africa, Australia and the Pacific Department), we located the original letter sent to the British Museum from Queensland Curator Charles De Vis with a list of the Macgregor duplicates sent to them. Notations in pencil indicate a slightly higher count of 721 compared to the 715 on the typed list. Clearly, someone had carefully unpacked the boxes and checked the contents against the original list. There were also two sketches on the list next to ‘piece of bamboo’ and ‘pronged tube.’ These turned out to be useful in identifying the objects in the collection.

List of Macgregor ‘duplicates’ sent to the British Museum.

List of Macgregor ‘duplicates’ sent to the British Museum.

Closeup of sketch on De Vis list

Closeup of sketch on De Vis list.

Pronged tube in the British Museum collection (Q98.OC.2).

Pronged tube in the British Museum collection (Q98.OC.2).

Among the manuscripts were handwritten Trustee’s minutes that reveal the values ascribed by the British Museum to this substantial donation of material from the new colony.

“Read a report by Mr Read, 29th December of the presentation by the Government of Queensland, through the curator of the Queensland Museum, Brisbane, of a selection of ethnological duplicates from Sir W. Macgregor’s collections of natural history and ethnology from British New Guinea. Mr Read explained that of the specimens already received, a considerable number were duplicates of examples in the New Guinea collections in the British Museum, as was likely to be the case with future similar consignments, and he proposed if authorised, to transfer to foreign and other Museums as presents from the Queensland Government, all such duplicates (including those now in his hands): that Government to be advised accordingly when thanked for the donation.”
-Trustee’s Minutes, 8th January, 1898.

Armed with the knowledge that the Macgregor artefacts were not considered worthy enough to enter the British Museum collection because they were not considered as unique, how were they treated? When examining the catalogued objects, it was surprising to find that at some point the BM had special labels made for the collection. These round stickers have ‘Macgregor Coll. 1897’ printed at the base leaving room to add the place where they were collected, if known. The locality information seems to have been taken from some older, round serrated labels (from Queensland or British New Guinea?) that often also include the original number assigned by De Vis in Queensland, or from a placename written directly on the artefacts. We can surmise, therefore, that someone at the BM was interested enough in this collection to organise proper labels and to put time and effort into adding localities. Why, then, were they never catalogued nor exchanged as intended? Instead, they were stored with another collection of ‘duplicates’ derived from the original Christy bequest. And there they sat until the 1990’s when 80 were entered into a MCG catalogue. More recently, the BM collection team have begun exploring these historic artefacts now housed in an off-site store. Our search began with exploring some large boxes filled with impressive objects and bundles of arrows.

Since not all artefacts bear the formal labels, it has been difficult for BM staff to identify the missing Macgregor duplicates. However, once we got our eye in, they were fairly obvious because many still bear the numbers assigned in the catalogue that De Vis made when the collection first arrived at the Queensland Museum. These were either written directly on the objects, as in the case of the arrows, or on metal or paper labels attached to small or soft objects such as belts or necklaces. Many also bear a red or blue “B” in chalk, crayon, or ink that was clearly used when the duplicates were sorted out in Queensland. In three days we identified an additional 392 Macgregor artefacts to bring the total in the BM to 476, which is 66 per cent of what was originally received. We suspect many others are still buried somewhere in the store room among other ‘duplicates.’

It was quite a surprise to see what had been classified as duplicates in the 19th century. Many of these shields, clubs, baskets, belts, and necklaces would be highly prized by modern day museums and collectors. Unlike their history at the Australian and Melbourne Museums, why weren’t the BM Macgregor ‘duplicates’ exchanged? Like the Cambridge Museum of Anthropology, was this institution overwhelmed by the enormous amount of material that was being accumulated during a major period of expansion for the museum? It is also remarkable that while these objects lay dormant, BM curators continued to purchase similar material from auction catalogues. Perhaps the Macgregor collection was conceived as consisting of utilitarian objects rather than the fine art which the British Museum most desired at that time. Did the curators prefer to obtain items from contacts they knew well, rather than from a distant colonial administrator who was not a member of the upper class? These are among the questions we hope to pursue in further comparison with collection biographies of the duplicates at the other museums in Sydney and Melbourne. Most importantly, we hope that our research is helping to awaken interest in a highly significant collection whose existence and history at the British Museum has almost been totally forgotten.

Quinnell, M. 2000 “Before it has become too late’: The making and repatriation of Sir William Macgregor’s Official Collection from British New Guinea. In O’Hanlon, M. and Welsch, R. (eds), Hunter the Gatherers, pp. 81-102. Oxford: Berghahn Books.

By Robin Torrence, 2016

Finding Macgregor

Cambridge Museum annual report and necklace (MAA1903.233) Photo: J. Philp, 2015

Cambridge Museum annual report and necklace (MAA1903.233). Photo: J. Philp, 2015

Throughout museum history it is evident that the longer something remains in a museum without formal documentation or cataloguing, the greater are the chances of that object becoming ‘orphaned’ from its cultural origins and circumstances of collection. This is one of the key research issues that face the Excavating Macgregor team, as the sheer volume of the collections often meant considerable gaps occurred between the collections entering the museum and the collections’ cataloguing. Added to this are the ‘exchange’ transactions that occurred in museums in the 19th and 20th century, a system that involved intra-museum exchanges of material. Extensive work by Michael Quinnell at Queensland Museum has made it possible to now investigate some of these tangles and gaps.

Following our first group meeting, Jude Philp travelled to UK in April 2015 to investigate Cambridge University’s Macgregor material. The collection of just over 100 objects offers an interesting parallel to the ‘official collection’ housed in Queensland Museum, NMPNG, Museum Victoria, Australian Museum and the British Museum.

In 1898 Macgregor visited Britain and caught up with his old friend Baron Anatole von Hugel, then Curator of Cambridge University’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Von Hugel and Macgregor had known each other in Fiji. When Macgregor was working for the colonial administration, von Hugel was collecting cultural material from Fijians (see This collection offers insight into what Macgregor collected for his personal quasi-official use, as well as the shared interests of the shared interests of these men. The collection gifted to Cambridge included sensational items – such as those associated with Macgregor’s peace-keeping efforts between the people from Dutch New Guinea he called ‘the Tugeri’ and the people of British New Guinea’s Western Division. It also included everyday things such as jewellery, and material unique to his collecting efforts, such as clan pots from the Northern Division (today’s Oro Province).

Although the gift included spectacular items it was not exhibited or even catalogued for some time as Macgregor’s visit coincided with A.C. Haddon’s research in British New Guinea. In 1898 Haddon, who would eventually replace von Hugal as the museum’s curator, collected several thousand objects in British New Guinea and the Torres Strait. When new exhibitions celebrated the enormous cultural diversity of New Guinea’s people it was predominantly Haddon’s collection that was exhibited. Cataloguing this large collection had also hampered the cataloguing of Macgregor’s material.

By Jude Philp, 2015