The controversial practice of digital repatriation, returning 3D virtual copies of cultural items to communities, is being trialled with the world famous Malagan mask makers in Papua New Guinea.
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10 Dec 2012 - 1:10 PM  UPDATED 26 Aug 2013 - 10:48 AM

The controversial practice of digital repatriation, returning 3D virtual copies of cultural items to communities, is being trialled with the world famous Malagan mask makers on New Ireland in Papua New Guinea.

Masks and carvings are central to Malagan funeral rites and cultural life in the remote PNG province of New Ireland. Malagan carvings were traditionally publicly displayed to connect the living to the dead and maintain cultural ties.

But since German colonial times, the hold of Malagan rituals over the people has waned.

“When the Germans came and the saw the mask, they just took them out, of the hands of the old people,” says Kuot chief, Moas Passingan.

Nowadays, very little is known about many of these Malagan artefacts, who made them or the villages they came from, but that could soon change.

“We're going to be interested in resituating cultural knowledge about these artefacts: the technical knowledge of making them, the production, as well as the types of materials that are used,” says Dr Graeme Were from the University of Queensland.

Countless thousands of Malagan artefacts were stolen, traded or given away from colonial times and are now in museums around the world. It's hoped this project will reconnect some of those held in Queensland with the communities they came from.

Under development is a 3D application, or "mobile museum", that takes images of these carvings back to New Ireland.

But the repatriation of cultural objects from museum is a contentious issue for communities around the world.

Greek demands for the return of the Elgin marbles from Britain Museum is one of the best known examples.

In Australia too, the return of artefacts is a hot topic for Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander people.

“Digital repatriation is a very thorny issue and of course,” says Dr Were. “Who wants to be given back a 3D digital copy of what rightfully you claim is yours?”

In New Ireland the memories of the colonial days are still strong and to this day, the Kuot people hide their carvings in secret caves.

“If it's okay, they can send the masks back because it is very important and it must be back to where it was taken,” says chief Passingan.

Not all groups see it this way though, and the Queensland Museum say it is working with the Nalik people.

“In the future if they choose to want to see objects or have objects back, we can enter into that conversation, but for now, this suits them,” says Imelda Miller, the Assistant Pacific curator at the Queensland Museum.

Adam Kaminiel, a modern Nalik carver, agrees.

“I realise that these artefacts are stored in special places and special care, I don't think we have that special place and special care at the moment.”

Chief of the New Ireland clan, Martin Kombeng adds that matters could get complicated if the masks were repatriated.

“Maybe I think differently, but I prefer to leave the masks as they are because once they are back, many people will try to claim them.”

The project is only in its early stages, but already the ancestors are giving back some of their secrets.

Watch the full interview with Martin Kombeng, chief of the New Ireland clan: