Material Biographies: Identity, Meaning and Agency in the Cooke Daniels New Guinea Collections

Donoghue, Heather (2022) Material Biographies: Identity, Meaning and Agency in the Cooke Daniels New Guinea Collections. Doctoral thesis, University of East Anglia.

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Dispersed between museums in the UK and Australia, the Cooke Daniels collections comprise more than 2000 material objects, largely collected during the 1903-04 Daniels Ethnographical Expedition to British New Guinea. Led by William Cooke Daniels and Charles Seligman, the expedition continued the survey work begun by the 1898 Torres Strait Expedition, collating comparative material and visual data within the same evolutionary scientific framework. Often reducing people and things to abstractions in the interests of science (and colonialism), the expedition’s Cartesian position stands in ontological distinction to the sensate and relational worldview shared by New Guineans. Seeking a nuanced approach to questions of difference, the thesis conceives a copresent approach to relational biography that recognises moments of ontological displacement, from expedition empathy to New Guinean intentionality.

Drawing on the work of Tim Ingold in particular, notions of ontological simultaneity and displacement (copresence) are the pivot around which stories from the collections emerge. Concentrating on expedition material from Central Province and colonial material, bequeathed to the expedition by Christopher Robinson, from Western and Gulf Provinces, PNG, stories explore how material things express identity, enact meaning-making and reveal agency. Patterned gourds, boards and modified skulls speak to the entanglement of scientific, colonial and Indigenous practices that make visible the formation of a complex and sometimes controversial collection. While stories can be projected onto things, copresent biographies materialise another view: the knowledge that arises through experiential engagement with people and things. In this way, collections remake themselves, revealing new stories – vital to our understanding of a shared past and shared futures. Relocating the Cooke Daniels collections at the centre of a shifting early twentieth century academic, political and cultural milieu, this first detailed study of the collections equally emerges as a pivot for new encounters and future stories.

Item Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Faculty \ School: Faculty of Arts and Humanities > School of Art, Media and American Studies
Depositing User: Kitty Laine
Date Deposited: 15 Dec 2022 11:31
Last Modified: 15 Dec 2022 11:31


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