'Mostly harmless'? Missionaries, administrators and material culture on the coast of British New Guinea

  • O'Hanlon M
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The present consensus in studies of material culture is that objects have mutating social lives responsive to context rather than any fixed, essential meanings. But Thomas, whose work has done much to consolidate this consensus, has recently proposed that the analysis of museum artefacts, whose pasts are seldom fully known, perforce requires a different tactic. He suggests that, methodologically, we need to credit such artefacts with the disturbing potency possessed by the strange or missing objects which energize classic mystery stories. This article situates the 'man-catcher', an enigmatic New Guinea artefact which also infiltrated nineteenth-century fiction, in the context of this literature. The article queries the readiness with which the standard account of this artefact's use has been accepted. I show that older sources, since overlooked, were sceptical of the artefact's purported exotic use, and I go on to show how the contrasting rhetoric in the different accounts of the artefact embodies the agendas of the various colonial agents who advanced them.

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  • Michael O'Hanlon

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