I started field collecting in 1994 and over the next fifteen years made 46 trips to Papua New Guinea which involved over 100 extended trips—primarily on foot—into the more remote areas that I determined could potentially have collectable artifacts. While it has been over 10 years since my last field collecting trip to Papua New Guinea; my experiences from that approximately 1000 nights spent in various villages have had an enormous impact on how I view, evaluate and assess the art.
Field collecting gives you a concrete knowledge of the material impossible to match by other forms of collecting. While I have always been a competent student, I really find it difficult to learn something from books alone. I can see works of art illustrated, read their descriptions, memorize their geographic attribution, etc. but still this information is always a bit insecure in my mind. However, when you field collect in an area you get an immediate and indelible feel for the art. It is the process of finally reaching a village after hours on a trail, shaking hands with the people, sitting down and hearing their stories, waiting for pieces to be brought from the houses, seeing the owner hold the object and the look on his face as he hands it over and discusses it. Then there is the feel of the piece in my hand as I turn it, noting the good qualities, noting the imperfections, feeling the heft, seeing the style firsthand. The object becomes tied into your memory with a whole series of experiences, sights, sounds and emotions. This type of information becomes hardwired into your mind and body. You begin to know the art and the area on a visceral level.
And as you continue collecting in a particular region you get a true feel for that artistic style. The style bubbles up in many contexts, on many objects and not just on the canonical figures and masks—but also from design elements found on items of adornment or motifs carved on the surface of utilitarian objects. That particular culture’s visual vocabulary comes at you from many fronts—you might see it in a more pure archaic form on the side of an ancient slit-gong drum wasting away in the weeds, you can see it on the bottom of wood food dishes or carved into the side of a hand drum. And after handling many pieces you get to see how the style evolves over time as it appears on the newer pieces or newer drums. Thus after visiting five or six villages within the area, after seeing several hundred varied artifacts, you begin to apprehend the art style in a comprehensive and solid manner such that you can recognize and properly attribute a piece in a private collection or museum storeroom from the seemingly most inconsequential detail—the flare of a drum’s base or the arch of an eyebrow.
Collecting in the field at the village level also provides valuable insights about how a culture uses or thinks about certain objects. You see how things are revered or, just as commonly, have no current significance. You hear personal stories about how things are or were used—which in many cases go against previously published accounts. For example, with regards to the very rare Arapesh or Boiken bone combs of which I have published two in this catalog. Very little has been written on these and from looking at their form one would have to assume that it was an item of personal adornment worn in the hair. But the one illustrated here on the ancestral shrine was and is still being used for healing. It is considered a much more dependable form of treatment than the health clinic down the road or even the modern hospital an hour's drive in Wewak town. My point is that it would be hard to fathom such a use for the comb without having the first-hand experience of seeing it in the field and hearing from the individuals who own and use the object.