Withheld Knowledge: Restriction an an Element of Contemporary Cultural Practice in Vanuatu

Jennifer Cane

The Vanuatu National Museum in Port Vila, founded in 1957, has been transformed over the years to suit the values and cultural traditions of indigenous (ni-Vanuatu) people. The current management of cultural property at the Vanuatu Cultural Centre (VCC), which exists in tandem with the museum, reflects the needs of ni-Vanuatu people through the application of traditional notions of privilege, collectivity and immateriality regarding objects of cultural significance. This paper will explore how the VCC engages in techniques of restriction which protect the kastom (or traditional culture) of Vanuatu.[1] The techniques discussed will include the recent moratorium on commercial filming of Nagol (the traditional Pentecost Island land dive,)[2] the classification of sand drawings as a protected cultural practice under the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) Intangible Cultural Heritage program, and the function of the VCC archive in terms of hierarchical guidelines, safety and Tabuenforcement.[3] By excluding certain objects and cultural practices from display, the Vanuatu Cultural Centre acts as an instrumental resource for the vitality of contemporary cultural practices and transmission of knowledge based on entitlement.

The Vanuatu archipelago consists of about eighty small islands and approximately one hundred linguistic and cultural groups, making this Melanesian country one of the world’s most culturally diverse.[4] The country gained independence from British and French rule in 1980, more than 200 years after Bougainville and Cook both charted the islands. Catholic, Presbyterian and Anglican missionaries were present from the 1860’s, discouraging traditional beliefs and practices that are now being documented, re-established, and revived by the workers of the Vanuatu Cultural Centre.

The Vanuatu Cultural Centre is the hub of many projects based on community-level interaction. The National Museum is housed within this site, and its mission is laid out on the VCC website with a mandate to “record and document the culture and cultural history of the numerous distinct cultural groups in Vanuatu” while acting as a “focus for cultural performance, both traditional and contemporary.”[5] While these intentions seem consistent with many indigenous forms of contemporary cultural representation and interpretation, and can be contextualized within the western museological model of spectatorship, the production of knowledge within the museum environment, constituted by the projects and policies carried out by the VCC are carried out only by ni-Vanuatu people. Increasingly, these strategies have taken on more significant local interest rather than serving an anthropological community or tourist public.

The Cultural Centre acts as a resource for the collection, preservation, and dissemination of ni-Vanuatu kastom, which takes many forms. Kastom is a Bislama term denoting Vanuatu customs and tradition; the term also carries with it, as Haidy Geismar and Christopher Tilley have argued, “great political resonance, galvanising (often pre-colonially oriented) indigenous identities in the exercise of post-colonial nation and culture building.”[6] Traditional motifs and patterns as well as rituals surrounding clothing, food preparation and fishing can all be considered kastom.[7] Cultural identities have been strengthened by the encouragement of kastom, but further political complexities exist. Holders ofkastom, the individuals that bear rights to powerful, and indeed economically potent cultural property are entrusted with symbols which cannot be used freely or participated in by all members of society. Anthropologist Roger M. Keesing, writing on the growing sense of protection regarding Melanesian kastom, asks, “Are contemporary discourses that proclaim identity in terms of shared custom, idealizing and reifying a shared cultural tradition, an ideological smokescreen masking class interest?”[8]

Questions like this are important when considering entitlement, especially when elite class systems delegate who may use particular forms. In the case of the islands of Vanuatu, where many cultures co-exist, the VCC is involved in these matters, setting up regional boards which are responsible for particular policies and the creation of laws regarding kastom and intellectual property rights. As can be seen in the example of the recent ban on filming of Nagol, the traditional Pentecost Island land dive, restriction of access to cultural practice is certainly a better option than the type of exploitative operations in such a case as the Polynesian Cultural Center in Hawaii, in which students at the Mormon Brigham Young University “keep alive and share their island heritage with visitors while working their way through school.”[9] Regarding the Pentecost Island Land dive ceremony, attempts are being made by the VCC and locals not only to distribute money made from such cultural activities to the appropriate recipients, but also to retain the integrity of this kastom.

The VCC has established itself as a governing body in conjunction with the Vanuatu National Cultural Council. The National Film and Sound Unit presides over the jurisdiction of film and video production within the country, which includes all filming of daily Vanuatu life.[10] On January 1st, 2006, with the consultation of local chiefs, community leaders and parliamentary representatives, The National Film and Sound Unit introduced a ban on the commercial filming of the South Pentecost land dive ceremony by all foreign film companies.[11] Major concerns include “increasing distortion of this traditional ceremony due to growing commercialization and about the lack of transparency in the distribution of fees paid by foreign film companies to communities to film this event.”[12] The VCC is working as an advocate in the development of a group of customary stewards of the Nagol ceremony who will ensure that its significance and tradition are passed on to younger generations.
In 2003 the Vanuatu Cultural Centre entered into a partnership with UNESCO in order to acknowledge and protect the practice of sand drawing under the Intangible Cultural Heritage program as a “Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.”[13] This program essentially functions as an inventory of festivals, traditions, languages, and even people that can be considered “masterpieces,” providing education and funding to various ‘aspects of heritage’, many of which are endangered. Sand drawing, traditionally employed for the visual communication of knowledge surrounding a place, history, family, spiritual beliefs, nature and farming, has taken on a more and more aesthetic and commercialized role within the country. The performative aspect of sand drawing has undermined its role as a form of communication.

The VCC entered into a two-year project funded by UNESCO for the revitalization and awareness-raising of Vanuatu sand drawing within the country and Melanesia as a whole.[14] The project, running from June 2005-May 2007, encompasses the study of sand drawing by school children, festivals that celebrate sand drawing on many of the islands, a women’s sand drawing festival, international awareness-raising, documentation and archiving by the VCC workers, and finally, the financial and legal safeguarding of the practice. This includes not only the development of a new national law to protect traditional knowledge and ‘expressions of traditional culture’ but also a financial policy and copyright plan that is centered on ‘selective commercialization’ controlled by the VCC.

Issues of intellectual property rights and control have played a large part in the contemporary arts of Vanuatu. Ownership and control of knowledge were traditionally expressed by the payment to an entitled member of society for the use of particular design elements or motifs.[15] Contemporary arts often diverge from the forms and subjects of traditional kastom. At the same time, artists and artisans who continue to incorporate traditional designs feel that they should not show too many of their unique patterns to non-ni-Vanuatu.[16] Similarly, the elder individuals who bear the kinship rights to the Pentecost land dive ceremony, with the help of the VCC, are currently investigating the implications of an international claim on Intellectual Property Rights or Moral Rights over the multi-million dollar “bungee jumping” industry.[17] Claims of this type demonstrate the strength and meaning of ideas within the islands; who is privy to their use and benefit are questions currently under debate on both a national and international scale.

Notions of entitlement must be addressed once again in order to discuss the VCC archive, which bases access to particular areas on an individual’s status. As Geismar and Tilley note, the restrictions surrounding the VCC archive “Tabu Room” constitute a new type of ‘museum object’ which is not open to public display. The room acts as a safe storage facility, not only for the protection of the objects from the elements and handling, but also for the safety of communities themselves from the essential or visual power that an object might contain.[18] Access is restricted based on the guidelines of kastom, usually along gender or specific property rights which can be “defined mainly by connections of persons to places, to families, and by traditional status.”[19] These restrictions reassure citizens that culturally sensitive material will not be made available to those who are not traditionally entitled to it; tourists, researchers and the majority of ni-Vanuatu may not enter the archive.[20]

Since the 1970’s, the collection strategies of the VCC have developed the role of the ni-Vanuatu field-worker, of whom the VCC works with more than 80 for the collection and documentation of traditional culture. The male and female volunteers transcribe and record information, some of which is meant to be shared, and some which is kept safe in the VCC archive. Some of this information might include “documentations of personal testimonies, stories, myths, music, ceremonies, national political and cultural events, ritual paraphernalia and artifacts recorded in a variety of media: written texts, audio tapes, film, slides and photographs.”[21] Knowledge and customs are safeguarded and passed down through their place in the VCC archive, where clan members can listen to audio recordings of their deceased kin, carrying on traditions and kastom.[22]

The traditional beliefs and restrictions of ni-Vanuatu people surrounding artistic, customary, and intellectual property have been orally passed down through generations, and these beliefs now take on new forms, through parliamentary laws and international copyrights. Efforts at self-representation and revitalization, like those taking place at the Vanuatu Cultural Centre, have achieved great success and international recognition. Restrictive methods are employed by community centers that wish to serve their local population as well as the visitor, or tourist public. Within the Aboriginal Australian context, the advent of sanctioned “Keeping Places” has institutionalized the secret and traditional knowledge of elders,[23] allowing its protection and use by members in a similar method based on entitlement. In Vanuatu, indigenous strategies of ‘revitalization through restriction’ can be seen within the VCC museum archives and present themselves in the recent Pentecost land dive filming ban and the internationally-funded UNESCO protection and revitalization of sand drawing on the islands.

Following traditional notions of Tabu and also under the contemporary guidelines of exclusive rights and international copyright laws, the ni-Vanuatupeople have claimed, and are in the process of re-claiming, aspects of their distinct cultures.

Coles, Peter. “Culture: Peace and Respect,” “Small Islands, Big Issues,” The New Courier, Apr. 2004, UNESCO, http://portal.unesco.org/en/ev.phpURL_ID=21206&URL_DO= DO_TOPIC&UR_SECTION=201.html (accessed May 4, 2006).
Geismar, Haidy. “The Materiality of Contemporary Art in Vanuatu,” Journal of Material Culture Vol. 9(1): 43–58 London: SAGE Publications, 2004.
Geismar, Haidy. “Reproduction, Creativity, Restriction,” Journal of Social Archaeology, 2005: SAGE Publications, www.sagepublications.com, (accessed May 4, 2006).
Geismar, Haidy, and Christopher Tilley. “Negotiating Materiality: International and Local Museum Practices at the Vanuatu Cultural Centre and National Museum,” Oceania, Mar 2003, Vol. 73, Issue 3, p. 170-188.
Keesing, Roger M. “Class, Culture, Custom,” Melanesian Modernities, Johnathan Friedman and James G. Carrier, eds., Sweden: Lund University Press, 1996.
Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, “Intangible Heritage as Metacultural Production,”Museum International, Vol. 56, no. 1-2, 2004, pp. 52-64.
Simpson, Moira G. “Revealing and Concealing: Museums, Objects, and the Transmission of Knowledge in Aboriginal Australia,” New Museum Theory and Practice: an Introduction, Janet Marstine, Ed. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2006.
UNESCO. “Vanuatu Sand Drawings,” “Masterpieces 2001 and 2003”, UNESCO, http://www.unesco.org/culture/intangibleheritage/masterpiece.php?lg=en&id=77 (accessed May 4, 2006).
Vanuatu Cultural Centre. “Moratorium (Ban) on the Commercial Filming of Nagol (Pentecost Island Land Dive,)” National Film Policy, Vanuatu Cultural Centre, http://www.vanuatuculture.org/(accessed May 4, 2006).
Vanuatu Cultural Centre. “National Museum,” Vanuatu Cultural Centre, http://www.vanuatuculture.org/ (accessed May 4, 2006).
Vanuatu Cultural Centre. “Vanuatu Cultural Centre Fieldworkers Program,” Fieldworkers, Vanuatu Cultural Centre, http://www.vanuatuculture.org/ (accessed May 4, 2006).

1 Haidy Geismar and Christopher Tilley. “Negotiating Materiality: International and Local Museum Practices at the Vanuatu Cultural Centre and National Museum.”Oceania. Vol. 73, Issue 3 (March 2003): 170-188.
2 “Moratorium (Ban) on the Commercial Filming of Nagol (Pentecost Island Land Dive.)” (National Film Policy, Vanuatu Cultural Centre), http://www.vanuatuculture.org/ (accessed May 4, 2006).
3 Geismar and Tilley, 179
4 Peter Coles. “Culture: Peace and Respect.” (The New Courier, UNESCO, April 2004)
5 National Museum, Vanuatu Cultural Centre. http://www.vanuatuculture.org/ (accessed May 4, 2006).
6 Geismar and Tilley, 179
7 Haidy Geismar. “The Materiality of Contemporary Art in Vanuatu.” (Journal of Material Culture Vol. 9(1) London: SAGE Publications, 2004.): 43–58
8 Roger M. Keesing. “Class, Culture, Custom,” (Melanesian Modernities, Sweden: Lund University Press, 1996).
9 Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett. “Intangible Heritage as Metacultural Production”,
(Museum International, Vol. 56, no. 1-2, 2004,): 52-64.
10 “National Policy on Filming in Vanuatu”, National Film Policy, Vanuatu Cultural Centre,
http://www.vanuatuculture.org/ (accessed May 4, 2006).
11 Id.
12 Id.
13 “Vanuatu Sand Drawings: Masterpieces 2001 and 2003”, (UNESCO)
http://www.unesco.org/culture/intangible-heritage/masterpiece.php?lg=en&id=77 (accessed May 4, 2006).
14 “Sand Drawing: A National Action Plan for the Safeguarding of Sand Drawing: A UNESCO Masterpiece
of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity,” (Vanuatu Cultural Centre,)
http://www.vanuatuculture.org/sand/050627_sanddrawing.shtml (accessed May 4, 2006).
15 Anthony Seeger, “Folk Heritage Collections in Crisis: Intellectual Property and Audiovisual Archives
and Collections”, (The American Folklife Centre, Library of Congress,)
http://www.loc.gov/folklife/fhcc/propertykey.html (accessed May 4, 2006).
16 Haidy Geismar, “Reproduction, Creativity, Restriction.” (Journal of Social Archaeology, SAGE
Publications, 2005), www.sagepublications.com (accessed May 4, 2006).
17 “Moratorium (Ban) on the Commercial Filming of Nagol (Pentecost Island Land Dive.)” (National Film Policy, Vanuatu Cultural Centre), http://www.vanuatuculture.org/ (accessed May 4, 2006).
18 Geismar and Tilley, 179
19 Id.
20 Ibid. 180
21 Id.
22 “Vanuatu Cultural Centre Fieldworkers Program”, (Fieldworkers, Vanuatu Cultural Centre)
http://www.vanuatuculture.org/, (accessed May 4, 2006).
23 Moira G. Simpson, “Revealing and Concealing: Museums, Objects, and the Transmission of Knowledge in Aboriginal Australia”, New Museum Theory and Practice: an Introduction, Janet Marstine, Ed. (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2006.)