Malagan Bird

Malagan objects are artworks for one day only, maybe even for just a few hours. Once they have fulfilled their role during festivities, they are left to deteriorate.

The term Malagan may refer to numerous things: death, life, soul, art, copyright, community. However, during colonialism, these elaborately carved works became coveted collectibles

Their journey from the Bismarck Archipelago to European museums changed them. Their existence was suddenly prolonged, yet their meaning faded away, as did the names of the artists.

Once a powerful body, now simply an  an object of study. For a long time, the descendants of the artists played no role in this. Today, the descendants say: “You need our eyes to see us."

Object data

Date of production: Second half of the 19th century.
Acquisition by museum: gifted by Ruben Jonas Robertson in November 1884


New Ireland, Papua New Guinea


Wood, paint




W 43 cm, D 14 cm, H 29 cm

Inventory Id:

E 871

Is the small block of wood on the rear side of the mask an element for attaching it to something or perhaps the bird was worn as a mouth mask?
To throw away or not?

New Ireland, an island in the Bismarck Archipelago northeast of New Guinea, was the center of the Malagan ceremonies. These ceremonies could last for months or even years, during which the souls of the deceased were sent off to the land of the dead, where they were to become ancestors.

For this purpose, artists made Malagan objects as commissioned works. The objects functioned as intermediate carriers for the souls, enabling the living to partake in their journey. At the height of the festivities, the works of art were revealed often for only a few hours and then brought to the forest, where they were left to deteriorate.

This Malagan bird holds a snake in its beak and claws
The people from abroad who worked locally were mostly tradespeople, plantation owners, sailors, missionaries and later colonial officers. Only on rare occasions did they ask for the names of the artists and if they did, they did not document them.

When buying, exchanging or robbing the works, the context of their construction no longer played a role; neither was the effort of providing enough taro roots, pigs, tsera (shell money), nor the effort of cooking for the festivities or other preparations. Not the production with stone axes or shells, the sanding-down with shark teeth, the polishing with the rough surface of leaves, sting ray or shark skin; or the burning and firing needed to apply the colours.

Not only did the artists want to make their artwork look beautiful, they also used elaborate patterns to represent ownership or legal claims. Their knowledge, however, was lost as soon as the objects left the islands. Only in rare cases are their names known in Europe, such as the name of the sculptor Teringa from the village Hamba, who was photographed by German colonial officers in 1907.

Malagan carving, glass slide, 1909
Boat ornament for a Malagan celebration. The artist's name is not on the museum archives' inventory card.
Works of Malagan art quickly found an interested audience in Europe. Religious and spiritual objects usually fetched higher prices than everyday objects.

The openwork carving with its colorful and small-scale painting fascinated Europeans in particular. In the 1920s, Surrealist artists fell in love with the intricate forms and intertwined shapes in these artworks. They saw the expression of an unconscious world caught between dream and reality in them. "You enchant, you invoke fear" wrote the poet André Breton (1896-1966), who bought several Malagan objects himself.

Collection of European and non-European artworks in Breton's studio

A hierarchy of value quickly emerged among the exported pieces: bird images - especially of the hornbill - were relatively common. Multi-layered and dynamic animal depictions were popular. However, only about one tenth of the depictions showed the whole bird body, which in turn made these sculptures more expensive.

For merchants like Ruben Jonas Robertson (1813-1902), who donated this bird to the museum, "ethnological objects" also served a clear economic purpose, especially in the late 19th century. The shipping company owner from Altona was the uncle and financier of Henry Nathanel Robertson (born 1851), the co-owner of Robertson & Hernsheim. 

This name comes up frequently in provenance research in the MARKK. The company played an important role in the establishment of the colony of German New Guinea at that time. 

Coconut plantations had been established there for oil production in the hope of profits in the export business. However, they needed 15 years to yield a profit. Therefore, the colonizers sometimes used the coveted Malagan artworks as trade goods. Those who supplied rare objects to museums and trading houses could hope to receive medals and social recognition, as well as earn additional income.

Malagan ceremonies still take place today. The exact number of works of art that found their way from the islands into collections and museums is not known, but what is certain is that there are thousands.

Typical Malagan: diverse figurative elements

Researchers have often pointed out that the objects would no longer exist if they had not been "collected". Is that good or bad? Who decides? The question of how and whether artworks should be "returned" under these circumstances is a matter of debate in postcolonial times. What do the descendants of the original users have to say about this? Most of them have probably never had the chance to see an antique Malagan object. There are very few museums in Papua New Guinea.
  • Map teaser: Peter Hermes Furian/Alamy Stock Foto E60K17
  • Photos of boat ornament (Inventarnummer: E1538) and of the two malagan birds in the story (Inventarnummern: oben E 1537 und unten E 1535 dop1): MARKK, Brigitte Saal
  • Photo/glass slide of sculptor in Hamba: MUT | Ethnologische Sammlung, Inv. Nr. AOI-Es-Dia1408
  • Photo of André Breton´s workshop: Roderick Schuchart/Alamy Stock Foto 2JE6A0E
  • Literature: Iris Edenheiser, Larissa Förster (Hg.): Museumsethnologie. Eine Einführung, Berlin 2019; Michael Gunn: Mouthpieces from Northern New Ireland in: Michael Gunn, Philippe Peltier: Auf Spurensuche, TenDenzen 03, Bremen, 2004
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