In the villages you learn that artifacts with clear utilitarian functions can have profound cultural significance. The lime spatulas of Collingwood Bay are a good example. On a basic level all lime spatulas have the mundane function of bringing the white lime powder from a container to the mouth of the person chewing betel nut. Yet in Collingwood Bay these lime spatulas are the most important pieces of material culture. Some large, elaborate examples are the prerogative of the most important chiefs. They are a source of magical and ancestral power. I have heard stories of how a powerful chief would hold a meeting with other clan leaders. All the men would be sitting on the floor of a raised house chatting idly and chewing betel nut when the chief would call the meeting to order by rattling his lime spatula in the lime pot. During the ensuing discussion when agreements were made the chief would pass his lime spatula through the group and as each man held the spatula it signified his acceptance of the verbal contract. The lime spatula with its undisputable ancestral presence acted as both witness and guarantee to the pact.
As a field collector I do not have the luxury of spending years with one single culture and thus I never acquire a deep level of knowledge and understanding of any particular people and their art. Yet, by spending the night in hundreds of different villages in dozens of different cultures and geographic areas you get a different set of experiences. You develop a broad and general grasp of how people throughout New Guinea use and think about their objects.
You learn some near universal truths about people's relationship to these dusty, worn pieces of wood, cane or bone. These things are often the material remains, the physical evidence of real and mythical pasts, of how they as a people came to be, how they got their name and how they came to live on a certain piece of ground. Certain objects are repositories of powers and wars were waged by envious villages desperate to capture and make that power their own. Such stories are recounted in the evening sitting on the floor of someone's house, by the light of the cooking fire or kerosene lamp. They are usually told by an old man with pride and vigor showing on his face as he calls out the names of his ancestors and relives their exploits.
Seeing an object in a gallery, sitting on its pedestal, a long way from a village in New Guinea, it is hard to imagine its previous existence. But that object has a life and often a heroic history, a presence, a power and a past that stands moot and largely forgotten unless there is someone who has listened to the old man and can, in some small way, recount the story that otherwise remains untold.