In the Massim region of eastern Papua New Guinea, people in certain island groups are linked by a system of gift-giving and exchange known as the ‘Kula ring’. This has become very famous since it was studied by the anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski at the beginning of the 20th century.
The Kula ring is a complex system of exchange and relationships, which has interested anthropologists who study gift-giving. Many objects are exchanged, but there are two primary items given as gifts: necklaces (soulava) and armlets (mwali). The mwali (illustrated here) are made from sections of conus shells which have been polished and perforated, decorated with black seeds and tassels of glass trade beads and shell disks.
These two types of items are passed amongst the islands in opposite directions; necklaces are gifted in a clockwise direction between islands and armlets anticlockwise. The exchanges affect the social status of people, with the gifts not intended to be kept but instead are expected to be passed on. If items are kept for too long, a host risks losing their reputation and partners in the Kula ring. The distances that people travel over the sea and the length of time between gift-giving are particularly striking.
These beautiful mwali were acquired by Sir William MacGregor, the first Administrator of British New Guinea from 1888 to 1898, who bequeathed his collection to the University. It includes an impressive number of very fine mwali, among other items that make it one of the world’s most important collections from New Guinea.
Two of the mwali are being installed in the latest exhibition in King’s Museum, Imperial Possessions, which traces Sir William’s career and collecting in Fiji, New Guinea, Lagos (Nigeria), Newfoundland (Canada) and Queensland (Australia). The exhibition will open on Tuesday 5 January.