Marcelin Abong
Director, Vanuatu Cultural Centre & the Vanuatu National Cultural Council

The principal role of the Vanuatu Cultural Centre since its establishment in the early 1960s has been to document and record the culture and cultural history of Vanuatu. This has been done by the Centre’s staff and a network of over one hundred volunteer fieldworkers. The documentation efforts focus on details of remembered histories and traditions; details of ritual practices, classification systems, and languages; details of cultural landscapes and particularly sites of cultural significance; and records of contemporary events of historical and cultural significance. The latter, which is essentially a history-in-the-making, is recorded on video as examples of material culture collected for museological display, but almost everything else is documented on audiotape. This is because our indigenous cultures are primarily oral, and therefore, all our cultural knowledge is retained and transmitted orally. This documented knowledge is held by the Centre and has been used as source material for the revival of certain traditional cultural practices no longer being practiced.

Most of the Centre’s activities are in the outer islands of Vanuatu. The Centre’s sixty-two male fieldworkers and fifty-four female fieldworkers are based in their own linguistic and cultural areas in the outer islands, and these volunteers document their own culture and history as well as the culture and history of neighboring areas.

Faced with the need to record and store indigenous knowledge that is controlled by strict access and transmission procedures, the Centre has developed a system, which, to the extent that is possible, respects these maxims. When knowledge is recorded by fieldworkers, it is made clear what portions of the oral narrative are restricted, and to whom. As fieldworkers are from the same language group if not kin group as the informant, there is a much greater possibility that the informant will be made fully aware of what such documentation entails and what they, in turn, will be willing to divulge. Having a local doing this documentation work has proved to be an invaluable asset to the success of our program.

The Tabu Room is a secured room at the Centre where all materials with some degree of restrictions are stored. Only the people identified as having the right to access the recorded material are allowed access. In some cases, access restrictions extend even to the Centre staff, who then become responsible for curating materials that they cannot listen to. There are different sections for each island group, and the records of women’s knowledge are kept separate from the men’s to recognize that there is a separation between the ritual realms of women and men in Vanuatu. Often people come into the Centre to listen to material recorded by their deceased kin. In this way, some part of the

tradition of the oral transmission of knowledge is continued, and moreover, a kin group has an opportunity to learn its own traditions even if this opportunity had been foregone while the possessor of the knowledge was still alive. The Centre is now embarking upon a program to make some unrestricted cultural information available to the general public in the form of books and audio cassettes, with schoolchildren as a primary target group.

Female fieldworkers attending their annual workshop © Vanuatu Cultural Centre

One of the Centre’s major projects with the fieldworkers is the audio-visual documentation of traditional rituals and cultural activities. The aim is to assist in preserving and promoting aspects of custom and culture and to try to ensure that as much of Vanuatu’s cultures and history as possible is recorded for posterity. Documentation subjects include major traditional rituals, such as initiation, funerals, marriages, and clan-alliance ceremonies, as well as activities such as weaving, gardening, village festivals, and myth re-enactments. All these things are of great importance and interest to all ni-Vanuatu, and it is widely understood that future generations will be able to learn, study, and benefit from this documentation project.

One aim of the documentation project is to help educate ni-Vanuatu about the value of their own and related cultures. Our dispersed country is culturally diverse, but through this project, our people can learn about cultures from other areas of the country. Future generations can learn of the activities of older generations. Before the arrival of new film and video techniques, recording was only in audio. Now, with video, we can see as well as hear. The National Film and Sound Unit, an important part of the Centre, provides its services free of charge to communities in the outer islands to document, at their request, rituals and historical events. Sponsors of the rituals—chiefs, and/or the village community involved—retain a copy of the resulting film, which they can use as they see fit. Public interest and awareness of this project has become so great that it is impossible to fulfill all requests. The fieldworkers spread throughout the islands are currently concentrating on audio documentation and photography because we do not have enough filming equipment to distribute evenly to satisfy the demand. We do, however, have permanent film units in South-West Bay, Malakula, at the Malakula Cultural Centre and at the Tafea Cultural Centre. Our hope is to eventually have more units throughout the islands.

Besides recording in the field, the National Film and Sound Unit is responsible for looking after its collection of film and sound archives, which include material recorded earlier this century as well as over three thousand hours of footage recorded by the Centre’s staff, fieldworkers, and researchers. Copies of certain non-taboo films are regularly shown, with permission, to schools, village communities, and so on. They are sometimes also used at local meetings, courses, or workshops. They are even sometimes taken by government representatives on workshops or conferences overseas. With the recent introduction of television in Vanuatu, we hope to be producing regular local documentary film features for broadcast. The Centre could thus benefit from television in Vanuatu by co-producing regular programs on cultural matters using existing films in the archives and recording new material. Using modern audio-visual techniques and facilities, we document and raise awareness of Vanuatu’s cultural richness and diversity and help ensure that our small island nation does not lose its unique cultural identity. The fieldworkers continue with a long-term project of eventually producing dictionaries of their own languages, local ethnographies of their own cultures, and transcriptions of selected non-taboo myths, legends, and histories for potential use in the education system. Regular radio programs are also produced in Bislama based upon non-taboo selections from the audio collections.