Value in Things

8 minute read

A Trobriand Islander canoe ornament on display in the ‘Pacific Currents’ section of the World Anthropology gallery at MAA is a intriguing example of how different value systems contrast and productively overlap within a single object. Created in 2010 by Paul Kalabaku, it is made of a elaborately carved wooden splashboard (lagim) with a projecting wave cutter (tabuya).  Remarkably and unusually, this canoe ornament incorporates a crucifix.

Figure 1. Canoe ornament (lagim and tabuya) carved by Paul Kalabakai in 2010, Kiriwina, Trobriand Islands, Papua New Guinea. Ht 49cm, W 36 cm, L 39 cm. Collected by Sergio Jarillo de la Torre with the support of the Crowther-Beynon Fund. MAA 2018.10.1–2.

Elaborately carved lagim and tabuya are mounted at the end of sea-going canoes used for kula, the ceremonial exchange system that links people, islands and communities throughout Milne Bay Province of Papua New Guinea. They are often decorated with stylised designs of plants and animals noted for particular characteristics, such as speed and agility, or the ability to ward off evil influences.

A carved wooden prow board installed in a canoe. Some people are standing at the back on the right.

Figure 2. A carved wooden splashboard (lagim) and projecting wave cutter (tabuya) installed in a kula canoe being built under a thatch sunshade by Kekana. Kiriwina, Trobriand Islands, Papua New Guinea, September 2009. Photo courtesy of Sergio Jarillo.

Since Bronislaw Malinowski’s ground-breaking fieldwork in the Trobriand Islands from 1915, kula has been a canonical anthropological example for investigating and comparing systems of exchange and processes of valuation. In his book Argonauts of the Western Pacific (1922) Malinowski demonstrated that while the shell ornaments that were traded had no apparent use value, kula exchanges were a means of facilitating trade, negotiating status, and creating and extending relationships. Kula shell valuables are enhanced by the movement between people, increasing in merit due to their accumulated associations with prestigious and distant partners.

A man and his young daughter are seated on the entrance to a building. In front of them is an intricately carved prow board. A smaller prow board with a cross and some red flowers are hung to their top right.

Figure 3. Paul Kalabaku and his granddaughter Sandy with two of his elaborately carved canoe ornaments, Kiriwina, Trobriand Islands, Papua New Guinea, April 2010. Photo courtesy of Sergio Jarillo.

A photograph alongside the Trobriand canoe ornament on display shows Paul Kalabaku and his granddaughter Sandy on the porch of his home, with Kalabaku proudly displaying two large and newly carved lagim. Hanging on the wall beside the entrance to his home is the  lagim with a crucifix, now cared for by MAA. It is decorated with flowers hanging from the projecting tabuya. While Kalabaku routinely makes carvings for local use as well as to sell to tourists and anthropologists, he originally made this particular lagim and tabuya for himself, specifically to be hung at his home as a support for the crucifix he inherited from his father. Paul, like his father, is a devout Catholic. He said:

‘I put a cross in the lagim because the word of Jesus travelled all over the world, that’s why he needs to be in a canoe and travel around.’

The value and potency of the crucifix and the canoe ornament are mutually enhanced by their relational associations.

Kalabaku’s canoe ornament is part of a small collection of contemporary Trobriand wood carvings, made with the support of MAA’s Crowther Beynon Fund by Cambridge doctoral student Sergio Jarillo during his anthropological fieldwork in the region (2008–2010). When Paul heard that Sergio was collecting Trobriand carvings for a museum in the UK, he gifted the canoe ornament to Sergio as he wanted his work exhibited where people in Europe could see it. Paul  didn’t want it to be ‘purchased’ but happily agreed that Sergio gift him some money so that he could buy fish and rice and have a feast with his grandchildren (Jarillo personal communication). Before handing over his carving to Jarillo, Paul took the ornament apart for transit and started to paint it with bright commercial paint, in keeping with a local fondness for all that is shiny and bright. Paul painted the tabuya, but Jarillo discouraged him from painting the lagim. For Jarillo, and  many ‘western’ viewers, the thick bright paint valued by Paul is seen to obscure the finely carved designs, that were customarily highlighted with white lime.

As part of the redisplay of the Pacific collections in MAA’s care, the lagim and tabuya were put back together by conservation staff, resulting in a visually hybrid and compelling object. It embodies distinct but overlapping aesthetic values, with deep connotations. The design of a finely carved lagim is said to enchant kula partners into handing over their precious shells (Campbell, 2001; Gell, 1998), while Marilyn Strathern notes a general Trobriand appreciation for shiny surfaces (1999). In considering ‘the light of the new,’ Jarillo described how his Trobriand colleagues remarked that present-day carvings are ‘better’ than the old ones, ‘more perfect, more beautiful, brighter’ (pp. 137–139, p. 194). Malinowski also mentions the positive connotations of brightness when discussing a local creation myth involving Tudava, a creator-god-demiurge who made the Trobriand Islands abundant through light (Malinowski, 1935). This concept of abundance through light overlaps with Christian notions more recently adopted in the Trobriands, which speak of light and darkness and the saviour who brought light into the world (Jarillo, 2021).

Kalabaku’s carving is a materialisation and presentation of the overlap between particular values associated with kula, Christianity, collecting and museum dis- play, which combine to intensify the potency of the object. While the worth of kula valuables increases through circulation and exchange, the process also enhances the names and status of the key people involved in their transaction. Paul’s keen interest in presenting his carving to the museum is in keeping with this notion of enhanced value through movement and the fostering of exchange partners. MAA was asked for photographs of Paul’s carving inside the case once the new Pacific displays were completed. While this seems like a small gesture, the photographs and associated stories of Paul’s lagim and tabuya travelling to Cambridge where they will be seen by thousands of people offered the potential to enhance Paul’s name and value of his carvings, and also reaffirm his Christian beliefs.


Campbell, S.  (2001) ‘The captivating agency of art: Many ways of seeing’. In Pinney, C. and Thomas, N. (eds.) Beyond Aesthetics: Art and the Technologies of Enchantment. Oxford and New York: Berg, pp. 117–135.

Gell, A. (1998) Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory. Oxford: Clarenden.

Jarillo, S. (2013) Carving the Spirits of the Wood: An Enquiry into Trobriand Materialisations. Unpublished PhD thesis. University of Cambridge.

Jarillo, S. (2021) ‘How Malinowski sailed the midnight sun: The academic conference as ethnographic performance’. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 27(2) pp.260-283.

Malinowski, B. (1935) Coral Gardens and Their Magic. London: Routledge.

Strathern, M. (1999) Property, Substance and Effect: Anthropological Essays on Persons and Things. London and New Brunswick: The Athlone Press.


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