Owning creativity: cultural property and the efficacy of Kastom on the Rai Coast of Papua New Guinea

James Graham Leach

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

38 Citations (Scopus)


This article examines the reasoning behind calls for the protection, and restitution, of cultural property particularly by UNESCO, between 1970 and 1990. I reflect on discourses that value objects, identity heritage, and customs in a package, which make cultural groups look like individuals to whom certain rights are attached. I do so in the light of material drawn from fieldwork on the Rai Coast of Papua New Guinea. There too, people place a high value on what they term kastom; a word in Neo-Melanesian which derives from the English term 'customs' but has a rather different meaning. I suggest that Nekgini speakers' valuation and validation of 'kastom' contrasts sharply with notions of value built into heritage and cultural property. There is a particular conception of integrity and continuity a relevance based on the needs of the state or individual identity which is embedded in the notion of cultural property. I contend that this conception obscures the creativity which Nekgini speakers value in the practices of 'kastom'. My wider point is to question the direction in which recommendations covering the protection of cultural property has led.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)123-143
Number of pages20
JournalJournal of Material Culture
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2003


  • cultural property
  • kastom
  • love magic
  • moral personhood


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