Tag Archives: Indigenous Australia

What does Australia look like in cultural institutions overseas? Part 1

https://naturalhistory.si.edu/exhibits/beauty-rich-and-rare

I read a post on LinkedIn about the first major Australian exhibition at The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC. Beauty Rich and Rare was developed over a two year period by The National Library of Australia (NLA) and digital storytellers AGB Events (creators of Sydney’s Vivid festival) and is on show until 5th July 2020. It marks the 250th anniversary of Captain James Cook’s arrival on Australian shores and is an immersive sound and light display featuring original illustrations, charts, and a digital version of Joseph Banks’ journal. The exhibition was shown at the NLA in Canberra concurrently with Cook and the Pacific which examined the legacy of Cook from different angles – “the great navigator, sailor and commander” and from the perspective of the Indigenous people of the Pacific. Cook’s Pacific encounters were a two-way exchange with island nations – nations that had different languages and a unique cultural heritage. Today Cook and the impact of his voyages continues to resonate powerfully across the Pacific.

Beauty Rich and Rare Exhibit at the Smithsonian Institute National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC on December 18, 2019. (Photo by Richie Downs / Asico Photo)

Recently I’ve undertaken a FutureLearn course (online) called “Confronting Captain Cook: Memorialisation in Museums and Public Places” by the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich. The information presented has led me to think more critically about Cook’s voyages and their unresolved impact on the history of the  Pacific region (including Australia), and the way in which such historical encounters and Pacific peoples are represented in cultural institutions around the world.

As an Australian, I’d like to know more about the way that Australia is viewed by curators and visitors in museums overseas. The representation of Australia in foreign collections started with Cook and other foreign explorers and the need to gather evidence of “the natural world” and human civilisation (or lack thereof according to European standards) on their voyages. Explorers kept journals and gathered a variety of objects and specimens – both cultural and scientific (including flora, fauna and geological specimens). Curiosities from other lands were collected by institutions in both a “wunderkammer” and scientific sense, without the benefit of context, cultural interpretation or significance to living cultures – without the input which we demand for objects acquired in museums today. 

Art Gallery of NSW collection. The English Channel (2015) Michael Parekowhai. New Zealand. Cook reflecting on his legacy in a contemporary world.

Historic collections should be open to further research, interpretation and rethinking because artefacts are meaningless without specific scientific research or cultural knowledge being attached to them. In particular, Indigenous Australian objects were taken or sourced without Aboriginal voices and meanings, without knowledge of cultural significance and importance attached to them. Some items would still be relevant in 2020 to living Indigenous cultures and should be considered for repatriation rather than remaining stuck in glass cases and conservation stores across the world.

It is shocking to realise that for more than 150 years Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ancestral remains and sacred objects were removed from their communities and placed in museums, universities and private collections overseas. Jennifer Beer from the Aboriginal Heritage Council of Victoria sums it up in these words:

“Secret and sacred objects are a big part of who we are. They carry stories that shape us, and we, and future generations, in turn shape them. They need to be with their rightful custodians so they can keep carrying our stories and our connection with them.”

I want to see Australia’s rich cultural heritage represented in cultural institutions around the world. I’d love to see historic figures, artworks and artefacts given the respect that they deserve on the world stage but honestly this is not occurring in many cultural institutions without appropriate staff, policies and procedures for reviewing historic collections in the contemporary world.

Looking at museum collections online to examine the way Australia is viewed in cultural institutions internationally is an enormous project in itself and would take many years of research. In this post I have sampled a handful of museums presenting Indigenous Australian cultural heritage (tangible and intangible) – one of the oldest in the world dating back 60,000 years. 

The National Museum of Australia has published some work on the subject for Australian Museums under Understanding Museums: Australian museums and museology called “Indigenous People and Museums” which speaks critically about indigenous collections, culture and art and repatriation of objects under certain circumstances. Perhaps the information needs a further push to curators and conservators of Indigenous Australian collections in other parts of the world as well as Australia. 

Secret or sacred objects are secret or sacred according to Aboriginal tradition. Aboriginal Traditional Owners determine which Aboriginal objects are secret or sacred.

Secret or sacred objects include items:

  • associated with a traditional burial
  • created for ceremonial, religious or burial purposes
  • used or seen only by certain people
  • sourced from or containing materials that only certain members of the community can use or see

There are some brilliant offerings and interpretation in Australian museums and galleries and there are a number of articles and guidelines available online which have thoughtful discussion regarding Indigenous engagement, Continuous culture and ongoing responsibilities

Indigenous Australian Artwork by Ningura Napurrula ( Western Desert artist) at the Musee du quai Branly

I had great hopes for Musee Quai Branly in Paris, but in spite of Architect Jean Nouvel’s original concept for the museum, the more I read about it, the less convinced I am that the museum hits the mark for the people that it was supposed to champion. One of the most interesting articles that I’ve read is written by Alexandra Sauvage in reCollections, Vol 2,Number 2 called  Narratives of colonisation: The Musée du quai Branly in context. Sauvage points out that:

 “Whereas museums tend more and more to collaborate with Indigenous peoples in the preservation of collections and the development of exhibitions, the Musée du quai Branly proposes a complicated, marginalising and (most) un-traditional way for Indigenous communities to benefit from their cultural heritage. Clearly, everything indicates that it was a political choice to ignore the 30-year-long fruitful dialogue between anthropologists, curators and Indigenous peoples that has taken place worldwide, a dialogue ‘between cultures’ that has informed museum policies for the last decades. Instead of following this general path, the efforts of the MQB are directed to promoting the ‘aesthetics’ of the collections.”

Musee du quai Branly – Indigenous Australian Artworks

On a more positive note, The Indigenous Repatriation Program has so far led to the return of more than 1,480 Indigenous Australian ancestral remains, with more than 1,200 coming from the UK. In 2019, the ancestral remains of 37 Aboriginal people were returned to Australia from London’s Natural History Museum. Narungga community representatives were part of a delegation receiving the remains of an ancestor who will be cared for at the South Australian Museum until the community is ready to conduct a reburial ceremony. The Museum will also look after another seven repatriated ancestral remains. The remaining 29 ancestral remains will go to the National Museum of Australia until the Ngarrindjeri, Far West Coast, Kaurna and Flinders Ranges communities are ready to lay them to rest.

Sacred Indigenous artefacts have been returned to traditional owners in Central Australia after spending almost a century in United States museums. The objects were displayed in Illinois after being taken in the 1920s. Due to their nature, the  items cannot be revealed or seen by the public for cultural reasons. Elders spent months liaising for the return of 42 Aranda and Bardi Jawi objects, which arrived in Sydney from the Illinois State Museum.

The items were the first of many to be returned as part of a project that coincides with this year’s 250th anniversary of Captain James Cook’s first voyage to Australia. Project leader Christopher Simpson, from the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS), said the goal was returning items to country, not putting them on the shelf of another museum.

The Margaret Mead Hall of Pacific Peoples at AMNH, New York

In The American Museum Of Natural History , New York City, Australia is represented within The Margaret Mead Hall Of Pacific Peoples. The museum has more than 25,000 ethnographic objects from the Pacific in its online database. Of these, 3,400 have originated from Indigenous Australian communities.

I was surprised to cross reference the objects with the registration catalogue to see who had donated the objects and the year that they had been donated – many items donated in the early 1900s. There was often a lack of useful information recorded and provenance was even more surprising. Objects had been exchanged from other museums including The Australian Museum, Museum of Florence, etc. as well as from private donors, often anthropologists and archaeologists who had worked in Australia with Indigenous communities.

There are still many contentious items in museums all over the world. I am not an Indigenous Australian, but I am a museum professional who sees no sense in objects which belong to living cultures being placed in storage or incorrectly displayed when they have significance and a part to play in modern day Aboriginal Australian cultural practice and heritage. How do we, as professionals, continue to raise awareness in cultural institutions around the world about the significance of these objects which need further research and evaluation?

Useful references:

Augustus Earle (1793─1838), Portrait of Bungaree, a Native of New South Wales, with Fort Macquarie, Sydney Harbour, in Background c.1826, Rex Nan Kivell Collection, NLA.GOV.AU/NLA.CAT-VN313278
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Narratives of Colonisation:The Musée du quai Branly in context. https://recollections.nma.gov.au/issues/vol_2_no2/papers/narratives_of_colonisation

Under Western Eyes’: a short analysis of the reception of Aboriginal art in France through the press. https://journals.openedition.org/actesbranly/581?lang=en

The Creation of Indigenous Collections in Melbourne: How Kenneth Clark, Charles Mountford, and Leonhard Adam Interrogated Australian Indigeneity https://journals.openedition.org/actesbranly/332?lang=en

Indigenous People and Museums. https://nma.gov.au/research/understanding-museums/_lib/pdf/Understanding-Museums_Indigenous_people_and_museums.pdf

Continuous Cultures, Ongoing Responsibilities. https://www.nma.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0020/3296/ccor_final_feb_05.pdf

Reuniting Indigenous ‘sticks’ with their stories: the museum on a mission to give back . https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2017/mar/04/reuniting-indigenous-sticks-with-their-stories-the-museum-on-a-mission-to-give-back

Hooper-Greenhill, E. (1999). The educational role of the museum. London: Routledge.

Eilean Hooper-Greenhill (2000). Changing Values in the Art Museum: rethinking communication and learning, International Journal of Heritage Studies, 6:1, 9-31, DOI: 10.1080/135272500363715

Hodge, R., D’Souza, W., & Rivière, G.H. (2009). The museum as a Communicator: A semiotic analysis of the Western Australian Museum Aboriginal Gallery, Perth.

Helena Robinson (2017) Is cultural democracy possible in a museum? Critical reflections on Indigenous engagement in the development of the exhibition “Encounters: Revealing Stories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Objects from the British Museum”, International Journal of Heritage Studies, 23:9, 860-874, DOI: 10.1080/13527258.2017.1300931

https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-11-07/indigenous-artefact-repatriation-nt/11677810

https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-05-11/british-museum-battle-for-stolen-indigenous-gweagal-shield/11085534

Songlines and the coded memory

On a recent visit to the Flinders Ranges in South Australia, I was shown evidence of fossils which were the earliest forms of life on earth and saw some amazing Indigenous Rock Art. When you visit an ancient landscape with such natural beauty and spirituality, it encourages you to look deeper into the rich culture of our First Australians.

I am slowly beginning to understand the connection of Indigenous people to country after visiting the Flinders Ranges  and having listened to 702 ABC radio’s Conversations with Richard Vidler. Richard interviewed  Lynne Kelly about her book “The Memory Code”. Lynne  has researched traditional Indigenous Australian songlines as a key to memory, unlocking many layers of information which have been encoded into the Australian landscape. Songlines can be shared through stories, songs and through traditional dance.

The strong unwritten and oral history of Aboriginal Australians is passed down by Elders within the community. So much of this knowledge is key to survival. Knowledge about the landscape, navigation, ancestral totems, food and medicine, trade routes, culture, law and history. Information is shared through stories, traditional dance and song. Kelly speaks about the way that non-written memory systems are coded into the natural and built environment. She believes that this system was not only used in Australia but may have been used by other ancient cultures around the world.

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The understanding of  the way that Songlines work has changed my thinking about the damage caused by the removal of Indigenous Australians from their connection to country. This must have had a devastating impact – causing much pain through the loss of culture and access to  key information for survival. Australians can empathise with other displaced peoples around the world and yet the issue on our our doorstep is even more complex. I’m not saying that colonial Australians did this on purpose but the end result is still the same and incredibly significant for our Indigenous people. I had these new thoughts on board when I attended the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney to see Jonathan Jones’s exhibition “barrangal dyara (skin and bones)” which was  Kaldor Public Arts Project no.32.

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The Garden Palace, Sydney

Jonathan has reinterpreted one of Sydney’s great cultural losses which was the destruction of the vast Garden Palace in Sydney, which burned to the ground in 1882.

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Bleached gypsum shields forming the border of what was The Garden Palace

 

The Palace contained many Indigenous artefacts which were culturally significant and represented a link to country, part of the collective memory handed on from Elder to community and which can never be replaced.The loss was also greatly felt by the Colonials who lost many archival records, art works and museum objects (remembering that at this time there were no public museums or art galleries in Sydney, only in Melbourne). In a strange way there was some commonality of loss and understanding for all Australians arising from such a catastrophic event.

What I liked most about Jones’s interpretation was the way that the installation took the physical components such as the kangaroo grass meadow and thousands of bleached gypsum shields to mark the perimeter of the original Garden Palace. In addition, the soundscapes of 8 indigenous languages floated through the air, creating an atmosphere which took the observer into a different world. There were also daily conversations from historians, theorists, curators, artists, writers amongst the public program activities allowing the audience to reimagine the building and the history and cultural loss – both from an Indigenous and Colonial perspective. It was actually a great conversation starter.

I think that the arts have a lot to offer as far as highlighting social injustice and human rights issues – bridging the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians through increasing our awareness of the richness of Indigenous culture and the significance of “connection to country” and the sophisticated coding of unwritten knowledge into the natural environment. We have so much to learn and have an opportunity that our forbears  underestimated the value of.

Archaeology – subdivision and the loss of historical context

Over time, Australia’s amazing indigenous, maritime and cultural heritage is being uncovered via numerous archaeological investigations, many of which pre-date The Heritage Act 1977. I was amazed when I visited an Open Day in Parramatta for the Centenary Square development to see the incredible history which lay under the Post Office and surrounds in Macquarie Street. Strangely, although this site had been built on in the interim, there was a large amount of archaeological evidence still visible from the earliest times such as the footings of pre-existing colonial buildings and a variety of everyday objects uncovered by  Casey and Lowe’s meticulous dig. I wondered whether we had lost the context for the earliest land use of the site because it had already been disturbed? I guess that the most recent dig will be the last opportunity to research Parramatta’s past from the Centenary Square site because once the underground car park has been excavated – the existing layers of history in the substrate will be lost.

 

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That isn’t really why I was writing the blog post. The point I was actually thinking about after my Centenary Square visit was that if we continue to subdivide Parramatta and other parts of urban Australia into tiny blocks (which seems inevitable), then what happens to the layers underneath? If the colonial subdivisions are double, triple or quadruple the size of the modern land holdings, what will happen to the archaeological material and the context of where that material is located below the surface? The size of indigenous Australian history layer will be even greater. If an archaeological survey is required by  a developer before an underground car park is excavated, are we only getting part of the story from the archaeological report? Are we looking at half a house, quarter of a hotel or a miniscule portion of a larger landholding such as market gardens, farm, factory or place of indigenous significance? Considering that the layers of earth below the surface can reveal so much about our past  and that suburbs like Parramatta are a significant part of the history of Australia, I really hope that some very important person with vision or the Office of Heritage and Environment or local council responsible has all this in hand before the evidence and context is destroyed for all time.

P.S. After I posted this I noticed some posts by @gmlheritage on Instagram showing items from the archaeological dig of 200 George Street, Sydney, reinterpreted for use in the foyer of Mirvac’s new headquarters. Great to see the objects used along with some explanatory text about the site’s history supported by a wonderful artwork by Judy Watson on display in the public foyer instead of being archived in boxes and stored out of sight.