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Panel 25: Museums as “Engineered” Environments – A Dialogic Approach to Researching Museum Collections


Elizabeth Bonshek, Lindy Allen

Session presentation

Anthropological practice in museums continues to be criticised as anachronistic, “weary” and “tired”, and museums as trophy houses embedded in the colonial past. This panel challenges this notion with papers that actively contest this notion and instead reveal the museum as an active field site―albeit an engineered environment― where Pacific communities, artists, anthropologists, and curators are undertaking research collaborations on museum collections.

The things in museums provide a unique and tangible link to events, to places, to people and to customary practices and knowledge from the past, and the panel seeks to give focus to how these research engagements have impacted on or been part of the recovery and reshaping of knowledge and identity.

This work is underpinned by a dialogic approach where multiple and differing perspectives about these “things” are elicited, where ideas and understandings are exchanged and interchanged, and where new knowledge, meanings and narratives about the past emerge. We seek to reveal the nuanced and complex nature of interactions in museums as engineered environments and how these engagements sit apart from the now longstanding narrative of decolonisation and Indigenous-colonial settler relationships that currently pervade much anthropological, historical writings about museums and museum collections.

Paper submissions are closed

Accepted papers

Altering the Alterity

Beatrice Voirol (Museum der Kulturen Basel)

Objects in museum collections reveal much about our own traditions of collecting and classifying “otherness”, but they also have the potential to connect us with people for whom museum objects are meaningful in different ways. Furthermore, having grown up in a scientific system that strived to know “the other”, meeting “the other” in an environment like the museum was a revealing experience. In dealing with both objects, and interacting with people, the “otherness” or my own tradition becomes a kaleidoscope of possibilities. The former “Deutungshoheit” is replaced by a plurality of interpretations. This assemblage of interpretations, though sometimes contradictory, gives us the opportunity to see an object in its varying contexts in space and time. And in reflecting on this “otherness” we gain insight in our own cultural strategies in this complex world. This paper reflects on positions and actions in museum practice and how it is challenged and transformed by personal encounter. Thus, the museum is a vibrant place of encounter and research.

Collecting the Pacific in Melbourne: a developing history.

Elizabeth Bonshek (Museum Victoria)

When a selection of objects described as “duplicates” from British New Guinea was transferred from the Queensland Museum to the then National Museum (now Museums Victoria) in Melbourne in 1897, it was promptly transferred to the Public Library. How can this transaction be understood? Museums have long been critiqued as agents of colonial government. But this interpretation does not shed light on the changing historical contexts of collecting from the birth of a specific museum and into its contemporary life. The identification of what Thomas has called differing forms of colonialism’s cultures allows specific histories to be unmasked and enlighten our understanding of how objects were interpreted in the past. This in turn can complement how collections or objects are interpreted in the present and might be understood in the future. This paper examines how the museum environment of nineteenth century Melbourne engineered the development of the Pacific collections now housed at Museums Victoria, revealing an ambiguous and sometimes ambivalent stance in regard to the importance of indigenous collections. These collections were moved between competing collecting strategies domiciled under the headings of history, fine art, antiquities and natural history. The transitory aspect of these collection histories form a part of the objects’ social lives upon which contemporary engagements with and investigations of the collections have now come to rest.

Natural history and cultural worlds

Jude Philp (Sydney University Museums)

Museums have transformed over the past 40+ years from places of knowledge, to places where knowledge, relations and ideas about material culture are discussed, negotiated, contested and exhibited. This paper looks at one museum arena that is still largely considered and curated as ‘expert knowledge’ – natural history collections. The story of natural history collecting and classifying hand-in-hand with material culture is well documented. And while this kind of investigation has assisted in creating the ‘contact zones’ celebrated by James Clifford and others and in transforming museums’ cultural spaces, it has largely done so by maintaining an inherent division between ‘science’ and ‘ethnography’, ‘natural history’ and ‘material culture’. Yet the shared historic collecting zone, the relevance of animals to individuals as well as cultural worlds, and the shared narrative of ‘disappearance’ and ‘loss’ raise questions about museums continued epistemological control.
I explore the consequences of a dialogic approach that takes cues from Indigenous people about the relevance and care of natural history collections to encourage dialogue around the meanings and knowledges that link the cultural and natural worlds.

Grab n’ Go: Museums, Department Stores, and the Morton D. May collection of Oceanic Art

Aoife O'Brien (National Museums of World Culture)

During the mid to late-twentieth century, St. Louis businessman and art connoisseur Morton D. May played an active and influential role in promoting non-Western art within the United States. An avid collector of Oceanic art, May gifted significant numbers of objects to various US museums, particularly to the Saint Louis Art Museum (SLAM).
However, it was not all patronage. He also used his chain of department stores as exhibition venues and sales rooms for Oceanic art, and organized occasional giveaways of art in conjunction with museums. For instance, in 1964 he organized a “museum grab bag” which offered museum directors attending a conference the opportunity to select six works from the collection of New Guinea art displayed at the City Art Museum (later SLAM). In this instance, the museum was temporarily transformed into type of saleroom, a commodified and engineered space in which objects were acquired by national and international museums.
Using May’s archival papers and collection, my paper attempts to reconstruct how May used museums and his department stores to display and disperse Oceanic art. It further examines the intersections between art, anthropology, collections and collecting histories, the museum and the art market during the mid to late-twentieth century.

From economic laboratory to haus tumbuna: re-inventing the PNG Museum

Anna Edmundson (Australian National University)

Pacific museums and cultural centres have been at the forefront of efforts to preserve tangible and intangible heritage as part of the process of post-colonial nation-building. The most successful of these have been those institutions that have incorporated traditional beliefs and political agendas that are important to local communities (Eoe 1991; Stanley 2007; Hviding and Knut 2011). As part of this process heritage professionals in Pacific Island nations have needed to convince local audiences that museums are more than just ‘trophy houses embedded in the colonial past’. The dilemma has been in untangling the museum from its colonial origins and re-imagining its future as a forward looking locally imbricated institution.

In this paper I discuss how staff in one museum, the Papua New Guinea National Museum and Art Gallery, drew upon pre-existing museum models in the form of kastom houses (known collectively as Haus Tumbuna), in order to achieve their goals of ‘localising’ the museum. In particular, I want to examine how colonial and post-colonial agents have invoked different concepts of patrimony –local, national and universal - in the transformation of the museum from scientific laboratory to national kastom house.

“We paint our country and ancestors”: negotiating meaning and significance in legacy collections from Arnhem Land

Lindy Allen (Museums Victoria)

A dialogic pedagogy in contemporary curatorial practice allows for a range of skills & multiple perspectives to be drawn upon as a foundation for research on collections. It is one of critical analysis achieved through an interplay of multiple voices & points of view based on actual practice, not idealised scenarios; one that is multi-dimensional in nature; & further one founded on dialogue that allows differing and competing views and perspectives & multiple interpretations & narratives to emerge from or be read into these things.
The paper considers the way in which contemporary curatorial practice of engaging source communities with their cultural patrimony in museums has seen the spaces where collections are stored transform into “field sites". Within this environment, significant shifts in understanding of the cultural, historical and scientific significance of these things have emerged, & the potency & capacity of objects to exert influence in the present is revealed. As such, the museum operates as an "engineered” cultural landscape where differing epistemologies engage, negotiate & contribute to reshaping & recovering meanings embedded within the things held by museums.
This paper focuses on legacy collections from Milingimbi in Arnhem Land on Australia's far northern coastline. I discuss three bark paintings at Museums Victoria (Melbourne) & explore the way Gupapuyngu Daygurrgurr clan reconnected with these works & how in turn this impacted on their lives.

Divisible materiality, historic relationships and contemporary collaborations: Research on a collection of early Polynesian barkcloth in the National Museum of Scotland

Antje Denner (National Museums Scotland)

Barkcloth is a readily divisible material – it can easily be cut, shared and distributed. While cutting up tapa was not a standard Polynesian cultural practice, dividing barkcloths collected by Western explorers was common in Britain in the late 18th and 19th centuries. The soft and often exquisitely patterned material was as exotic as it was fascinating. Samples were assembled in compilations such as the well-known Shaw books and shared and disseminated amongst collectors, dealers and museums to the effect that whole, ‘unscathed’ early pieces now are rare.
This paper describes research presently being undertaken to analyse and interpret a collection of around 150 Polynesian barkcloths that reached Edinburgh before 1850. They range from small cut-out pieces to large sheets featuring a fascinating array of different textures and designs. The collection will allow valuable insights into the development of designs, styles and processes of production and on the manifold relationships that exist between materials, makers, collectors and institutions. However, since much of the original documentation has not survived, shedding light on their provenance and collection histories, and their historic and contemporary significance require a transdisciplinary, collaborative approach that brings together anthropologists, art historians, scientific analysts and contemporary makers in the Pacific.

Ethnographic drawings back and forth the museum: the example of Somuk a Melanesian informant of the 1930’s

Nicolas Garnier

In June 2016, the auction house Artcurial auctioned a photographic album including twenty drawings by Somuk, an inhabitant of Bougainville in Papua New Guinea. In an advertising document, the auction house heralded the role of Jean Dubuffet in the public recognition of Somuk as an artist. The album was eventually purchased by the musée du quai Branly, as it contains several hundred pictures taken by Patrick O’Reilly, a priest and an anthropologist who spent a year in Bougainville to collect artefacts for the future “musée de l’Homme” between 1934 and 1935. On this occasion he gathered several drawings by Somuk, perhaps done for him while he collected examples of oral literature in Bougainville.
While investigating in Somuk’s village several years ago, I realized that Somuk was not remembered as an artist but as a political and mythical figure. The paper explores the way museum artefacts sediment multiple narratives ranging from a discourse on avant-garde art (Dubuffet and the Art Brut) to the memories of villagers in Bougainville. Working back and forth between museum collections and Bougainvillians offers the possibility to understand what they remember from early colonial past, and the way one of them became a prominent figures and a representatives of their cultures on the global arena. It also offers the possibility to strengthen links between museum collections and people who are culturally related to these artefacts.

Transformation of Historic Photographs from Milingimbi via Dr JN Gumbula

Louise Hamby (Australian National University)

Australian Indigenous cultural heritage items are found in museums and institutions around the world. The ‘things’ held can provide a unique and tangible link to events, to places, to people and to customary practices and knowledge but not on their own. This paper will reveal the necessity for institutional representatives to work with contemporary Aboriginal people to transform the documentation of their holdings and thus provide the potential for the photographs, objects and other media to tell stories from multiple perspectives; and in this way, through a dialogic engagement the engineered environment that is the museum is further deconstructed by transference to the field. In many institutions holding material from the first half of the 20th century there is little cultural content or any other detailed information available. Collected photographs from Milingimbi, an island in eastern Arnhem Land, are the things selected to investigate this topic. Many of these early photographs have been transformed through the knowledge of the late Dr JN Gumbula. The collection of photographs in the State Library of New South Wales from the Methodist Overseas Mission are the major ones used in this study with additional ones from other collections to complement the argument, such as Axel Poignant’s images in the National Library of Australia.

Rethinking relationships: anthropology museums and contemporary Pacific artists

Sylvia Cockburn (University of East Anglia)

In 2017, the Queensland Museum in Brisbane launched unsettle, a new artist-in-residency program in which young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists are being invited into the museum to consider and challenge their relationship to cultural collections. The project can be seen as part of a recent, larger trend for collaborations and engagement between anthropology museums and contemporary indigenous artists. This paper discusses the relationship between museums and Pacific artists as it is manifest in contemporary collaborative projects in Australia and the United Kingdom. I argue that many collaborations go beyond their stated aims of community engagement, and the decolonisation of museums, and are actively reshaping knowledge about collections, the role of the museum and the boundaries of contemporary Pacific art.

The boomerang effect exhibition or how to incorporate different perspectives in the presentation of Indigenous Australian collections

Roberta Colombo Dougoud (Musée d'ethnographie de Genève)

On May 18th 2017 the Ethnographic Museum of Geneva (MEG) opens the exhibition "The Boomerang Effect" unveiling one of its finest collections. This exhibition is an opportunity to look into the MEG's history so as to understand why, how and in what circumstances the successive Australian pieces were acquired, by following the evolution of how these objects and their creators have been seen since colonisation. It also shows how the Indigenous Australians have become an integral part of the contemporary art market. But this exhibition attests also to the museum's willingness to take into account the demands of Indigenous Australians concerning the question of how to present their culture outside their land.
In this paper I shall present how the exhibition has been conceived and the collaboration with the contemporary artist Brook Andrew invited to do a residency. With several interventions he questions ethnocentric attitudes towards Indigenous peoples and shows that the dominant narratives are often misinterpretations. Incorporating into his sculptures historical documents from his own archives as well as objects found in Geneva, he confronts us with the rules and codes prevalent both in Western and Indigenous cultures. The video interviews with Aboriginal representatives and experts offer a range of different points of view on cultural and religious issues as well as on the protocols for museums to follow when dealing with the Indigenous Australian cultural heritage.

Managing energy and uncertainty in an anthropology museum.

Diana Young (University of Queensland Anthropology Museum)

In this paper I discuss a series of exhibition research projects generated through knowledge exchange and the construction of new meanings within the engineered space of the collection store at a university anthropology museum in Queensland, eastern Australia.

This collection of cultural practices and global art was mainly constituted through the colonial exploits of Queenslanders. These relationships are reflected in what entered the collection and how. The way that these histories are seen today is complex and various. As in many similar museums, acquisitions of contemporary material and art from these same cultures anchor the collection to the present.

I critique my own efforts, and those of my collaborators, towards generating research from the collection that create new ways of looking, new meanings and narratives. The aim is to move theory forwards rather than react to its parameters. These projects ideally find inclusivity with those whose cultural property is cared for in the collection, on a limited budget and time line. I explore how the management of both energy and uncertainty help realise these exhibitions in what is in effect a performative and open ended process.

When Lines on Maps and in Minds Matter— Reimagining the Gallery Space in a Pacific Geopolitical Context

Rowan Gard (University of St Andrews)

Drawing inspiration from the Hawaiian ‘ōlelo no‘eau and dialogic approach—
‘A‘ohe pau ka ‘ike i ka hālau ho‘okahi— that ‘All knowledge is not learned in just one school’ this paper considers the unique educational (and at times political) discourses created in museum gallery spaces. The recent and ongoing reimagining of the Pacific Gallery at the Boston Museum of Fine Art serves as a powerful case-study in highlighting the deeper ancestral connections of Oceania which are often obscured by more recent colonial histories. Furthermore, this paper will consider the enduring political and human-rights violations in West Papua and the campaign for independence, which is regarded by many to be the most important human-rights issue in the Pacific at this time. To conclude, when engineering spaces of learning and exploration within museums we shall show it is vital to engage in wider, critical conservations with a broader community of local stakeholders, descent and diasporic communities, academic perspectives and to ultimately consider our actions within a larger global political dialogue.