Artists unknown no longer
The traditionally authoritative role the museum has played as the keeper of Indigenous material culture has been undergoing a significant shift in the past 20 years in Australia.
Museums and galleries are increasingly recognising their responsibility to make collections of Indigenous art and cultural material accessible to Indigenous people, and to enable access to scarce historical material. In return, museums receive new information about these important items and their appropriate management.
As a result of this mutual care of Indigenous cultural items, static collections are brought back to life, transformed from numbered items in the collection store to objects with power and relevance in the contemporary world.
Traditional museological practice positioned Indigenous people as the subject of study rather than participants in their own representation, but reconnecting people and objects has become paramount.
In the 19th century and first half of the 20th museum collections benefited from collecting practices that were a consequence of colonial processes and attitudes. Vast numbers of objects were collected and classified, often without much reference to the individuals who made them. Records are often absent or, at best, contain general information, and as a result, the significant cultural value of our museums’ and galleries’ collections of Indigenous art and culture is often unknown or unacknowledged.
Museums have become increasingly self-conscious of their collecting histories and the biased nature of their inherited practices, and curators today consider ourselves more as custodians of cultural material, recognising the ownership Indigenous people have of material from their communities and its important role in the continuity of tradition. Increasingly we seek to incorporate their priorities and cultural protocols into collection management and display, and to consult and collaborate on projects that reflect what’s important to the community (rather than the institution).
Through the support of a Churchill Fellowship in 2010, I have been undertaking research into the ways in which museums and galleries are working with Indigenous artists and their communities in the United States and Canada.
I was inspired by several large-scale museums who gave over the control of aspects of a project to their Indigenous partners. This involved significant risk-taking for institutions accustomed to holding power and being in control of both a project’s development and its realisation. These collaborative practices yield dynamic results and unforeseen benefits. Staff at the Seattle Art Museum provided one of the most innovative examples of how museums can form rewarding relationships with communities: a significant collection of Masai artworks was acquired through the museum’s support of building the Merrueshi Primary School in Kenya. This radical example illustrates what is of central importance to the development of contemporary museum practice in this area; mutually beneficial approaches and outcomes must be a formed through detailed discussions that reflect the circumstances of the participants.
Curators who wish to operate ethically and respectfully regarding the display, interpretation and preservation of historical Indigenous collections, are often challenged by the inadequacy of existing records and provenance.
In the face of such a challenge, uncovering cultural identity is far from straightforward. Decades, even centuries, may have passed and for complex reasons members of source communities may be unable to discuss works or identify the makers. Collaboration with museums requires enormous commitment from Indigenous representatives – there’s a considerable amount of detective work done on both sides. However, researching objects and attributing information is a way for museums to honour the makers and their descendants and, importantly, record information for future generations that might otherwise be lost.
Given that so much time has already passed and knowledgeable community figures are now elderly, the opportunities for discussion are becoming fewer and fewer. This is something that weighs heavily on the minds of curators who care for these remarkable items.
Uncovering new information has been a key part of the development of the exhibition Trademarks: International Indigenous Culture from the Leonhard Adam Collection, currently on display at the University’s Ian Potter Museum of Art until 24 July.
The Leonhard Adam Collection of International Indigenous Culture was formed in the 1940s and 1950s by a German ethnologist who worked in the University’s Department of History. Dr Adam built the collection largely through exchange with international institutions, and we have been tracing these pathways and trade histories. World-famous collections such as the Phoebe Hearst Museum of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley, and the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, traded their objects with Adam to receive Australian material.
The Leonhard Adam Collection is unique in Australia for its international breadth, comprising over 1300 items from North and South America, Africa, Asia and Oceania, including a large component of Australian material. This staggering diversity compounds the difficulty of reconnecting objects with source communities and selecting appropriate methods of display and interpretation.
In establishing relationships with overseas institutions we’ve uncovered much new information about the works’ cultural identities, creation dates, and most remarkably, we’ve been able to determine the identity of a number of artists. The most rewarding part of my curatorial work occurs when I re-instate the voice of the maker by replacing the word ‘unknown’ with the artist’s name. Now that some of the identification work has commenced, the next step is to contact source communities to discuss our custodianship.
Arguably the most prominent example of the recent shifts towards greater Indigenous inclusivity within the museum is the Smithsonian’s Museum of the Native American Indian in Washington. The MNAI has a predominantly Indigenous staff and incorporates key innovations into its building, such as culturally appropriate collection storage and viewing facilities. The MNAI is still finding its way in terms of presenting Indigenous creativity in a way that demonstrates the unique successes of a national institution led by the collective vision of its Indigenous workforce. But its existence is in itself a large step towards a new future for museums.
In Australia, the sophistication of much contemporary Aboriginal art and the complexity of its storytelling is in itself a persuasive argument for collaboration with Aboriginal people. We have special opportunities to work with Indigenous people in the presentation of their past and present cultural life. Opening up the institution to new voices and ways of working is a necessary and exciting direction for curators interested in progressing practices in new directions.
Dialogue between institutions and Indigenous communities is crucial.
Legislation in the United States compels federally-funded museums to make their collections of Indigenous material available to communities, and has resulted in museums devoting significant resources towards identifying the cultural heritage of their collections. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) established in 1990, has engendered relationships between museums and Indigenous communities towards repatriation, but it has also generated much needed discussion which, with commitment on both sides, can lead museum practice in unforeseen innovative directions.