Watching the river flow

The symposium Museums, Collecting and Agency, the third event in a large ARC (Australian Research Council) grant project called Museum, Field, Metropolis, Colony: Practices of Social Governance was held at the Australian Museum in Sydney in the Night Parrot Room. It is in a brick building that was the first classroom built in the colony of Sydney. Its exposed handmade bricks are very similar to those you see in Tasmania, made by convicts and highly individual in their textures and surfaces. They reminded me of how spending time in a place other than the one you usually live in awakens you to its layers of history.

The symposium was run by the University of Western Sydney’s Institute of Culture and Society in association with the Australian Museum, the Victoria University of Wellington NZ, and the University of Sydney, and attended by experts, both academics and museum professionals, from the United States, United Kingdom, New Zealand, Portugal and Australia. It was not seeking a conclusion but a confluence of information and experience which it performed remarkably well.

It was concerned with reviewing how museum collections have been formed and interpreted over time, and how they can be re-formed and reinterpreted, case studies of museums, first-hand experience of repatriation and collection, and how and where Indigenous communities sit and act in regard to collections of their material culture. A sense of the difference between wisdom, information and knowledge was palpable.

A major theme was indigenous agency – can a collection or museum be indigenised? What does that mean? Who owns the collection? Who speaks for the culture? Are new modalities of indigeneity being developed? Do Indigenous curators ever become simply curators? How is a space made cultural? Certainly a brief report cannot do justice to the depth and variety of papers which will eventually be published in a book. A few thoughts, images or stories may be the best things to take away from a symposium.

In his talk “But we said Sorry!” Phil Gordon reviewed the last thirty years and pointed out that the National Apology has in some ways taken Indigenous rights off the table and that Indigenous employment in museums is down. He described being an Indigenous curator in an institution as problematic if you are the only one as you are expected to be the font of all Indigenous knowledge. Stephen Gilchrist commented that being an Indigenous curator in an art gallery was like being a tall person on a stage with short people and having to stand in a hole. I am not sure what he means by this but it is a vivid image. Now teaching at the Power Institute and at NYU in Sydney he commented that teaching North American students was good because there was no foregrounding of guilt, also no need to discuss the relation of Aboriginal art to Australian art. He also spoke of the importance of complicating and refreshing binaries, making indigeneity more discursive and how the centrality of white guilt is immobilising and needs transformation into social justice.

Wayne Ngata, who told a terrific story of taking a group to meet a Maori taonga (treasure) in the Natural History Museum in New York, said he would like to study the second or even the third Australians but is too busy with his own heritage. Jonathan Jones outlined an Indigenous art history concerned with the use of line. Ira Jacknis spoke about the historical German attitude to the relation between knowledge and freedom or liberation. Sean Mallon raised the question: “Who am I to have authority?” and told a story of being asked by a curator from Niue about the objects he was caring for: “Can they have actual lives – i.e. die?”. He also said that the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa has banned the word “tradition”, now they say “customary”.

Philip Batty spoke of the transformation of the practice of repatriation to one of permanent engagement with communities by the Museum of Victoria. Matt Poll spoke of Lana Lesley’s response to the Freedom Ride: “We didn’t want to go to the pool, the river was better.” Huhana Smith, who left Te Papa in 2009 to work with her family and Iwi in new and experimental ways that also engage with the old ways, on the ecosystem of a part of the coast of New Zealand, is seeing the museum in and of the land and acting out an urgent ecological and knowledge-enhancing engagement with the non-human world. In this research the museum has left the building and entered life.

A topic that interests me – the mysterious and ongoing agency of objects in museums was never really discussed though it was in the air. I left aware of the fertile cloisters of academia and hoping that lots of things would escape them, maybe to museums, or perhaps into the river.

Huhana Smith, Te Rae #2, oil on linen. Courtesy the artist
 Huhana Smith, Te Rae #2, oil on linen. Courtesy the artist


Card image (detail): Huhana SmithTe Rae #2 2013, oil on linen. Courtesy of the artist.

In April 2014 artist and writer Stephanie Radok attended the symposium Museums, Collecting and Agency, the third event in a large ARC grant project called Museum, Field, Metropolis, Colony: Practices of Social Governance.