Yaghan canoe, collected from Bertrand island in 1929. Collection: Museums Victoria. Photo: Jon Augier

Reconnecting the Yaghan community to cultural belongings 90 years on

My name is Rebecca Carland. I am a senior curator at Museums Victoria, based at Melbourne Museum. My work centres on the history of the museum’s collections, how they came to the museum, and their journey through time and space. Like many museums established in the nineteenth century, we care for vast First Nations collections, from Australia and around the world. Increasingly, our work with these collections occurs against a backdrop of profound change in the museum’s approach to First Peoples’ authority. We are guided by a transformational principle which seeks to place First Peoples’ living cultures and histories at the core of our practice. Our current project, Lost in Translation, sits at the intersection of this new paradigm and the colonial legacy—collaborating with and giving back to the Yaghan community of Chile, who continue to practice their culture and connection to their lands.

In February 1929 the Australian Anthropologist Sir Walter Baldwin Spencer and his fieldwork assistant Jean Hamilton travelled to Tierra del Fuego, the southernmost tip of Chile. Having only recently retired as director of the National Museum of Victoria (modern-day Melbourne Museum), he and Hamilton were following in the footsteps of Charles Darwin and their goal was to study the Yaghan people, whom they dismissed as a “dying race”.[1] They maintained this view even as they worked, lived and travelled with a number of Yaghan families, across various waterways and islands. Ironically, five months into their work, it was Spencer who was dead, after suffering a heart attack in a snow-covered hut.

The Ancestral waterways of the Yaghan Usi in Tierra del Fuego. Photo: Alberto Serrano
The Ancestral waterways of the Yaghan Usi in Tierra del Fuego. Photo: Alberto Serrano

Lost and alone, it was up to Hamilton to bury Spencer and bring the fruit of their ill-fated expedition home to Melbourne. Hamilton’s description of the return journey through treacherous weather on dangerous seas is harrowing. The collection she transported back comprised hundreds of items—photographs, baskets, tools, a large model canoe and detailed notes on Yaghan kinships and language. After Hamilton’s return, she worked with anthropologists in Oxford to publish an account of the expedition.[2] A small collection of stone tools and documentation was deposited at Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford during this time.[3] She then delivered the majority of the material to Museums Victoria, where it remained untouched for 90 years.

The expedition and Spencer’s relationship with Hamilton had long held my interest, but disciplinary boundaries have excluded me from working with the collection. I accepted this status quo until a mutual colleague introduced me to the work of Camila Marambio. Camila is an artist, curator and Director of Ensayos, a nomadic interdisciplinary research program that focuses on eco-political issues in Tierra del Fuego.[4] Camila knew little about the expedition and resulting collection, and I knew nothing of the Yaghan, but over many coffees and meetings, we shared our knowledge.

From Camila I learned that the Yaghan community, having been excluded from their traditional waterways and islands by successive industrial interests, now live mainly in Ukika, Puerto Williams, on Navarino Island in the Chilean Antarctic region. Her previous work with the community alerted us to a yearning to physically connect with objects made by their Ancestors, as well as a desire to repair the gaps in cultural practice brought about by colonial oppression. We saw an opportunity to work directly with Yaghan Elders, to awaken the collection here in Melbourne and to reconnect it to this geographically and politically isolated community.

Apa sa mourako, apa sa kunta. “We are Indigenous people of the Yaghan Community in the extreme south of Chile. We have inhabited this territory for more than 6,000 years, these are the ancestral lands of the Yaghan, the Yagan Usi.” David Alday, President, Yaghan Community surrounded by kin. Navarino Island, August 2019. Photo: Alberto Serrano
Apa sa mourako, apa sa kunta. “We are Indigenous people of the Yaghan Community in the extreme south of Chile. We have inhabited this territory for more than 6,000 years, these are the ancestral lands of the Yaghan, the Yagan Usi.” David Alday, President, Yaghan Community surrounded by kin. Navarino Island, August 2019. Photo: Alberto Serrano

We began laying the groundwork for what would become a joint project, Lost in Translation. Despite our enthusiasm, it was still more than a year before we were sanctioned to work with the collection. During that time the museum was re-evaluating and grappling with its colonial legacy. A seminal turning point in this re-evaluation was the creation of a dedicated First Peoples Department. This paradigm shift gave us the space and authority we needed to proceed.

In December 2018 Camila went to Navarino Island. Over a series of days, she met with the Yaghan community including matriarch Christina Calderón, affectionately known as Abuela (Grandmother). They sipped tea, reconnected, and slowly Camila shared with her and her extended family the images of the collections in the Melbourne Museum and Pitt Rivers Museums. The Yaghan community were incredulous. They knew nothing of Spencer, the expedition or the collection. Their interest was piqued but they were also frustrated by the lack of information. Who made these baskets? Who are these children in the photographs? Where is this bow and arrow from? These are exactly the questions Camila and I had when first accessing the collection and now we had a mandate to address them.

From this first consultation we recognised that, for the Yaghan community, the museum collection is an important bridge between their past and their future. But for it to be relevant, even useful, we first had to decolonise the historical record. Guided by the community’s needs we have sought out and interrogated the documentation, including Spencer’s original field notes, and radio and print interviews with Hamilton.

Perhaps the most valuable early step in unlocking the record was digitising the original expedition narrative, Spencer’s Last Journey (1931). The Biodiversity Heritage Library is hosting this work online which means it is fully word searchable, enabling us to link people, places and events. It is not an easy read. As a former fan of Spencer’s feminist credentials, it has been eye-opening to be exposed to the casual racism of his unedited and unabridged jottings. Within the histories I most often encounter, Spencer was a progressive ally to women trying to crack into the scientific elite bubble in Melbourne and the first to employ female academics at the University of Melbourne. My gratitude at finding a feminist champion in our institution’s history had stopped me interrogating his achievements through other important lenses—in particular, his approach to First Peoples.

The expedition narrative also reveals that Spencer removed Ancestors’ remains from the middens on Navarino. We did not realise this at the beginning of the project because there was no record of the Ancestors at either the Melbourne Museum or Pitt Rivers Museum. The burden on the community of this historic injustice is enormous. We continue to use our museum network to seek out these Ancestors, and will continue to assist the community in finding them with a view to bringing them home. The irony that Spencer, responsible for the removal of Ancestors in Australia and Yagan Usi, is himself forever removed from his kin (buried in Punta Arenas), is not lost on the project team.

The research has been painstaking, involving a thorough overhaul of the way the collection is described and documented to provide more contextually specific information. Working with the community we have named everyone in the expedition (where possible), identifying dates, locations and previously unrecorded makers. Collection managers, conservators and photographers have accessed, assessed and digitised the collection. Among the 300-plus objects, the canoe model, baskets, photographs and journal notes are the most important items for the community, so we have focused on those first. These objects provide a tangible connection to their past—not so distant and yet so changed.

Various stab [close-weave baskets] made by Yamu Kauau and Kanuks, the wives of Aia putilla schanaiensis (Domingo), and a series of tools by unrecorded makers collected from Navarino Island, May 1929. Photo: Jon Augier, Museums Victoria
Various stab [close-weave baskets] made by Yamu Kauau and Kanuks, the wives of Aia putilla schanaiensis (Domingo), and a series of tools by unrecorded makers collected from Navarino Island, May 1929. Photo: Jon Augier, Museums Victoria

This cross-cultural knowledge exchange also embeds living Yaghan language into the collection for the first time, highlighting the progress the museum has made in recognising the needs of First Peoples. Our act of resistance in preferencing Chilean Spanish over Australian English in the collection database and the online records also happened with little fanfare. The community can now access information easily and feed back updates and changes which, once captured in the database, automatically update online overnight.

This project powerfully embodies the words of Mike Jones: “When it comes to museum documentation this is the real work of decolonisation—not to detach and rarefy, but to embed and reconnect; not to dismantle the history of empire, but to dismantle its privileged perspective; not to de- but to re-contextualise. Otherwise, the information we provide access to, physically and digitally, will continue to reveal only a partial, one-dimensional view of complex, entangled, multi-dimensional stories.”[5]

After all this work in addressing the errors and omissions of historical museum practices and working with the Yaghan community to make the collection culturally safe, the community can now view the collection online, and take their time to consider how and what it offers. We are also working to deliver on the desire that first inspired the project—to enable the Yaghan to physically connect with their objects. As an example of this need, the keeper of Yaghan watercraft tradition, maker and craftsman Martín González Calderón, is frustrated by the lack of detail in the photographs.

Camila Marambio, the first external curator to access the collection of artefacts from the Yaghan community held in the Melbourne Museum for 90 years. Photo: Jacqui Shelton
Camila Marambio, the first external curator to access the collection of artefacts from the Yaghan community held in the Melbourne Museum for 90 years. Photo: Jacqui Shelton

As a craftsman, Calderón’s hands need to feel the materials and understand the construction. Basket weavers and makers of shell necklaces are also interested in accessing the collection in person. So now our focus moves towards finding support for the Yaghan makers to come to Australia and visit the collection. We are negotiating with the Chilean government (Ministry of International Affairs) and seeking funding here in Australia, with the hope that in these globally challenging times, this project can succeed in its ultimate goal of connecting the Yaghan people with their heritage.

The National Library of Chile has expressed their support for publishing a Spanish edition of the original expedition narrative with a new introduction from our team and a decolonising chapter from the community, should we find funding for the translation. Our hope is that this will unlock the expedition for South American audiences and the authored chapter will raise the profile of the Yaghan community across the region.

Projects such as this one move us past the white male explorer narrative to signal a new relevance, guided by the source community. We are seeking to mend the errors and omissions of the past and redress the displacement of First Peoples’ voices and knowledge in traditional museum practices. The challenges are political, institutional and environmental. The project has provided a crash-course in decolonisation and a remarkable mirror in which to view this museum’s privilege. Museums Victoria can’t claim that ours is the most detailed or extensive collection of Yaghan material in the world, but that’s not the point. The point is we are willing to provide access to the community, respect their expertise and knowledge, and create a safe space where the collection and the museum become relevant within their living culture.

Melbourne Museum, 2018. Photo: Jacqui Shelton
After 90 years the reconnection begins, collection manager Penny Ikinger assists researcher Camila Marambio assess the collection at Museums Victoria, 2018. Photo: Jacqui Shelton

Footnotes

  1. ^ Various letters to anthropology colleagues and friends (Frazer, Balfour, etc) in the months leading up to and during the expedition reference this as Spencer’s motivation for the trip. Museums Victoria Spencer Collection. 
  2. ^ Spencer’s Last Journey: being the journal of an expedition to Tierra del Fuego by the late Sir Baldwin Spencer with a memoir. Edited by R.R. Marett and T.K. Penniman, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1931.
  3. ^ Rivers Museum accession lot 1930.65 and documentation dispersed within the Spencer papers.
  4. ^ Camila Marambio has previously worked with the Yaghan community in 2013–16 bringing them photographs taken by the explorer Charles Wellington Furlong found in the Rauner Special Collections Library at Dartmouth College.
  5. ^ Mike Jones, “Tristram Hunt and the de-recontextualisation of museum artefact.” Context Junky, mikejonesonline.com, 08 August 2019.

Rebecca Carland is Senior Curator, History of Collections and Scientific Art at Museums Victoria, working with objects, images and specimens to explore narratives of discovery, Indigenous knowledge systems, colonial contact and notions of nature/conservation.

Yaghan Elders including President David Alday, Julia González, Martín González Calderón and Veronica and Violeta Balfor are leading this project, along with independent curator and Museums Victoria Honorary Associate, Camila Marambio, working with Rebecca Carland.

The curators and community Elders are grateful for the extraordinary support of Alberto Serrano, Director, Museo Antropológico Martín Gusinde, Navarino, Chile.

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