Leading Museums, Museum Leaders

Ngukurr, MV & Univ of Melbourne share

A feather-flower from the Ngukurr collection. Richard Chenhall/University of Melbourne.

Dr Fran Edmonds, Feather-Flowers and photographs, University of Melbourne, 31 January 2020

A visit by an Aboriginal newspaper editor to Museums Victoria inspired a project in contemporary storytelling, helping to connect Australia’s First Peoples with museum collections

In late 2019, Daphne Daniels, the long-time editor of the independent newspaper, the Ngukurr News, visited Museums Victoria to explore collections of material culture from her community, Ngukurr, for the first time.

The community of Ngukurr is located on the banks of the Roper River in south east Arnhem Land in Australia’s Northern Territory.

Editor of the Ngukurr News, Daphne Daniels (L) and Associate Professor Kate Senior (R) with a woven string bag at Museums Victoria. Picture: Fran Edmonds/University of Melbourne.

The First Peoples’ Collection at Museums Victoria that Daphne came to see includes spectacular examples of Ngukurr cultural heritage including small, colourful and skilfully designed feather-flowers that she had no recollection of ever seeing before.

These particular items date from the 1960s, but similar feather-flowers were also made by Koori women in Victoria, thousands of kilometres away, from the early 1900s onwards.

Could this be another example of intercultural exchange?

For instance, weaving techniques were shared between women from the Murray River region in Australia’s south east – the Yorta Yorta, Bangerang, Wiradjuri and Ngarindjerri – and transferred in the 1920s by the missionary Greta Matthews to Gunbulanya (Oenpelli) in west Arnhem Land.

Uncovering this story, and others like it, is the aim of the McCoy seed-funded project, The Living Archive of Aboriginal Collections (LAAC); a collaboration between the Ngukurr Community, Museums Victoria and the University of Melbourne.

The McCoy LAAC project, hosted by the Digital Studio at the University of Melbourne and Museums Victoria, was inspired by Daphne’s request to easily access more information about her community’s history and culture, and share these stories in the Ngukurr News.

The Ngukurr collection includes small, colourful and skilfully designed feather-flowers. Picture: Fran Edmonds/University of Melbourne.

The newspaper provides the Aboriginal community of just under 1,000 people with current information, allowing them to share experiences and engage with local and broader socio-political issues.

Working with the Ngukurr community, the McCoy LAAC project has piloted remote accessibility to the Museum’s First Peoples’ collections through a Community Access Portal (CAP).

CAP is a secure online site that is connected to Museums Victoria’s wider collections database (known as EMu), but controlled by the community itself.

It enables First Peoples’ and their communities to access and share collections remotely, but importantly, people can also correct and contribute information from their own perspectives.

A FRAMEWORK FOR A ‘LIVING ARCHIVE’

The notion of a ‘living archive’ is a move towards acknowledging the networked, interconnected nature of Indigenous knowledge, challenging the traditional view of archival and collection systems as static sites of preservation.

Daphne’s visit was the first time someone from a remote community had accessed the portal. Her focus was on choosing cultural objects and photographs to share with the wider Ngukurr community.

Her selection included boomerangs, reed necklaces, shields, woven objects, spear-throwers and spears, as well as photographs taken by anthropologist, Sir Walter Baldwin Spencer, during his visit to Roper River between 1910 and 1912.

Daphne Daniels reviewing the Ngukur collection on the Commuty Access Portal. Picture: Fran Edmonds/University of Melbourne.

STARTING A CONVERSATION

Another associated project, the Living Archive of Aboriginal Art (LAAA), funded by the Melbourne Social Equity Institute at the University of Melbourne, also provides opportunities to reveal the interconnections between cultural heritage in museums and contemporary Aboriginal culture

Like the Living Archive of Aboriginal Collections, LAAA is also exploring creative ways for supporting First Nations’ access to their collections and stories through digital technologies.

Mitch Mahoney, a young Boonwurrung artist and great nephew of renowned Mutti Mutti/Wemba Wemba/Boonwurrung artist Maree Clarke, is involved in the project.

For more than 20 years, his family and members of the southeast Australian Aboriginal community have committed to reviving cultural practices thought to be lost or ‘dying’ as a result of colonisation – reclaiming objects and their stories

Mitch is working with his family to breath life into cultural material currently located in archives, revitalising them as contemporary artworks, including kangaroo teeth necklaces and supersized river reed necklaces.

Daphne and Mitch have discussed how access to the Museum’s collections might give new life to knowledge of Ngukurr material culture not practised for many years. Actively reclaiming the collections by learning to make items would allow young people to reconnect with cultural knowledge and, as Daphne says, ‘modernise our craft’.

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Council of Australasian Museum Directors, c/o Ms Daryl Karp, Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House PO Box 3934 Manuka, Australian Capital Territory 2603 Australia, © CAMD 2020
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