Leading Museums, Museum Leaders

‘Waking Up’ artefacts

Three Aboriginal women make traditional baskets, rugs and a baby carrier during a demonstration at the Australian Museum in Sydney. Photo: David Gray/Reuter.

Myles Russell Cook, How living museums are ‘waking up’ sleeping artefacts, The Conversation, 4 April 2016

Time takes on a unique meaning in a museum. It’s extremely rare for an artefact to be let go from a collection, so a never-ending duty of care exists. Traditionally, museum staff have worked from the assumption that the artefacts they are caring for will outlive the people caring for them. Objects are constantly treated for insect infestations; humidified and dehumidified; stored in stable temperatures with appropriate fittings, and so on.

Still, the acquisition of an artefact by a museum corresponds with its removal from community circulation. Boomerangs will never be thrown again, cloaks never worn again. They are asleep, waiting to be woken by community engagement.

Historically, many Aboriginal people have had their cultural material exploited by museums but things are changing rapidly. Most museums are helping provide opportunities for Aboriginal people to connect to their artefacts in a real and practical way.

In 1998, for instance, a group of Koori women entered the Melbourne Museum archive to view possum skin cloaks made by their ancestors (main image). By working there, these women ushered in a new wave of possum skin cloak making and in effect revived the tradition. This led to the establishment of the collective Banmirra Arts.

As well as conserving the physical objects in Indigenous collections, there is a new trend of employing staff to ensure that their emotional, cultural and spiritual aspects are safeguarded as well.

Some museums are actively encouraging Aboriginal people to collaborate with staff on the care of the collection. At the Melbourne Museum, only female staff work on restricted women’s artefacts, and only male staff work on restricted men’s artefacts.

These procedures were developed in conjunction with relevant Aboriginal communities, who have identified the objects for which these measures are applied. Community access is prioritised and encouraged. Objects shift within the archive based on community advice and artefacts are loaned for ceremonial purposes.

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