Producers and Collectors: Uncovering the Role of Indigenous Agency in the Formation of Museum Collections
ARC Linkage Grant (2007-2009)
Dr Annie Clarke (Archaeology), Dr Jude Philp (Macleay Museum), Dr Robin Torrence (Australian Museum), Ms Erna Lilje (PhD scholar)
Museum collections need not be seen as dusty storehouses of silent objects, mute testimonials to lives once lived and now forgotten if we can find ways to get the thousands upon thousands of ethnographic objects stored behind the scenes at Museums to tell the stories of their lives and of the peoples who made them. This is what a new collaborative research project at the Australian Museum, the Macleay Museum and the University of Sydney will attempt to uncover over the next three years.
A grant from the Australian Research Council Linkage program has been awarded to a group of researchers to investigate how ethnographic artefacts collected from Central Province PNG in the period from first European contact up to PNG Independence ( c1840-1970) can be used to uncover the active role of Indigenous artefact producers in the creation of museum collections.
Central Province, PNG has been chosen as our case study because this region forms the arena for extensive and sustained presence of British/Australian explorers, scientists, and missionaries, was the centre of foreign administration in the Papuan colony, and is the locus of Port Moresby, the new capital of the independent PNG. Many of the artefacts given in exchange by Papuans to create or sustain social relations have ended up in museum collections. Between them, the Australian and Macleay Museums house 3,000 objects representing a significant time series of Indigenous-outsider interaction. Although the nature of the social exchange varied through timefrom the earliest period when the exchange of objects enabled peaceful interchange through to exchange for monetary profit in later periods, the nature of the objects selected and the way they were made and decorated provides an excellent record of how Papuans viewed and reacted to these changes.
Today many Museums can no longer fund or justify major acquisition programs to maintain a collection series or 'universal survey' of types, specimens, or regions. Museums are also being required to re-think how they conserve, manage and store large collections of objects. A major aim of this project is to demonstrate how valuable and relevant museums collections can be for addressing significant contemporary research questions, building links with source communities and developing new interpretations of material culture for future exhibitions.
The Linkage grant provides for a PhD student to undertake extensive research based on the ethnographic collections and archival materials such as auction catalogues housed in the Australian and Macleay Museums. Two complementary analytical approaches will be employed.
Firstly, we will monitor changes in the kinds of objects that were offered for exchange by people living in Central Province, PNG. Variation in the composition of the collections will be measured using various categories (e.g. weapons, body decoration, toys; men’s vs women’s; etc.).
Secondly, as a way of monitoring how the Indigenous makers and owners valued the return from the items they were exchanging, studies will be made of how changes in how particular exchanged items were produced and decorated. Variables will be chosen to reflect time and energy investment in production, standardisation, characteristics of motifs used (e.g. those appealing to Europeans such as human faces, crocodiles, etc. vs. traditional motifs and symbols).
The grant also allows for the team members to visit PNG to work at the National Museum and visit some of the descendants of the original artefact producers. It is hoped that the project can be extended to include active participation by people from Central Province who can contribute intangible heritage about the collections and also knowledge about past and current techniques of production and exchange. The grant will support a workshop with representatives from PNG who have experience in linking museum collections with local communities as well as Australian specialists actively researching PNG museum collections will be held in 2009.
Dr Annie Clarke
Heritage Studies Coordinator,
University of Sydney
+61 2 9036 9499