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Inspiring change for First Nations representation in museums

“Representation” can refer to an action of agency and having a voice on a matter as well as to how someone or something is portrayed and presented in a particular way.

For First Nations peoples working in cultural institutions such as museums, the concept of representation may be meaningful on a number of levels. Speaking from my own perspective and experience as a Yuin woman with Japanese heritage who concurrently works in and studies the role of museums, it does often feel like I am both a subject (representing) and an object (represented) when considering the history of collection, exhibition, and research practices in museums regarding non-European peoples.

Historically museums have operated through a Eurocentric lens, which has resulted in privileging social evolution over adaptation to purpose, when considering other peoples and cultures. You only have to look at current debates around whether Aboriginal peoples were involved in “agriculture” or “land management” to see how it plays out in broader Australian society. Rather than engage in questions of taxonomy, the focus should instead move towards encouraging Australians to better understand the experiences and achievements of First Nations peoples on their own terms.

The tension between First Nations and Western frameworks of knowledge can result in a kind of no-man’s-land for First Nations museum workers who may find themselves caught between community expectations and institutional realities. However, these structural forces can be disrupted in order to nurture the establishment of a space where mutual respect and trust, diversity and inclusiveness can thrive.

This requires disrupting our understandings of a range of matters, including how we define positions like “curator”. For my Wailwan and Kooma colleague and newly-appointed Director, First Nations at the Australian Museum, Laura McBride, a curator should operate more so as a conduit; a facilitator who actively prioritises and amplifies First Nations voices so that communities can accurately and appropriately represent themselves and their cultures within the museum.

With greater scrutiny on the roles of museums, along with more First Nations peoples interacting with and being employed by institutions, national museum policy has undergone a significant paradigm shift over the past several decades. The change of focus from the “material” to the “relational,” from “object” to “subject,” is outlined in important sector documents including, Previous Possessions: New Obligations: Policies for Museums in Australia and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples (1993); Continuous Cultures, Ongoing Responsibilities: Principles and guidelines for Australian museums working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural heritage (2005); and First peoples: A roadmap for enhancing Indigenous engagement in museums and galleries (2019).

At the Australian Museum, the First Nations team is unsettling not only the foundations of the museum but also the nation, through the ground-breaking new truth-telling exhibition, Unsettled, which is open from 22 May to 10 October 2021.*

Back in 2018, with the then-upcoming 250th anniversary of Lieutenant James Cook’s East Coast voyage in 2020, the Australian Museum was interested in planning its own Cook-related exhibition. Given its collection of Cook-related objects particularly from his third (and final) Pacific voyage, the Museum was initially prepared to go down that route. However, upon reflection that First Nations’ perspectives about Australia’s foundational history are often overlooked or downplayed, a decision was made to appoint an Indigenous curator to lead the development of an exhibition which would be a First Nations-led response and provide a more balanced history.

It was essential that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples from across the country would be consulted from the beginning to inform the exhibition themes and topics. As the curatorial team, Laura and I designed and distributed The 2020 Project First Nations community consultation survey. We received 805 formal responses across the major states and territories, covering 175 different nations and groups. The consultation report we prepared showed that many First Nations peoples wanted truth-telling about Australia’s history to be a priority in this exhibition, along with prioritising First Nations voices and experiences.

Working with IndigenousX, we decided to title the exhibition Unsettled to reference how Australia was never peacefully settled as well as how relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians remain unsettled. The exhibition is structured across eight thematic sections: an introduction, Signal Fires, Recognising Invasions, Fighting Wars, Remembering Massacres, Surviving Genocide, Continued Resistance, and finishing with the positive message of Healing Nations.

It is important to point out that we were not only asking the public to embark on the critical process of truth-telling about Australian history – we as First Nations curators also looked within the Australian Museum’s own historical practices around Indigenous engagement and representation, which we presented through a display of “clubs” from the Aboriginal cultural collection in the Continued Resistance section. This selection represents the complexity of Aboriginal cultures which non-Indigenous collectors ignored. When objects entered museums, they would be given new meanings according to Western classification systems, such as “clubs” and “hunting tools and weapons,” which effectively decontextualised them and erased their cultural significance.

A selection of “clubs” from the Australian Museum’s collections, displayed alongside Jai Darby Walker’s Keeper of the Law. Keeper of the Song. Keeper of the Dance (2014). Photograph: Abram Powell, Australian Museum.

Categorising these intricately designed “clubs,” “tools,” and “weapons” in this way simplified their purposes as well as the cultures from which they came from. From the object records, we can see brief glimpses of their original cultural meaning, with a few descriptions including language words such as waddy, yachi, lil-lil. At times, the recorded provenance information only refers to a region rather than a specific place that we can connect to a community. The dates listed are usually in reference to collection and museum acquisition, rather than the date of creation.

All too often with the older collections, the Aboriginal maker’s name was not noted at all. So many times, I have read the words “maker unknown,” and it saddens me to see this erasure of identity. It was the object that was prized, and how it could be used by collectors and researchers to “explain” Aboriginal culture in the schema of things, rather than what it meant to its creator. Several years ago, members of the First Nations team started using the words “Made by Ancestor” instead of “maker unknown” on exhibition labels, which is adapted from existing best-practice in Indigenous curation.

This is a small yet empowering way to disrupt detrimental historical practices and help reclaim the agency of Aboriginal makers. Going forward, we will continue to work with First Nations communities to help better understand these important expressions of their cultures and to accurately represent them.

A touch-screen with details from the object records of the “clubs” from the Australian Museum’s collections. Photograph: Abram Powell, Australian Museum.

*The Australian Museum is temporarily closed to the public in line with the stay-at-home orders issued by the NSW Government. Please check the latest reopening information on  australian.museum/

The Unsettled exhibition is showing at the Australian Museum (1 William Street, Sydney NSW) in the basement touring hall until 10 October 2021. You can also engage with the exhibition’s themes and topics on the Museum’s First Nations webpage at australian.museum/learn/first-nations/ and purchase a copy of the exhibition catalogue (RRP $49.99) at shop.australian.museum/products/unsettled

 

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