A review by Collecting the West Research Associate, Baige Zylstra
On May 6 and 7, the Berndt Museum of Anthropology and the Australian Research Council funded Collecting the West Project presented a cataloguing symposium at the State Library of Western Australia. Focusing on the topic, Finding new meaning in today’s cultural collections, the symposium brought together researchers and museum professionals to discuss relevant issues in the field. Each day began with a series of presentations by invited speakers, and concluded with roundtable workshops that enabled all participants to ask questions, discuss issues and propose solutions. These sessions generated a lot of interesting ideas and practical strategies for participants to take back to their respective institutions.
Day 1: Histories of naming indigenous collections and their legacy in the present
The symposium began with a warm welcome to Whadjuk Nyungar country by Walter McGuire, which set the scene for a rich and thoughtful series of talks. The symposium organisers and library staff welcomed participants to the event and introduced keynote speaker Fiona Moorhead, who provided inspiring examples of the inclusive practices undertaken at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, which has embraced a bicultural approach in all aspects of the museum’s operations. Rather than prioritising the dominant culture while describing, cataloguing and displaying objects in the museum and its online platforms, everything is co-developed and co-managed with the source (Maori) culture. This led into talks by several other speakers who addressed relevant issues in the Australian context. Eleanor Adams spoke about the management of anthropology data at the South Australian Museum. Jason Gibson of Deakin University outlined some of the challenges of capturing the place, person, altyerre nexus in museum records for central Australia. Alistair Paterson from UWA discussed changing names over time with case studies from ‘natural’ and ‘cultural’ collections. These presentations provided a wealth of material for discussion in the roundtable workshops, which centred around topics such as: how to develop more appropriate standards for cataloguing in Australian museums that includes diverse indigenous perspectives and languages; how museums can better collaborate with and engage indigenous communities including those in remote areas; how to catalogue material effectively so that it is discoverable by diverse audiences; and a plethora of other ethical and practical considerations concerning the management of cultural collections.
Day 2: Looking forward
The second day began with a presentation by Gaye Sculthorpe describing the ways in which indigenous collections are managed at the British Museum. Liz Holcombe and Jenny Wood explained the work they have been doing at AIATSIS and identified various resources such as Austlang, which can be used by those working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander collections. Natalie Hewlett spoke about past and current management of the collections at the Berndt Museum of Anthropology. Roz Lipscombe and Danny Murphy outlined current plans for the Collections WA digital platform being developed out of the Western Australian Museum. And lastly, Fiona Moorhead concluded the talks by describing the ways in which the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa TongTongarewa is approaching the digitisation of collections. This was followed by roundtable workshops, which provided a valuable opportunity for participants to summarise key issues raised in the symposium and propose ideas for change. Interesting questions included: instead of thinking about how we can ‘decolonise’ the museum, how can we ‘indigenise’ it; can the museum ever truly escape its colonial origins or do we require a radical rethinking of how collecting institutions are organised; how can we use databases more effectively to represent a multiplicity of perspectives, for example through the use of relational databases, flat rather than hierarchical systems, and so on. The discussions traversed philosophical to technical issues, and at times interrogated the very concept of the museum.
All of the symposium participants were incredibly generous in sharing their knowledge and ideas, and were honest about the difficulties faced in their institutions. This was a real strength of the symposium, as it enabled participants to discuss issues openly, to point out what mistakes have been made in the past (or continue to be made in the present), to share lessons learned, and to propose constructive strategies to create meaningful change. In fact one of the key points to be taken away from the symposium was the need for museums to work more closely together in the future to share knowledge and processes, challenges and successes, so that we can all move forward towards better outcomes for the museum sector.
Thanks to the Berndt Museum and the Collecting the West Project, as well as the State Library of Western Australia, the Institute of Advanced Studies at UWA, and the Australian Research Council, for making this event possible. We also thank the institutions that sent their staff to the symposium – the South Australian Museum, AIATSIS, the Western Australian Museum, the Stokes Collection, the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Mitchell Library, the British Museum and Deakin and Monash Universities.