South Pacific museums: Experiments in culture
Chris Healy and Andrea Witcomb (eds), Monash University ePress, Melbourne, 2006.
ISBN 0-9757475-8-4 (pb), ISBN 0-9757475-9-2 (web).
RRP $39.95 (pb), $29.95 (individual online purchase)

review by Conal McCarthy
South Pacific Museums book cover

The market is awash with books on museums. More has been published in the last ten years than in the previous century. British sociologist Sharon Macdonald argues that we live in the 'age of the reader', as evidenced by the recent flood of museum studies anthologies. An edited collection on museums in the South Pacific, the first of its kind, is a notable achievement. While not intending to be a general reader in museum studies, this overview of new museums in the region contains a range of articles on a variety of institutions in Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific.

In recent decades we have witnessed the extraordinary growth of innovative new museums, especially in this part of the world. This book argues that South Pacific museums are part of a complex field of cultural heritage 'where national economies meet global tourism, cities brand themselves, and indigeneity articulates with colonialism'. In the introduction, the editors put their case persuasively and succinctly. The reinvention of museums in the new world is linked to the flowering of 'the new museology' in former settler colonies, which take risks that museums in the old world have not taken. They are places of 'cultural experimentation' where national identity, colonial relations, and notions of culture and nature are reshaped.

For my money the best individual essay is the one by Tony Bennett, an Australian sociologist who is a leading international scholar in the field. Drawing on science studies and actor network theory, in particular the work of Bruno Latour, Bennett introduces the notion of the museum as a 'civic laboratory'. This arresting metaphor, which several of the other writers take up, leads to a discussion of the 'refashioning of museums as agents of cultural diversity'. He writes about 'cultural objecthood' in museums, which are places where objects are 'resocialised' — artists don't make art, he asserts, museums do. This essay, as is usual with Bennett, is a work in progress, but reflects a significant shift away from reading the museum as a text, towards examining the complex interactions through which objects mediate social agency with people.

There are other excellent contributions from Andrea Witcomb, Lissant Bolton, Mathew Trinca and Kirsten Wehner. Witcomb's essay is a fascinating reflection on the eclectic postmodern style of display and the politics of representation. Following up on post-Foucauldian strands in her earlier work, she explores how exhibition making might move beyond the pluralism vs consensus stalemate by focusing on the 'shared experiences' of visitors. Lissant Bolton from the British Museum writes about field workers at the Vanuatu Cultural Centre, women whose work on the ground raises interesting questions about agency in relation to colonialism, feminism and indigenous knowledge. Mathew Trinca and Kirsten Wehner offer an interesting meditation on the new museology's display practices with reference to the National Museum of Australia's controversial exhibits. As curators, they test out processes for exhibitions that take account of 'the performative, subjective' movement of visitors in space. Controversies about the National Museum in Canberra and the 'history wars' appear in several essays and seem to dominate Australian cultural life and strangle public debate — much as an equally polarised and superficial debate has cast a long shadow over Te Papa in Wellington — but there are hopeful signs here that this is changing.

The introductory pieces on new museums are useful overviews which offer a concise snapshot of the building, collections and exhibitions: Linda Young on the National Museum of Australia, Kate Gregory on the Museum of Sydney, Ian McShane on the Melbourne Museum, and Natalia Radywyl on the Australian Centre of the Moving Image in Melbourne's Federation Square. In some cases there are a pair of essays on key institutions, one 'snapshot' which is shorter and more descriptive, and one longer thinkpiece which is more academic in tone — for me at least, the former were often more successful. Some of the drawbacks in the volume are perhaps due to its lengthy gestation, which defeated the editorial effort to shape the collection into an organic whole. Some essays are versions of papers presented at the 'Rebirth of the Museum' conference in Melbourne in 2004, while others are specially commissioned for this volume. Several have been published elsewhere. Kylie Message's lively essay on the Centre Culturel Tjibaou in Noumea appeared in the first issue of reCollections. Paul Williams's essay is another iteration of his writing on national identity and biculturalism at Te Papa.

The first thing that struck me about the range and content of South Pacific Museums was that it wasn't really about the South Pacific. The book's title suggests a fashionably transnational inclusiveness; but it is really Australian-centric rather than Australasian. Apart from New Caledonia, East Timor and Vanuatu there is nothing about the Pacific Islands, and the articles on museums in New Zealand, apart from Ian Wedde's insider account of working at Te Papa, are very short. It is a pity there were not more Indigenous voices. I found Moira Simpson's account of the Bunjilaka exhibition at the Melbourne Museum more illuminating than other essays dealing with Aboriginal issues, which were either highly theorised or rather slight. There is one substantial contribution by Mâori academic Deidre Brown on museums as cultural guardians, which contains a good summary of recent developments concerning repatriation; but even this was a little general.

If these essays present a picture of the state of local scholarship on museums, then it is a mixed bag. Despite its local relevance, the book suffers by comparison with new readers from Blackwell, Routledge and other publishers — owing not only to its uneven content, poor design and unattractive layout but also the lack of a bibliography and index. Some topics receive close attention — national identity, indigeneity, exhibitions — but many others are not considered. We learn a lot about a handful of large national institutions, but little about other kinds of museums. The audience for South Pacific Museums appears to be academics and critics. Studies of museums may gain much from comparative frameworks, interdisciplinary approaches and academic theory, but museum studies need to maintain a balance of theory and practice in order to be useful not just for teachers and students in the university, but also for museum professionals and the general public.

Conal McCarthy is the director of the Museum and Heritage Studies program at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand.