review by Mike Smith
This beautifully produced and written book by historian and curator Philip Jones comes at a seminal moment in museum studies.
Despite all the hype, the new museology has a significant blind spot: it says almost nothing about how museum objects can be read in ways that make a fresh contribution to our understanding of history. One might dismiss this as the preserve of historians and natural scientists rather than museum curators. But this would be a lame excuse, indeed, as objects are the core business of museums. It is the collections of objects that differentiate museums from other cultural institutions. And museums spend large amounts of money acquiring, documenting, conserving and storing such material.
Natural history, archaeology, ethnography and art history all have strong traditions of using specimens, artefacts or art works as primary data, but social history fails badly in this respect. With a few notable exceptions, the objects in social history exhibitions are subordinate to histories dependent on documents or oral records. They tend to be used to illustrate or anchor a theme or narrative. Rarely if ever are objects allowed to shape the historical narrative in novel ways, using the object itself to expose gaps or silences in other records. If museum social history collections are to be more than just vast warehouses of memorabilia, or (even worse) exhibition props, they need to be working collections exploited for what they can reveal about regional, national or transnational histories. The new museology does not offer much guidance in this regard. This is why Ochre and Rust is so important. Jones — a curator's curator — shows some of the possibilities of using objects to write new sorts of histories which in this case is a history of the Australian frontier.
I do not wish to be too hard on social history curators here. Most academic historians will also walk past objects to reach the archival records, photographs and audio recordings. This is as much a matter of training and disciplinary orientation as opportunity and, after all, archaeologists, anthropologists and social scientists dominate the field of material culture studies. Nevertheless, it surprising that museum historians have made so little use of its extensive literature. More than 30 years ago, in his book Behavioral Archeology (1976), Michael Schiffer argued that we should look at the flow of objects in and out of their systemic context, the way new values are ascribed to objects, and the sorts of transformations in function and context this entailed. A decade later, Arjun Appadurai wrote The Social Life of Things (1988), looking at the way objects circulate as commodities, and the social transactions and shifting values this entails. For anyone interested in the parallels with museum collection-building there is plenty to chew over here. Journals such as the Journal of Material Culture and the Material History Review reflected the new interest in 'contemporary' material culture. More recently there has been a stream of publications by Daniel Miller and his colleagues at the University College London, which includes the recently published Handbook of Material Culture (2006), Materiality (2005) and Home Possessions: Material Culture Behind Closed Doors (2001). All of these works are by social scientists rather than historians. As anthropology has sought to reposition itself and reclaim relevance in the postcolonial era, it has energetically exploited its tradition of ethnographic research to colonise the margins of history, moving into studies of materiality and contemporary society. Here they find a space poorly occupied by museum historians — with the exception of polymaths like Jones.
Ochre and Rust is a lively new history of the colonial frontier, explored in nine essays, each beginning with a museum object and each working to explore a broader history of engagement between Aboriginal people and Europeans. Borrowing a phrase from EE Evans-Pritchard (a key figure in the development of British social anthropology), Jones takes the notion that material culture forms 'the chain along which social ideas run', and turns this on its head. Taking a series of Aboriginal artefacts from the colonial period, he asks if a close reading of an object can help reconstruct the ideas, values and aspirations that shaped its production. Frontiers have always been liminal zones, says Jones, and each encounter 'both fair and unfair, brief and prolonged, enlightened and naïve, left its trace in objects, if not in documents, images and memories'. He sets out to explore frontier history using objects as an alternative form of historical document, choosing objects that 'carry traces which one culture has left on another'. The objects of most interest, he explains, are those that bear the frontier's 'double patina' of ochre and rust.
The nine essays in Ochre and Rust are roughly time-transgressive. Jones's text flows with the frontier itself, beginning with a medallion given by James Cook to Tasmanian Aboriginal people on Bruny Island in 1777 (and found 137 years later by a keen-eyed little girl), and sweeping through to the 1930s to look at the Ganba ceremonial snake sculptures made from old Dunlop car tyres and given to Daisy Bates at her Ooldea camp. Along the way, Jones describes some remarkable frontier objects: an Aboriginal club from Port Jackson, recycled as the handle of a cat-o'-nine-tails by First Fleet ship's master David Blackburn (1791); an old bark parrying shield used by Narrinyeri elder Pullemi (1850–60) and found more than 20 years later in a cave by the local lighthouse-keeper; a knotted string bag and manuscript vocabulary associated with the unfortunate JWO Bennett whose role as an intermediary with Woolna tribesmen made him an easy target for a payback killing near Port Darwin (1869); the fire drill owned by Dick Cubadgee (Kapiji) a young Warramungu man who crossed the frontier in the other direction and slipped easily into Adelaide society (1886), appearing as an elegantly dressed 19-year-old in studio portrait photographs; an Aboriginal axe made from iron scavenged from a dead explorer's camp on the Calvert Exploring Expedition (1896); a cake of Pukardu red ochre collected from one of the most famous of desert ochre mines (1904), as Harry Bailes (a Kuyani man) enlisted the help of Patrick Shanahan (the local doctor) to protect the site from European interference; and the Jesus plaque made by the artist Albert Namatjira in 1930, ostensibly a tourist souvenir but resonating with references to tjurunga. Of all these, perhaps the most intriguing are the remarkable wood and gypsum Aboriginal sculptures called toas (from thuwa, lit. 'to bury or thrust into the ground'), a syncretic product of Killalpaninna Mission in central Australia, inadvertently provoked by the enthusiasm of missionary Johann Reuther for archaic language (1904), and which became a sensation in art and ethnographic circles amid claims and counter-claims for their authenticity.
As a study in material history, Jones is strongest when writing about the more complex pieces in his suite of object studies. This is evident, for instance, in his discussion of Blackburn's whip, a 'hybrid' object whose Aboriginal identity lay unrecognised for 200 years. The Calvert axe is another good example. It uses recycled iron but is mounted like a traditional edge-ground stone axe in spinifex resin on a split-wood handle. Given the high demand for iron in Aboriginal society beyond the frontier, Jones concludes that these objects 'remind us that for a period at least, Europeans on the frontier represented a tangible resource, as much as a threat'. The best examples are Reuther's toas. Close examination of these shows that they have no signs of use and have been constructed using European mortise and tenon joints, parcel string, and gypsum plaster probably produced in the mission's own kilns. Reuther was content to leave the impression in his writings that the toas had arisen 'unbidden from an untainted ethnographic reality'. In fact, the sudden appearance of 300 toas suggests 'fabrication en masse' says Jones, arguing that Reuther's quest for objects had triggered a new form of artistic production, one that died with the closure of the mission.
Other essays are less successful in using their objects. For example, the knotted string bag is peripheral to the story behind the spearing of Bennett. Jones reconstructs the sequence of events and interplay of conflicting frontier obligations, leading up to this in a virtuoso display of historical detective work. But the string bag is no more than a convenient peg. In fact, Jones shifts the emphasis to the manuscript vocabulary that Bennett drafted, suggesting that this handwritten English-Woolna vocabulary was 'a small expression of the tension drawing these two cultures together, and holding them apart'.
Collectively, Ochre and Rust works well as a study using objects to reveal aspects of the frontier not readily apparent in conventional historical sources. At the same time, it is one of a number of recent studies that show the colonial frontier as a more complex zone of encounter, one in which Aboriginal people had considerable agency and where accommodation was as much a part of the process as conflict. In this respect, it is an important contribution to a literary canon that includes recent works such as Frontier Conflict (2003), Cleared Out (2005), Broken Song (2002) and Peopling the Cleland Hills (2005).
Jones writes well with a literary flourish and poetic sensibilities, putting to shame the turgid prose of many social scientists and post-modern scholars. Of the little string bag that records JWO Bennett's fascination with the Woolna, Jones writes, 'Decades may pass until a nondescript piece catches the light, casts a shadow,' before an object catches the roving eye of a curator. The Calvert axe he describes as 'a small masterwork of improvisation in its desert setting'. This book is a pleasure to read, its ideas profound but painlessly transmitted. Notwithstanding this, Jones is a stickler for accuracy and detail and his scholarship is formidable.
This is a book that will only grow in stature with time. It is a book that social history curators and museum theorists should read. It provides a model for museum historians willing to engage anthropologists in that liminal space where contemporary material culture is debated and theorised.
Mike Smith, an archaeologist and environmental historian, is a senior research fellow in the Centre for Historical Research, National Museum of Australia, and an adjunct professor in the Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University, Canberra.
2 MB Schiffer, Behavioral Archeology, Academic Press, New York, 1976.
3 A Appadurai, The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1988.
4 Reviewed in reCollections, vol. 2 no. 2, http://recollections.nma.gov.au/issues/vol_2_no2/book_reviews/ handbook_of_material_culture/
5 D Miller (ed.), Materiality, Duke University Press, Durham, 2005; D Miller (ed.), Home Possessions: Material Culture behind Closed Doors, Berg, Oxford, 2001; Other works of this school include: Clothing as Material Culture, S Küchler and D Miller, Oxford, Berg, 2005; D Miller (ed.) Material Cultures: Why Some Things Matter, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1998.
6 Quote from EE Evans-Pritchard, The Nuer, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1940, p. 89.
7 B Attwood and SG Foster (eds.), Frontier Conflict: The Australian Experience, National Museum of Australia Press, Canberra, 2003; S Davenport, P Johnson and Yuwali, Cleared Out: First Contact in the Western Desert, Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra, 2005; B Hill, Broken Song: T.G.H. Strehlow and Aboriginal Possession, Knopf, Sydney, 2002; MA Smith, Peopling the Cleland Hills: Aboriginal History in Western Central Australia 1850–1980, Aboriginal History Monograph 12, Canberra, 2005.