The makers and making of Indigenous Australian museum collections
Nicolas Peterson, Lindy Allen and Louise Hamby (eds), Melbourne University Press, 2008. 596pp.
ISBN 978-0-522-85568-5 (pbk). Available as an e-book (downloadable PDF files) or a d-book (print-on-demand)

review by Patricia Davison

Makers and making Indigenous culture book cover

This volume has its roots in a symposium of the same name held at Museum Victoria early in 2006. Arising from a research project to analyse the formation and composition of the Arnhem Land component of the Donald Thomson Collection, the editors invited contributions on other Indigenous Australian collections in order to bring together a diverse body of comparative material that would shed light on how and why these collections were formed. Although historical in focus, the contributions also point to the contemporary significance of Indigenous collections. For the past two decades museum practice and material culture studies have been enjoying a resurgence of scholarly interest witnessed by many publications that explore, among other things, the role of museums in the shaping of identities and the social relationships embedded in objects and collections. The editors of this volume correctly point out that a precondition for an interest in the makers and making of Indigenous Australian museum collections was a revival of anthropological interest in material culture more generally.

The introduction takes the reader through a brief history of material culture studies in Australia, noting that the ascendancy of the functionalist school of social anthropology effectively eclipsed the evolutionist and diffusionist theories in which comparative studies of objects had played key supporting roles. From the 1920s to the 1970s academic anthropology showed little interest in material culture, resulting to some extent in the marginalisation of museum-based ethnography. The tide started to turn in the 1970s, with the growth of awareness among Indigenous people regarding the keeping of their sacred heritage in museum collections and subsequent claims for repatriation. By the 1980s the rise of interest in Aboriginal art had also led to a renewed focus on collections in tandem with art/artefact debates and differing views on whether Aboriginal art should be presented in the context of an art gallery or an anthropology museum. A growing theoretical interest in objects and their complex biographies led to a parallel interest in the histories of collections as composite artefacts writ large.

Twenty essays have been grouped into four parts which cover different contexts, time periods and conceptual frameworks of collecting: the institutional context, the influence of evolutionism, salvage collecting and, lastly, 'transformed' collecting practices from the 1980s onwards. Collections are brought into being through human agency and, as such, they tell of the ideas that shaped them and gave them meaning. They reveal not only what was collected but what was overlooked or deemed insignificant. The dominant ideas that informed late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century ethnographic collections in Australia and elsewhere were variations on an evolutionary model of progress from seemingly primitive to more highly developed societies. Extreme proponents of social evolutionism held the flawed notion that some human races were less evolved than others. The Aboriginal people of Australia, and hunter-gatherers in other parts of the world, captured the interest of anthropologists as they were thought to represent an early stage of human evolution. Support for these theories was found in museum collections, in which objects ordered typologically in developmental sequence from simple to complex were used as metonyms for the people who produced them.

The earliest collections described in this volume were made in the first half of the nineteenth century by educated amateurs whose collections often found their way to museums in England and Europe. Aboriginal artefacts were acquired through ceremonial exchanges, barter and purchase. Motivated by scientific curiosity, these and later collectors looked to the natural sciences for their methodology. The emerging discipline of anthropology was regarded as the natural science of man and a taxonomic approach to collecting was the logical result. Later nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century collections were strongly influenced by evolutionist ideas that radiated from the intellectual centres of Europe. Baldwin Spencer modelled his installations of material culture at Museum Victoria on the typological arrangement of the Pitt Rivers Museum at Oxford University even though, as Mulvaney points out in this volume (p. 152), this did a disservice to promoting public understanding of the complex intangible dimensions of Aboriginal societies. Spencer in turn gave Norman Tindale guidance on ethnographic collecting for the South Australian Museum. Both were motivated by the urgency to collect before it was too late. It is fascinating to know that Tindale took Spencer's own copy of the 1912 edition of Notes and Queries on Anthropology into the field (p. 322).

As each author brings out the character of the collectors and their collections, the reader forms a layered set of comparative images, spanning time and territory. Weapons, ceremonial objects, bark paintings and stone implements are recurring elements in many collections but some collectors, such as Donald Thomson, set out to make a comprehensive collection that captured the 'essence of everyday life' (p. 405). Most, but not all, of the collectors were men, and those who were not, like Ursula McConnel and Helen Wurm, were able to negotiate some access to the domain of men. Gender stereotypes do not hold. A husband and wife team, Ronald and Catherine Berndt, were among the most significant collectors and interpreters of Aboriginal art, insisting that it should take its place on a global stage. Another advocate of Aboriginal art was the collector, Charles Mountford, whose career ran against the grain of anthropological orthodoxy.

Space does not allow me to do justice to the richness of this volume. It is a resource on the material heritage of Aboriginal Australians and holds a wealth of information that will inspire further research on Indigenous collections in Australia and in other countries. The changing political context of collecting could have received more attention, and the editors note that photographic collections deserve closer focus, especially in relation to material culture collections. These subjects invite continued study. Although none of the named makers of museum collections were of Aboriginal descent, none of the collections could have been made without the participation of Aboriginal communities and key individuals who worked as research assistants, interpreters and cultural mediators. The encounters and relationships that gave rise to the possibility of collecting remain implicit in museum collections of Aboriginal objects. This volume animates these collections by elucidating how and why they were made and by opening the way for further engagement.

Patricia Davison is executive director, core functions at Iziko Museums of Cape Town.