Australian Museums and Galleries Association Conference Day 4

Well, I think my brain is so full of information it might actually burst. That’s a good indication of how today went at the conference. Everything from the first plenary to the last was just filled with important messages and questions to mull over. In this summary, I’m really going to try and do the day justice. If there are any comments or corrections, I strongly encourage you to leave a comment on this post. Ok, let’s begin.

9.00 am

This morning we had two fantastic plenary sessions. Both were so relevant to the overall theme of the conference with the latter being a significant event to have witnessed.

Our first speakers were Donna Oxenham and Jane Lydon from the University of Western Australia. Their talk, ‘Aboriginal photographic archives in museums and galleries: engaging heritage and culture’, focused on the Returning Photos Project. This involved five partnering institutions: The Pitt Rivers Museum (Oxford), Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (Cambridge), The Musée de Quai Branly (Paris), The Museum Volkenkunde (Netherlands) and The Berndt Museum of Anthropology (University of Western Australia [UWA]).

Essentially, the Project has paved the way for photographic repatriation from these collections to Indigenous communities. This can allow for gaps in knowledge to be filled and connections made to ancestors and, therefore, the past. To assist, UWA have created a website where Aboriginal community members can search for photographs of significance. It can be accessed here. There has also been a concerted effort to physically travel to communities and show them the photographs. Both Lydon and Oxenham highlighted some challenges that this project has raised including what happens to the photographs that remain unidentified?

It was a very interesting talk that really made me think about repatriation as not just concerning physical objects, but also, the digital.

9.45 am

The significant event I was referring to earlier was the launch of the 10-year Indigenous Roadmap! This has been such a momentous project led by Terri Janke and, of course, supported by a multitude of individuals. It sets out a plan to improve Indigenous engagement and employment in the sector highlighting five pathways: reimagining representation (acknowledging the value of Indigenous knowledge), embedding Indigenous values into museum and gallery business (Reconciliation Action Plans and Indigenous programming and interpretation), increasing Indigenous opportunity (increase employment and retention), two way caretaking of cultural material (access and management) and connecting with Indigenous communities (building trust and strengthening relationships). What I have included in brackets is only really the tip of the iceberg.

I strongly recommend reading this document. You can find more information here including a link to download the Roadmap. Congratulations to everyone involved in this project, in particular, Terri Janke. Next steps include circulating and discussing the Roadmap and developing implementation plans so targets and goals can be reached by 2029.

11.00 am

Time for the first concurrent sessions of the day and I was very excited to attend the Education Network Session.

First up to the microphone was Liz Suda and Isobel Morphy Walsh from the Melbourne Museum presenting on creating ‘more than just another excursion’. Their talk focused on how the museum can influence curriculum. This was an interesting slant to take as usually we are looking at how the museum can fit into the already prescribed curriculum and not actually influence its development. As they were looking for qualitative, not quantitative, data, the Museum worked closely with one school, developing a program that involved time for formal and informal learning. I have included a picture of the slide that outlines the conclusions from this study. I will also note that one very important takeaway from this presentation was provided by Isobel Morphy Walsh who emphasised how important it is to incorporate Indigenous objects and stories into these programs and not separate and treat them as ‘other’.

Next was Breann Fallon from the Sydney Jewish Museum exploring, amongst other things, the pedagogical approach applied when designing their Human Rights Education Program. The approach is termed reciprocal ‘isomorphic hermeneutic’ dialogue (Al-daraweesh and Snauwaert, 2013). When I first heard this phrase I immediately thought sorry, what? Fallon did an amazing job at breaking this concept down and exploring what it actually means. Basically, it takes Human Rights away from its own construct and considers equivalents or similarities on an individual level. Then, it zooms out to consider broader contexts. How this is achieved is through, for example, listening to a Holocaust survivor, to first look at the human experience without overarching politics etc. Then, students (and other individuals) can begin to see how human experience fits into the broader context.

Finally in this session was Mickey Kumatpi O’Brien (History Trust of South Australia) and Madelena Bendo (Migration Museum) looking at ‘whose truth?’ A complete absence of Indigenous communicators led the North Terrace Precinct Educators Group to call on the Indigenous community to tell their story. Mickey Kumatpi O’Brien presented a segment of this story in a very interactive way. This included providing everyone with a chatterbox that looks at four objects/symbols: The Letters Patent, Sister basket, Flag of South Australia and Common Seal. O’Brien stressed that you need to share stories because no one person has the capacity to know everything. For this reason, I have included a photograph of the chatterbox so you can read for yourself.

1.30 pm

I started the afternoon in the Historians Network Session ready to learn all about repatriation. It was a panel discussion and as the names of panel participants were not published I must apologise for not being able to provide all names.

Apart from the panel facilitator, Lyndall Ley, I believe participants included Chris Simpson, Jane Lydon and Shaun Angeles. Ley posed three difficult questions:

  1. How do we apply the Ask First principle when we don’t know who to ask?
  2. Whose responsibility is it to provenance the material?
  3. What should happen to material with no provenance?

Here are some short answers to these questions:

  1. If you are unsure where to start, then just start somewhere and see where conversations can lead you
  2. Communities themselves are best placed to be able to undertake uncovering the provenance (they may, however, not have the resources available to achieve this)
  3. I genuinely cannot remember if this question was answered or not as there was a great discussion on what should happen with materials in international institutions. Long story short, they should take some responsibility when it comes to trying to determine provenance. You should never underestimate the ignorance of these institutions when it comes to Indigenous culture and history. There is a need to educate which may result in the return of objects. It is estimated by AIATSIS (Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies) that around 75% of Indigenous material held in overseas institutions requires further research.

After this presentation I hopped over to the presentations in Ellery B. Corinne Estrada was second to speak in the session and the first I saw. Estrada presented on a few case studies looking at changes to visitor engagement. A personal highlight for me was an audio guide around the Van Gogh museum that played dance music to reflect the artwork on display. To paraphrase a slide in Estrada’s presentation, museums are becoming more social venues, more emotional than academic, more collective than individual, more universal than national and more digital than scientific. There is, therefore, a need for new ways to engage and offer cultural experiences with audiences at the centre.

The final talk in the session was Blake Griffiths from Broken Hill Regional Art Gallery who presented on FRESHbark, a collaborative project between the Gallery and emerging Indigenous artists. The outcome, not a perfect project (as stated by Griffiths), but, one that achieved incredible outcomes fostering a more enriched relationship between the Gallery and Indigenous community.

3.30 pm

The day finished on an absolute high. The best way to summarise Jacinta Koolmatrie and Jade Turner’s talk is to say that they spoke the truth. It was a really really powerful presentation. The two presenters started by telling the audience that their white male boss was going to come on the stage only when they had told their story. I didn’t tweet during this presentation, I just listened. Everything from representing Indigenous women in displays to personal experiences working in the museum were addressed. Honestly, this was exactly the kind of plenary I was hoping for when I signed up to this conference and I want to thank Jacinta Koolatrie and Jade Turner for delivering one of the best presentations of the conference.

5.00 pm

I cannot believe that tomorrow is the final day. One more plenary to go and then I’ll be exploring Megafauna Central.

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