Review of ‘The Makers and Making of Indigenous Australian Museum Collections’ edited by Nicolas Peterson, Lindy Allen and Louise Hamby

01st December 2009

peterson-allen-hamby-book coverThe Makers and Making of Indigenous Australian Museum Collections edited by Nicolas Peterson, Lindy Allen and Louise Hamby. Melbourne University Press, Carlton, 2008, vxi+596 pp., ISBN 978-0-522-85568-5.

Michael C. Westaway

Queensland Museum, PO Box 3300, South Brisbane Qld. 4101, Australia

Those interested in gaining a greater appreciation of the history of acquisition of many of the country’s significant ethnographic collections will not be disappointed with this volume. The 19 chapters of the book provide a comprehensive overview of the individuals that for various reasons decided to make significant ethnographic collections. Like many volumes that are produced as a result of symposia, The Makers and Making of Indigenous Australian Museum Collections is not an easy read. However, the individual chapters are easily accessible and provide a good starting point for an investigation of important collectors. The book also provides an important resource for those interested in the motivations behind the collectors of Aboriginal ethnographic collections.

The volume is divided into four parts. The first part considers the phase of collecting in an institutional context. I found Satterthwait’s taphonomic approach in Chapter 1 for understanding collection management formation processes quite sensible, although at times his position was perhaps overstated; for example, ‘the creation of a collection entails the making of connections, the establishment of associations, that link together in networks of meaning. Collections are then, ultimately objects of the mind’ (p.54). Robins’ Chapter 2 provides a valuable insight into the many reasons behind the general apathy underlying the Queensland Museum’s (QM) approach to ethnographic collecting (although it has in times past collected quite vigorously in the fields of physical/biological anthropology and archaeology). Robins notes that this circumstance is largely a result of the failure of the institution to engage a long-term curator of anthropology, such as a Tindale or McCarthy, but history has also played a cruel role in the QM’s past, with cadet ethnologist Lieutenant Ken Jackson being killed in Papua New Guinea in 1943 and the falling out between Malcolm Calley and the QM Director George Mack in 1953. It was not until the appointment of Michael Quinnell that the QM had found a long-term curator committed to devoting much of his professional life to getting the collection in a state comparable to other Australian museums. In Chapter 3 Leo notes that it was not until the 1970s that the number of professionals in Queensland reached a level where they had a significant impact on Queensland society and institutions. Leo provides an account of the development of the University of Queensland’s AnthropologyMuseum during the peak phase of QM disinterest in ethnographic collecting. The development of the UQ Anthropology Museum, largely derived from the collections of Lindsay Winterbotham, was a catalyst for the development of its department of anthropology. Leo also discusses at some length the motivating factors behind the acquisition of ethnographic objects by Winterbotham (doomed race theory and salvage ethnography).

Part 2 discusses collecting under the influence of social evolutionary theory. In Chapter 4 Elizabeth Willis introduces us to the gentlemen collectors of Victoria. It is a very positive paper as it points the way forward as to how such collections, even in the absence of good provenance, can continue to play an important role in interpreting Aboriginal society. John Mulvaney’s Chapter 5 provides an excellent synthesis of the work of Spencer, who was the pioneer of many approaches in museum anthropology; for example he was the first curator to develop a comprehensive catalogue of the museum’s collection, a task that was not emulated by any other Australian museum for another 60 years. Very importantly, Mulvaney points out the importance of assessing the contribution of collectors in the intellectual milieu of the time, rather than simply addressing such issues from a contemporary viewpoint. The importance of empathy in undertaking historical assessments seems to be something that many researchers of nineteenth century issues have forgotten. In Chapter 6 Kate Kahn provides a very solid account of the significance of Roth’s work in north Queensland. She notes that Roth was a man well ahead of his times in terms of his sympathies for Aboriginal people. In the midst of his role as protector and all the opposition he experienced in the position he also managed to produce a comprehensive ethnographic collection and numerous scientific papers and reports. Chapter 7 is an interesting account of the reasons behind the development of ethnographic collections at the BerlinEthnologicalMuseum. It would appear that there was close research collaboration between ethnography and biological anthropology in order to develop knowledge in both the fields of human and cultural evolution which were inextricably linked at the museum. Lally informs us that the museum was interested in documenting different levels within human civilisation to establish if there was a definable pattern of progression towards higher civilisation. Chapter 8 by Nobbs provides an engaging account of collectors in the arid region around Cooper’s Creek, including the work of Samuel Gason and Otto Siebert, and how this was to heavily influence the writings of Alfred Howitt. Howitt’s 1861 rescue party, responsible for recovering the sole survivor of the forward Burke party, initiated a series of ethnographic investigations and collecting programmes amongst groups in the vicinity of Innamincka. Ian Coates in Chapter 9 provides an account of the collecting practices of Henry Hillier at the Lutheran missions of Killalpaninna and Hermannsburg. Hillier’s collecting environment was underpinned by a clash between Spencer and Strehlow, and Coates reveals the complex physical, intellectual and political environment that the young collector endured. Ross Chadwick’s Chapter 10 is essentially a historic account of the naively obedient collector John Tunney. Tunney had no formal training, collected in the main natural history specimens and took what would appear to be quite average ethnographic photographs. Part of his role was to develop a collection to illustrate the diversity of Aboriginal material culture across Western Australia and to obtain objects for the exchange of cultural artefacts from overseas. This he did and Chadwick informs us that the collection remains largely understudied. Kaus’ Chapter 11 represents another straightforward historical account which provides a valuable background to the origins of the NationalMuseum of Australia’s ethnographic collections. It also provides a worthwhile definition of the different divisions of collectors, amateurs and professionals.

Part 3 is an investigation of collecting for the sake of salvage anthropology. In Chapter 12 Philip Jones provides an account of the success of the ethnographic collecting activities undertaken by Norman Tindale. His background in natural history, detail in documenting provenance and his willingness to adopt new principles of anthropological analysis resulted in the creation of arguably the most valuable ethnographic collection in Australia. The chapter focuses on his two initial collecting expeditions to Groote Eylandt and PrincessCharlotteBay, and illustrates how Tindale’s anthropological fieldwork later evolved into an approach that would appear to be similar to the American four-field model of anthropological research (social anthropology, archaeology, physical anthropology and linguistics). Chapter 13 discusses the work of Lloyd Warner who would appear from Hamby’s account to have a clear appreciation of how material culture items were integrated within the overall structuring of values in Yolngu society. Considering that sometime after 1935 Warner lost his eight fieldbooks and other archives in a flood, Hamby has done an impressive job of getting into the mindset of this collector through the limited available sources. In Chapter 14 we are provided with an important insight into the value of the work of the seemingly indefatigable Donald Thomson. This is an excellent introduction into the significance of Thomson’s collections and the importance of his work. Ursula McConnel represents a very interesting study of ethnographic collecting as she was the only professionally-trained female anthropologist collecting during the early 1920s–1930s. In Chapter 15 Anne O’Gorman Perusco reveals much about the character of McConnel and the objections that she had to overcome in order to gather collections from the land of the Wik Mungkan people. Chapter 16 provides a comprehensive account of the work of the amateur ethnographer Charles Mountford, discussing amongst many matters the opposition he received from the professional anthropological establishment of the time. Mountford was a successful advocate for anthropological research and coordinated the major multidisciplinary American-Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land in 1948, much to the abhorrence of a number of prominent professional anthropologists. The history of the expedition and a discussion of some of its outcomes form a central part of the chapter. I get the impression that May has just begun to scratch the surface of the significance of this expedition and it would appear that a much greater appreciation of the expedition will come to light through further investigation of its collections and associated archives. Val Attenbrow’s Chapter 17 focuses on the work of Frederick McCarthy, a curator interested in gathering both archaeological and ethnographic collections (in other words a balanced sought of fellow). This chapter represents an impressive summary of the significant contribution made by McCarthy and the important role his work played in establishing the foundations of archaeology and Aboriginal studies across Australia.

The final section, Part 4, covers the time from around 1980 until the present in a section titled ‘Transformed Collecting’. The collection of Aboriginal art is a major theme of contributions grouped here. Chapter 18 provides an account of the work of Ronald and Catherine Berndt, private people who produced an enormous record (both published and archival) on their collections. The Berndt’s did not distinguish between art and material culture and had an inclusive approach to studying such collections as complementary documents rather than distinct elements. The work of Helen Wurm, who collected the magnificent bark paintings that now reside in the NationalMuseum of Australia, is summarised in Chapter 19. Wurm’s anthropological training in Vienna and London provided her with a very different intellectual approach to that of Mountford (she collected not long after the time of the American-Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land). While Mountford approached bark painting as fine art, Wurm (where possible) explored the relationship between bark paintings and their ceremonial and ancestral context. The final chapter is a very interesting exposé of the origins of an offshore collection known as the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection which is currently held at the University of Virginia. Professor Ruhe seems to have been an eccentric character that underwent a life-changing experience in Arnhem Land, becoming an Aboriginal art tragic during a Fulbright Scholarship to the University of Adelaide in 1965, much to the benefit of the Spence Collection that perhaps would have dispersed amongst collectors if it was not for his enthusiasm.

At the end of the book it is clear to the reader that different periods in Australia’s past saw different motivations for collecting. It is difficult to deny that these collections have played an important role in not only public education (both domestically and internationally), but perhaps more importantly in cultural revival for those Aboriginal communities that have chosen to employ the collections for these purposes.

One is given the impression that these chapters represent a re-emergence and reinvigoration of research into the history of collecting in anthropology and ethnography. This is further demonstrated by the appearance of a number of conferences that have included further analysis of the work of ethnographers (e.g. the recent conference on the Roth family and another this year on the work of the American-Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land). This can only be good news, for if such collections are allowed to continue to languish in collection spaces without significant research and Indigenous community engagement their significance will slip further from view. In this light, the histories of collection presented in this volume stand as a good starting point for students and academics interested in pursuing research on ethnographic collections.

The importance of the volume is perhaps elevated by the fact that many of the articles are written by curators and museum-based researchers with responsibilities for the collections they are writing about. In some cases, these curators have been working with the collections for decades and once retired/departed, much knowledge associated with the collections will likely disappear with them. Unfortunately not one of the authors is an Indigenous Australian, despite the fact that all major State museums and galleries employ Indigenous curators and have done so now for some time. It would be of great interest to read the thoughts and perspectives of Indigenous curators undertaking research on such collections.

Finally the study is interesting as it perhaps also tells us something of the history of the disciplines of anthropology and archaeology. Outside of the work of Tindale and McCarthy, there seems to have historically been little interest in exploring the relationship between material culture and the antiquity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander occupation. Ethnography was of greater interest than establishing a geological antiquity of people in Australia, perhaps reflecting the views prolific in publications of the nineteenth and early twentieth century arguing that Aboriginal people were a Stone Age people and therefore much more could be learnt about them from ethnographic observation and related collecting activities. Very few people thought that Aboriginal occupation of Australia had a Pleistocene antiquity until the early ages were produced from KenniffCave in 1960. This perhaps reveals to us why a greater professional emphasis was placed on ethnography and anthropology than archaeology for much of Australia’s scholarly past.

Michael C. Westaway
Review of ‘The Makers and Making of Indigenous Australian Museum Collections’ edited by Nicolas Peterson, Lindy Allen and Louise Hamby
December 2009
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