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Opening remarks and keynote address - Perspectives on exhibiting collections

Peter Stanley and Howard Morphy, National Museum of Australia, 27 March 2009

PETER STANLEY: Hello good morning and welcome to the Visions Theatre here at the National Museum of Australia for the third of the annual collections symposia that we hold here at the Museum. My name is Peter Stanley and it is my good fortune to run the Museum’s Centre for Historical Research and with Guy Hansen, our senior curator for collection development, to be responsible for today’s gatherings. In welcoming you to the Museum I acknowledge the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people on whose land the Museum occupies. I also acknowledge Craddock Morton, the Museum’s Director, who has done so much to support our research program, but he is so determined to hide his light under a bushel that he declined to give an address this morning and indeed hasn’t yet turned up but he will.

If you are speaking, can I ask you to keep to your allotted time out of courtesy to your fellow speakers and to everybody and if you are chairing sessions, please keep your speakers to time. The Centre for Historical Research has its customary Bhutanese bell, which you will have already heard downstairs. Speakers will hear a gong at five minutes to finish and two gongs at one minute to go, so everyone will know who is going over time, except Howard who won’t be gonged. We are keeping time not because I am obsessive but because we like to maximise time for discussion. As I keep saying, conferences are for conferring. Please make the most the opportunities that we programmed for discussions, not just questions but for discussion. If you are contributing, please give your name and affiliation because we are recording the proceedings and they will eventually be available on the website, transcribed by the admirable Polly Templeton, and your words will be a part of that record.

Speaking of names, can I especially welcome the students of museum studies who are here. The Museum offers four bursaries to help students from outside Canberra to attend and we especially welcome Benjamin Ewart from La Trobe, Eureka Henrich from University of New South Wales, Lauren Parker from Sydney and Simon Purtell from Melbourne. Can I also welcome a group of museums and collections students from the Australian National University who are led by Dr Kylie Message, and particularly Laura Parker - no relation to Lauren Parker - who has just been awarded a National Museum scholarship. If you would like to do some talent spotting for colleagues of the future please have a chat to these students.

Apart from gonging the Bhutanese bell today, my only function will be to introduce our keynote speaker. It is my great pleasure to introduce a wonderful friend of the National Museum, Professor Howard Morphy, who is Director of the Research School of Humanities at ANU and was formerly Professor of Social Anthropology at University College, London. Howard is an authority on Australian Indigenous art and is writing a biography of the Aboriginal artist Narritjin Maymuru. Howard also heads ANU’s recently established Institute for Professional Practice in Heritage and the Arts, a body that will contribute to a greater cohesion and collaboration between individuals and institutions in our sector. Today Howard will deliver our keynote address ‘Discussing perspectives on exhibiting collections’ based on his long experience in the field and indeed with artefacts he will wave about.

HOWARD MORPHY: I am going to begin with a very brief glimpse at two exhibitions that I was co-curator of, very different exhibitions at very different moments in time. The first one was at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford where I was curator, signalled by the black and white nature of the image. This was an exhibition as part of a series of exhibitions with a slightly imperial title of ‘Australia in Oxford’ that we curated in 1988. The primary objective of this exhibition was to emphasise the aesthetics of Indigenous Australian material culture under the constraints of the collections that were in the Pitt Rivers Museum and the fact that it had to be in harmony with the Pitt Rivers Museum as a whole. [shows image] You can see the way that the Pitt Rivers Museum relatively recently has displayed boomerangs and in fact the permanent display at the Pitt Rivers Museum is in this particular way. I think Danie Mellor has produced an artwork responding to this [perhaps even] assuming that it was a nineteenth century mode of display, because in the nineteenth century they were all ordered as a row of soldiers side by side. But the constraints include the fact that when one is exhibiting a large number of objects, which in some senses was a requirement of a museum that has an emphasis on open storage and on making large numbers of objects accessible, when there is relatively little documentation associated with the object it is going to influence the way that one does it.

The other thing is at that particular moment in time we were very concerned to demonstrate continuities as well as to link in with the aesthetics of Indigenous Australian art. You won’t be able to see this in the two photographs I am showing, except very briefly. [shows image] You can see one of the continuities in the associations between a painting from Yuendumu- that was one of the first paintings produced at Warlukurlangu - juxtaposed with works that came from much earlier collecting eras. But I am not going to dwell on that exhibition, nor am I going to dwell on the next exhibition that may be familiar to people here in that this was one of the opening exhibitions at the National Museum of Australia.

This was an exhibition on the theme of a Yingapungapu sand sculpture and the mythology associated with it but focused on three places in Blue Mud Bay that the Yingapungapu sand sculptures associated with. The idea in the exhibition - though of course people who know the nature of the process involved in this exhibition and the dialogue that happened across the Pacific and the enormous complexity meant that the exhibition in the end probably didn’t quite meet anybody’s vision. I imagined objects floating in space rather than being more or less nailed to large, white backboards that sort of intruded in many ways. Nonetheless, the idea that we were trying to get was to see the relationship between people, ancestral imagery and place.

[Shows image] At the back is the photograph of the lake at Djarrakpi and on either side are paintings of that lake and figures of the ancestral beings who were the creative figures in that place. There is the artist in the background, Narritjin Maymuru, who died in 1981 and there are two of his granddaughters Boliny and Ralwurrandji, today very major Yolngu artists. The idea was to be able to convey something of the nature of the meaning and value of place to Yolngu people. The idea of the exhibition was theirs. The Museum went and asked for a theme for the exhibition and the Yolngu, and in particular Naminapu Maymuru, came up with that idea.

I am going to now move to looking at a single material culture object but with a bit of help from a couple of other ones. These objects are in my collection, so this is why I am able to handle them without white gloves. This is a spear thrower that was made by Narritjin Maymuru. As everything that Narritjin did, one can construct a story about why it was made that relates to him, his nature and personality. He was always working. He loved to paint. He loved to demonstrate his skills as a hunter. He loved to be able to make material culture objects.

Narritjin was at a ceremony that Ian Dunlop filmed, a Djungguwan ceremony at Gurka?wuy, but he didn’t have a role in that ceremony. It was associated with ancestral performances that he didn’t have primary rights over, so he spent much of his time at the ceremonial ground participating in jokes and discussions and making artefacts. On our walk to the ceremonial ground one day he saw a particular native apple tree and he said, ‘That’s what we make spear throwers from. I’ll show you.’ It delayed us getting to the ground on that particular day. He would then use that as a way of showing me how one would make a Yolngu spear thrower, a spear thrower of the Yirritja moiety, using traditional techniques. In this particular case we have an ironwood resin that is fixing the peg to the head of the spear thrower. The spear thrower, in case anybody doesn’t know, is used as a lever to both direct and intensify the thrust of a spear as you’re throwing it towards a food item.

Here is a spear. This spear was actually in this exhibition that we see behind us [Yingapungapu exhibition]. It is a spear made by Baluka Maymuru, Narritjin’s son. I want you to look at the details at the top because it will be relevant to some imagery that I show later on. You also have to then begin to imagine that this spear and this spear thrower together make an emu - but that will be in a minute or two because I have a little bit more to say about the use of this spear thrower and its significance both as an object of instruction but also as something to me. I have never seen this spear thrower used to throw spears. It was first of all used by Narritjin actually as a walking stick during a ceremony that has been filmed, a Madarrpa funeral at Gurka?wuy. Sadly an infant died while the other ceremony was being prepared so there was a burial ceremony that took place. Narritjin injured his foot by going for an incredibly long walk with me, and for many of the days subsequently this was his walking stick.

But come the burial ceremony for the child a key dance was the yellow ochre dance. In Yolngu ceremonies one of the things you do is you re-enact or enact the spirit journey of the person who has died through different stages of the burial. A crucial stage of the burial ceremony is finding the body before you move it to the grave, and at that moment you do a dance of ancestral beings who are actually there discovering the body. The yellow ochre dance is about ancestral beings who used digging sticks to dig up yellow ochre in a quarry. You will be able to see in Dunlop’s film made after the funeral how the dancers begin walking along the ground dragging the digging sticks behind them. Well, Narritjin’s spear thrower at that moment in time was the digging stick. You will see that Narritjin used the spear thrower at other times almost as a baton to orchestrate the dance movements that were going on. And finally what does happen is when they find the yellow ochre, they find the spirit of the child, they dig it up, and at that moment the spear thrower again was used in that particular way. I began to see in that context the flexibility of an artefact and its multifunctional nature.

What about the meaning of this? This is a Yirritja moiety spear thrower - north-east Arnhem Land society is divided in two moieties - both because of its meaning but also because of its colour. This you can see is largely painted at the top and bottom in yellow. We have another spear thrower here made by another great Yolngu artist Mithinari Gurruwiwi predominantly in red, the colour of the Dhuwa moiety. Here we have a model of the core structure of Yolngu society that is presented in the form of these material objects. Interestingly, although I am not to go along this side path, this is not made with ironwood resin or bees wax which was the other thing. This is made with what Mithinari Gurruwiwi referred to me as a ‘white man’s sugar bag’, a lump of tar picked up from the beach. I could also go in other directions because you will notice that there are bindings in this spear thrower in different places to hold the head in and a binding at the waist to give added strength and prevent splitting and things. But in this particular spear thrower these are replaced by carved incisions which represent one would say or are skeuomorphs - that is something that is a design element that relates to something which in other contexts is functional. But, as I say, I am not going on that distracting path at the moment.

In what sense is this an emu? We better move on to the next image which will hopefully begin to make this analogy more convincing. [shows image] This is a painting by Narritjin that represents the ancestral emu who made that lake at Djarrakpi and an emu is conceptualised. This is the emu’s head, and I think we can reasonably see how that might be an analogy for the emu’s head. This is the emu’s body and this is the great big back side of the emu. An emu consists of this [the spearthrower] and two spears, a set of spears. That is what the emu is. You can see that the analogy is being made and developed. You can this in this emu’s body, at the head, that that head is being made into something that is more like the head of a spear thrower, and beside it there you have the spear. The emu on this occasion is holding the spear, but in the myth itself the emu using the spear and scratching the ground with its leg created the water in the lake at Djarrakpi. That water was salty and nobody could drink it. So the emu took one of its legs off, got it into its beak and thrust it over the sand dunes into the ground and there fresh water bubbled up.

So absolutely this [the spearthrower] becomes in that particular context, in that particular place [the ancestral emu], [with those] connotations, and that then links into the issues of place and of moiety again. It was the emu who created Djarrakpi, the landscapes at Djarrakpi and together with various other ancestral beings didn’t create other areas of Manggalili land. Yolngu society has a series of estates associated with each clan, and the second main estate is one called Wayawupuy. It is an inland estate and interestingly enough it is associated with the kingfish, a fish of the sea. But in Yolngu conceptions of the world there aren’t these kind of rigid boundaries between salt water and fresh water, and the animals of the sea always have refractions on earth just as the water has refractions in the sky - or reflections. Inland there is a great river Wayawupuy, which is the place of spirit origin of the kingfish.

Let’s go and have a look at another painting of Narritjin’s. [shows image] This is a painting of Wayawupuy. Here at the centre you can see a representation of a kingfish Nguykal. On the right we can see a painting of a spear thrower rather like this spear thrower here, and on the left we can see the spear, though the spear here is very much in the form of a digging stick. Again, we go back to the fact that in Indigenous Australian iconography but also in relation to the whole nature of the way in which people look at the world analogies abound. If you think about central Australian art, it’s an easy thing for people to then understand. It tends to comprise a whole series of geometric elements but probably about five, six or seven geometric forms. The whole world has to be organised in relation to those forms in terms of the encoding of art. This is what partly gives enormous productivity to Australian Aboriginal systems of knowledge and communication, because it enables this tremendous condensation of meaning, of knowledge of the world, into a relatively small set of key mnemonics that then you expand out in the context of ceremony, in the context of travelling the land, of mapping it, and so on and so forth. Here we have a spear; here we have the spear thrower; and in the centre we have the kingfish. I think you might start to agree that the tail of the kingfish in this particular context is echoing the base of a spear thrower.

If one is in doubt of that, all one has to do is look at the kingfish dance, which is a dance which shows the journey of the kingfish ancestor down the Wayawupuy River - in which case people with spear throwers dance like this and challenge each other, because kingfish do challenge each other, and then they turn around. This is the kingfish tail but, as the kingfish tail flicks, it seems to be like the spear thrower as it flicks from side to side, as it moves through the country. The throwing of a spear can be a gesture of aggression but it is also a gesture of communication. I hope the Yolngu named me after the tail of the kingfish because I communicate and not because I am an aggressive person. I am not going to talk in detail about this painting. I hope people can begin to see the way in which figuration and abstraction is built into the heart of the way Yolngu look at the world and is the generative force that is associated with the art.

[Shows image] One final image is another painting by Narritjin which again makes these connections pretty explicit. Here we can see the spear thrower, but there that spear thrower is very like the shape of the tail of the kingfish. These analogies are being made and developed through art. This painting is the body of the kingfish which represents a particular stretch of that Wayawupuy River, and one can identify in this painting a whole series of named land places but we are not going to do that here.

I would like you to note that particular shape and then go back just to show another context of the meaning. You can see the kingfish tail appears to be echoed in these anvil-shaped forms down there. The kingfish is associated with the wet season clouds, with the anvil-shaped clouds that come over north-east Arnhem Land in the wet season created by disturbances in the ancestral dimension. The coming of the wet season is often used as a moment of closure for a ceremonial performance at the end of a day - that and smoke is another way in which you have had a ceremonial performance and then at the end of the day it ends. The spear thrower is used in the dance which creates the form of the cloud. Again you can see in this particular object an enormous density.

My conclusion is that actually looking at this artefact and, if you like, connecting it to Yolngu society as a whole, you can almost use this - I have forgotten the word that one uses in museums but something you can use to talk about everything to do with the whole of the society - it can be condensed in the form of this object. Yolngu would probably say, ‘Oh no, it has to have the [Dhuwa] moiety one as well and then we will agree with your argument.’ So there is this kind of density. But what does it mean? Where did all this knowledge that I am able to give to this spear thrower come from? It didn’t come from that spear thrower. It came from years of doing research, of talking to people, of looking at paintings, of analysing paintings and of seeing dances. In a way it is too easily done when you see a particular object to see all the significances as existing and being located in that object.

It is quite a desirable thing to do in some ways as a story telling technique but in some ways it is reductive. What one needs to be bringing in is that whole complexity that I hope makes a convincing argument to you about the multiple dimensions of this particular object - my reference to films, the fact that we are showing paintings, the fact that I badly re-enact certain Yolngu dance performances, and so on. In a sense that provides two problem for a museum: one, how on earth in an exhibition would you present what I have just been saying now. You can see the immense density of the exhibition that was created for the Yingapungapu. This would require even more in some ways, and yet it is just a spear thrower at one level. That is one problem.

But the other problem is: how do we avoid oversimplifying in a sense by endowing an object like this with that huge amount of significance which in the context of the society you can trace it. But any object that you take that you know something about from a particular era of time you can make enormously complex connections. You can make connections to technological systems; you can make connections to the class, the category of people who are collecting objects; and so on. My feeling is that it is the museum - the institution as a whole - that has to be this repository of knowledge. It is the museum as a whole that actually has the capacity through the outstanding documentation that it develops of its collections and objects to then release that information in a multiplicity of contexts, and museums must always in a sense have that view of themselves as a whole. That whole, of course, will have to be constrained by the fact that the whole itself can get so enormously wide. In the case of an object like this, the immense richness of Yolngu culture - and this applies to Indigenous culture all the way across Australia - is something that the museum has to see itself as building up in collaboration with Indigenous Australians a reservoir of knowledge that can then be used for all the different purposes that a museum can imagine an exhibition to fulfil. I will leave it at that.

PETER STANLEY: Howard, thank you very much for introducing us and guiding us through the immensely complex of the Yolngu and to show how we can understand it through artefacts. We have a few minutes spare because Howard has shown us the way of keeping to time so if there are questions please stick your hand up, Anne or Adam will give you the mike, identify yourselves and comment, contribute, question or whatever.

QUESTION by Brian Crozier: Just a comment really. Years ago when we were putting our classification scheme together we were looking at Indigenous material. Our normal classification systems didn’t really work for Indigenous material because you layer primary, secondary, tertiary and get down to a specific use. It didn’t work like that because there are so many specific uses - an object can have so many different meanings in so many different circumstances. I was quite fascinated to see that. We had to have a quite different way of looking at that form of classification.

HOWARD MORPHY: Absolutely, but it is not just Indigenous Australian material. We suddenly recognised that dramatically from Indigenous Australian material partly because in a sense - and you did in the past - European evolutionary theory would say simple technology, not very many artefacts, relatively simple society, and gradually people begin to understand the enormous complexity. In that particular context these particular objects themselves, when you put them in action in the context of society, get on that enormous complexity. It becomes so blindingly obvious in the case of Indigenous Australia but it applies equally to the material culture of societies in general. Getting away from simplistic typological classification is a very important thing. But I would nonetheless say that there are areas in which in terms of both curation and analysis having a strong typological structure underlying it is a very important thing to do. There are lots of issues and research problems that require that structure.

QUESTION by Claire Martin: I was trying to grasp the relationship you were setting up between different layers of meaning and I think you used the word ‘analogy’ which is kind of vague. Do you think it could be expanded more than that, possibly like the kind of correspondences that you got between different levels of meaning in the medieval world view?

HOWARD MORPHY: Obviously in a very short talk there is a limit to the way in which one can go into the productivity of Yolngu systems of knowledge. I think you are quite right, but I hope I wasn’t showing that these are very simple analogies because in fact the analogies then fit into really complex systems of knowledge of the way in which both people view the generative nature of the world and how it articulates with social structures and social organisations. This is why Yolngu will see their art, their material culture and their dance all together as a body of knowledge, a body of ideas. And like any body of knowledge and body of ideas you actually have to learn it in order to be able to use it.

One of the most important things that museums can do in the long term is engage with people so that you can begin to understand the complexity of the Indigenous knowledge systems and the ways in which they can be used very productively. The trouble is we often just see them in a short exhibition whereas in terms of contemporary Canberra-based Australian knowledge systems - very diverse though they may be - we actually grow up in them in that sense. It is how you get people who have grown up in one knowledge system to understand the complexity of another one.

QUESTION by Kylie Message: You have articulated a number of problems that museums have in representing diversity, and my question follows on from the comments that you just made. I am wondering whether different kinds of museums are better at representing and communicating diversity than other museums. For instance, is the National Museum in a more challenging position than perhaps a small regional museum?

HOWARD MORPHY: Yes, it is in a more challenging position at all sorts of different kinds of levels. You have to think: what does it mean by national? What then is its responsibility? You then have different sort of ideologies of what nation is and the national responsibility could put the nation at the forefront and see how everything else fits into or it could be concerned to represent the diversity in a fairly equal way of the cultures and societies that exist within it. That is undoubtedly true.

The other thing that I think a national museum has to do is that it has to conceptualise itself as something which has interlinkages across the nation with that particular diversity. You want a national museum that links in with local museums and that links in with Indigenous cultural centres and that has a dynamic relationship in those particular contexts. That probably fits in with the thing that I was saying that one has to begin to see museums as a whole and that the parts are if you like little statements or speeches that come out of a whole that is highly productive and dynamic.

PETER STANLEY: Thank you to the dynamic and productive Howard Morphy. It might seem blindingly obvious to Howard but to the rest of us it is an education.

Date published: 15 May 2009