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Understanding Museums - Australian Museums and Museology: Edited by Des Griffin and Leon Paroissien

About the authors

Des Griffin is currently Gerard Krefft Memorial Fellow, Australian Museum, an honorary position commemorating one of the early directors of the Museum. More about Des Griffin

Leon Paroissien AM is the Chair of Object: Australian Centre for Craft and Design in Sydney. More about Leon Paroissien

Indigenous people and museums: introduction
by Des Griffin and Leon Paroissien

Australian museums have had a leadership role in the wider recognition of the richness of Indigenous Australian culture and in addressing the history of contact between Indigenous Australians and those whose ancestral origins lay elsewhere.

Recent decades have seen major changes in semi-permanent and temporary Indigenous exhibitions in all major museums, and there have been numerous events and symposia, such as the Australian Museum’s two major conferences of Indigenous people in the 1990s, including ‘The Future of Australia’s Dreaming’. Consultation with Indigenous peoples regarding exhibition content and interpretation has become widely accepted. Many museums now have Indigenous staff and some Indigenous people have been appointed to museum boards.

Changes in Indigenous representation and relationships in museums, and the inclusion of oral histories, have often been accompanied by controversy and conflict. Some prominent Indigenous people, claiming that museums should do more, cite examples of overseas museums that have still not returned human remains and secret-sacred material.

The Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory (MAGNT) has for many years managed a significant contemporary Indigenous art award and associated exhibition sponsored by Telstra. The subsequent tour of this exhibition has played a role in promoting contemporary Indigenous art nationally. Meanwhile all national institutions have expanded their commitment to Indigenous culture and to the touring of significant Indigenous exhibitions abroad.

The 2007 exhibition Culture Warriors, featuring the work of 30 contemporary Indigenous artists, was presented at the National Gallery of Australia as the first ‘National Indigenous Art Triennial’. The exhibition coincided with the fortieth anniversary of the 1967 referendum. After touring to Adelaide, Perth and Brisbane, the exhibition was shown subsequently in Washington in 2009. In 2010 a new entrance to the National Gallery gave introductory prominence to Australia’s Indigenous culture for Australian and foreign visitors alike – displaying the most significant Indigenous items of the collection, including the 1988 Aboriginal Memorial. [1]

Simultaneous with the National Gallery’s showing of Culture Warriors, the National Museum of Australia presented Papunya Painting: Out of the Desert, an exhibition drawing on an important part of the National Museum of Australia’s collection – once belonging to the Aboriginal Arts Board of the Australia Council – that ‘successfully melded ethnographic interpretation with the aesthetic experience of the art …’[2]After a subsequent showing in Sydney at the Australian Museum, this exhibition was exhibited at the National Art Museum in Beijing in 2010. In 2008 the National Museum organised an extraordinary exhibition of paintings by the late Emily Kame Kngwarreye from Utopia in the central desert for showing in Osaka and Tokyo before being shown at the National Museum in Canberra on its return.

Chapters by Michael Pickering and Phil Gordon, Bernice Murphy, and John Stanton trace aspects of the collecting and exhibiting of Indigenous art in Australia’s museums from different perspectives. Pickering and Gordon address the complexities of the repatriation of ancestral remains and secret-sacred objects. Stanton recounts the revitalisation of museums in this field, and Murphy looks at the repositioning of Indigenous creativity within museum programs and in public awareness.

Complementary developments concerning peoples of the Pacific and of Asia have occurred at a number of museums. Many major state museums have substantial collections of Melanesian cultural material and other material from the Pacific and Asia, and all state art museums hold extensive Asian collections. The Australian Museum initiated important returns of significant cultural material to Vanuatu, to Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, and collaborated with the National Museum of New Zealand in a special touring exhibition, Taonga Maori. The Queensland Art Gallery initiated (in 1993) and continues to stage a major contemporary art event, the Asia Pacific Triennial, which has also greatly enriched its collections.

In 2010 Hetti Perkins, Senior Curator at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, wrote and presented a three-part television series on Indigenous Australian artists, Art + Soul. This was but one example of museums taking an increasingly prominent role in addressing wider audiences beyond museum walls on Indigenous art and culture. The Art Gallery of New South Wales installed a new exhibition of their collection to complement the television series.


1An installation of 200 painted hollow log coffins (Lorrkon) — one for every year since European settlement — created by 43 artists from different clans of the region around Ramingining in Arnhem Land and dedicated to the Indigenous Australians who have lost their lives in defence of country since 1788.

2 Luke Taylor, 'Exhibiting Indigenous Art', reCollections, Vol 3 no 1, March 2008,

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Cite as: Des Griffin and Leon Paroissien, 2011, 'Indigenous people and museums: Introduction', in Des Griffin and Leon Paroissien (eds), Understanding Museums: Australian Museums and Museology, National Museum of Australia, published online at
ISBN 978-1-876944-92-6