Chaired by Dr Peter Stanley, National Museum of Australia, 30 May 2008
PETER STANLEY: Good morning, colleagues and friends. I welcome you to the National Museum of Australia and in doing so acknowledge the Indigenous people on whose land this museum stands. My name is Peter Stanley. I am from the Museum’s Centre for Historical Research. It has been my privilege to have worked with Guy Hansen and our colleagues in public events to organise this symposium. We are very pleased to see so many people here as participants.
I should explain why we are gathering under the rubric of a collections symposium. The National Museum of Australia has a tradition of holding such gatherings to explore the origins and nature of its collections, their care and use, and the potential they offer to understand the human story of this continent and nation. This year’s theme — objects as sources — is of special interest to the Museum’s new Centre for Historical Research. Because we are part of a museum, the centre has a strong interest in material culture and the centre’s members are embarking on a collaborative research project called, for convenience, material histories. That project seeks to use material culture as a source of evidence about the past. At the same time our curatorial colleagues have complementary interests in using objects to understand and interpret historical themes. So this symposium came about, jointly organised by Guy Hansen and me, and including speakers from our respective parts of the Museum.
Let’s move straight into the first session. In structuring this symposium we were conscious that we weren’t inventing this topic, we weren’t addressing it for the first time. There are various established approaches to using material culture which emerge from relevant disciplines. So we thought it would serve us well to be reminded of those traditions and approaches at the outset. Accordingly, we have invited four speakers to set the scene, each speaking for 15 minutes, with five minutes at the end of each presentation for discussion, and with time for discussion at the end of the session.
It is my very great pleasure to introduce Dr Mike Smith of the Centre and of the Museum. Mike is not only a distinguished deep-time archaeologist of humanity in the Australian desert but also the intellectual godfather of the Centre for Historical Research. He has been a great support to me in the centre’s first year. Mike will give an archaeologist’s view. Thanks Mike.
An archaeologist’s view — Dr Mike Smith (National Museum of Australia)
MIKE SMITH: EE Evans-Pritchard, one of the founders of British social anthropology, said that material culture provided ‘the chains along which social ideas run.’ I guess part of our task in museums is to take those chains in material culture and see if we can work back to the ideas.
Firstly, a caveat: I am not an historian; I don’t claim any particular expertise in material culture. I am one of the catalysts of today’s symposium. My role is really to beat a few bushes and to see what flies out so that we can perhaps get the measure of what work historians have been doing in this area.
I want to suggest that natural history, archaeology, technology, ethnography and art history all have strong traditions of using specimens, artefacts or artworks as primary data but that social history seems to have made little use of material culture in this way. There are some notable exceptions amongst Australian historians, and I am thinking of Graeme Davison, Philip Jones and Linda Young. You will hear a range of papers today that all in their own way are exceptions to this statement. But many historians will walk past objects to reach the archival records, photographs and audio recordings which seem to represent a richer vein of information about the past. This is perhaps as much a matter of training and disciplinary orientation as opportunity. But the lack of a strong, visible school of material culture research amongst museum-based historians leaves the potential of the nation’s social and environmental history collections underdeveloped.
Perhaps I am wrong in all of this. But if so, part of the role of the symposium today will be to flush out existing work by historians in this area, to develop an intellectual map of what has been done, what has been tried and what’s worked, as well as to stimulate new work in this area.
Returning to my own field of archaeology, more than 30 years ago in his book Behavioral Archaeology, Michael Schiffer argued that we should look at the flow of objects in and out of their systemic contexts, the way new values are ascribed to objects, and the sorts of transformations in function and context this entailed. It’s an interesting model — looking at the acquisition of raw materials and the way manufacture and design plays into the various contexts; the way artefacts are used, discarded, recycled and repurposed and end up as refuse; and what happens to them after they end up as refuse. In the museum context, objects may cycle through social systems and then end up in a museum for a spell, which in a way is an analogue to falling out of systemic context. They get new values, different sorts of values, or they may be dead to the normal canons of circulation of material. Reconstructing artefact biographies and behavioural chains and following an artefact from cradle to grave has now become core business in prehistoric archaeology and has been for more than 20 years.
Shifting to anthropology or cultural studies, a decade after Schiffer, Arjun Appadurai wrote The Social Life of Things, again looking at the circulation of objects as commodities and the social transactions this involves. It was a book that led to a range of other studies including: Lubar and Kingery’s History from Things, Fred Myers’ book The Empire of Things: Regimes of Value and Material Culture, journals such as the Journal of Material Culture and the Material History Review reflected the growing interest in material culture, but also its move from simply ethnographic or cross-cultural material to including material culture from metropolitan Europe and North America.
There was a parallel stream in cultural geography, particularly in the United States. I am thinking of Terry Jordan’s wonderful book on the material culture of cattle ranching in North America [North American Cattle Ranching Frontiers: Origins, Diffusion, and Differentiation, 1993] and how the material culture gave quite a different picture of the origins of ranching than the straight documentary records. More recently, there has been a string of publications by the School of Material Culture Research at University College London led by Daniel Miller, which includes the recently published Handbook of Material Culture and his book in 2001 entitled Home Possessions: Material Culture Behind Closed Doors. Most of these works are by social scientists rather than historians. As anthropology has sought to reposition itself and reclaim some relevance in the postcolonial era, it has energetically exploited its tradition of ethnographic research to colonise the margins of history, moving into studies of materiality and contemporary society. In museums they find a liminal space that is poorly occupied by museum historians, with the exception of some polymaths like Philip Jones, whose book Ochre and Rust: Artefacts and Encounters on Australian Frontiers shows some of the possibilities of using objects to write new sorts of histories — in this case histories of the Australian frontier.
Historians may well approach material culture in a very different way from social scientists and anthropologists, with different questions in mind and perhaps with not so much heavily theorising. Nonetheless, it is surprising to see that there has been so little apparent interdisciplinary traffic between history and this body of research in material culture. I don’t wish to be too hard on museum curators and museum historians here. Anyone who works in museums will know there is a lot more going on behind the scenes than the literature suggests. There are some really innovative approaches to exhibitions developing, and some of this finds its way into published exhibition catalogues. But largely it is a body of work that is hard to discover and only a fraction of it gets published.
What can we do with objects? I would suggest three complementary lines of research, each giving a different weight to objects as sources of information. First, there is the classic object provenance type research, developing and exploring the histories around an object. This may simply explore the association between an object and a person such as Governor Macquarie’s sword or an event. Or it may be quite a sophisticated exploration of the multiple histories in which objects are embedded, treating an object as the nexus of many different sorts of histories: histories of technology, of manufacturing and trade, of instrument makers, of science, of social milieu, and of individual lives and events.
At the next level of research, objects can serve as aids to discovery, pointing to silences or gaps in scholarship — material reminders of forgotten histories. Philip Jones used some of these objects in his book Ochre and Rust. But in many cases these forgotten histories are then explored or pursued through the documentary records. The material objects serve just as pointers to directions that have been ignored or overlooked.
A third and more difficult level is where we use objects or cultural assemblages of objects as primary historical sources — objects as data recording information not contained in the documentary record. Some examples might include: using several generations of Papunya Tula paintings to explore the dynamics of an art tradition; using colonial clothing to look at the biometrics of population in Australia — stuff that often doesn’t make it into the record of the time; using the distribution of nineteenth century ceramics to explore the global reach of European commerce; or perhaps using material culture to explore the dynamics over time of class or ethnicity in Australian towns, as archaeologists are doing at the old town of Kiandra in the high country of New South Wales.
The best of material cultural research probably includes all three lines of research. It is obviously a dialogue between these three. Good material cultural research is probably an iterative process where you move backwards and forwards between these levels of research.
Let us quickly look at what objects might be able to tell us, starting with object biographies. A close reading of objects can reveal aspects of the design and manufacture, their ‘use’ lives, and then their eventual discarding that perhaps won’t be recorded or will be poorly recorded in the documentary record. I have picked out a few illustrative examples. Looking at design and manufacturing, skeuomorphs, one of my favourite words, is where many objects bear decorative elements that mimic other materials often reflecting the history of these objects. Examples include ceramics that have designs that reflect their origin in basketry; one-piece moulded plastic sandals mimic woven leather strips; penknives have plastic bone handles. The retention of these features says something the status and value of an object and how we think an object should look.
Then there is the ‘use’ life of objects: how an object is used, recycled, curated and discarded, and what happens after it is discarded. There have been some wonderful studies on materials analysis in this area. In particular I am thinking of David Hallam’s work on the Leichhardt plate not only trying to authenticate this plate but also looking at the actual history of a small metal plaque that was once attached to a firearm that was found in the desert and is possibly the remains of the lost Leichhardt expedition. This is a forensic area with lots of possibilities for collaboration across the fields. There is a very fine paper by Kitty Hauser in the Journal of Material Cultureentitled ‘A garment in the dock: how the FBI illuminated the prehistory of a pair of denim jeans’, which looks at the individual wear patterns encoded in a pair of jeans — in this case used in a bank robbery.
Then there is re-purposing — artefacts that are really made for one purpose but are widely used for another purpose and the traces of use bear witness to this. For example, seed grinding dishes were used to sharpen stone axes and the four-inch builder’s trowel has become the iconic tool of archaeologists.
Moving beyond the physical analysis of objects, we can also look at the social worlds in which objects circulate. There is an obvious role here in display and prestige which we see in colonial uniforms and the decoration on them.
There are also the changing values. Some objects record rather marked changes in values. I am thinking here of what Alan Atkinson points out as having been ‘deep shifts in an ocean of feeling’. For instance, maybe the position of animals in society or our attitude towards them or changing views on whether we are a set of colonies or a nation.
Looking at the global circulation of goods, not just the move of items from ethnographic context into metropolitan museums and all the transactions that are involved in that but also the way in which, for instance, blue on white transferware from British manufacturing centres arrives in the Orkney Islands, on the Namib coast and at Port Essington in northern Australia all more or less at the same time and within a few years of its manufacture, saying something about the isolation or not of this military garrison in northern Australia.
Assemblages of objects can also say something about identity such as the extent of social and economic differentiation. They can express race, gender, marital status, ethnicity or class, and historical archaeologists have played around quite a lot with this. There has been a very interesting project done by Peter Menzel for the United Nations Population Fund, which was an attempt to capture through photographs and statistics the great differences in material goods and circumstances between rich and poor societies.
Turning to interactions, moving beyond the worlds in which objects circulate, we can also look at social worlds that are partly constructed by objects. Encounter and exchange is one area. Some objects nicely record cross-cultural exchange. There are wonderful examples in Philip Jones’s book Ochre and Rust. Another example is the Herero long dress worn by married Herero women in Namibia. It is modelled on the Victorian dresses worn by the wives of German missionaries in the 1850s. Its five petticoats that are worn with it create a swaying walk, a pregnant appearance and the headdress mimics cattle horns. These are all references to the importance of cattle in Herero society. But the adoption by the Herero of this Victorian mode of dress was also a way of somehow capturing the power of the German colonial authorities. It’s a very interesting material statement of a colonial encounter and exchange.
Objects can also say something about new behaviours — people actively co-opt new technology to their own ends. New objects can create new patterns of behaviour and social life. Graeme Davison’s Car Wars: How the Car Won Our Hearts and Conquered Our Cities is a good example. I have sometimes been asked, ‘Do cars create drivers?’ As an editor I would shake my head and say, ‘No, put a red pen through that, this is sophistry.’ But there is an important point here: people respond to the car as more than just a means of transport; it starts to restructure lives.
Then there is collecting, the behaviour that we are involved in here. Schiffer’s last stage as objects leave the systemic context and become buried in archaeological sites. There is an analogue here to the way social history objects circulate as consumer items, then as collectibles, before coming to rest in museums — with all the same questions of what survives, and why — and of the role of museums in actively creating new values for some objects: Is Phar Lap of real historical value or just another dead racehorse? Have museums manufactured an icon or perhaps a religious relic here? There is plenty of scope for museums to examine their own role in the social life of things and the regimes of value that surround objects.
To sum up, I think there is a very rich field here for historians and museum historians in particular to plumb. Books by Jones, Davison and other historians show some of the possibilities. But not all objects will have equal potential to provide fresh history independent of written sources or oral history.
In the 1980s, historical archaeologists in Australia worried about whether historical archaeology was simply an adjunct to the documentary record, to written sources, with a role limited to testing and verifying aspects of that documentary record; or whether the archaeology records aspects of historical experience not contained in the documentary records. Sometimes the documentary records might reflect a public ideology but the practice on the ground may be entirely different. That is where material culture can tell you what actually happened.
Just to finish off, Daniel Miller subtitled his Material Cultures book Why Some Things Matter. The question for us as museum historians is really which things matter. Can we identify what sort of objects will reward this sort of analysis? What sorts of objects are likely to be rich sources of new historical information in their own right and which are not? Thank you.
PETER STANLEY: Can I pay tribute to what I see as Mike’s synoptic grasp. It seems to me that he is an archaeologist that ranges from the Pleistocene to the present, and we are beneficiaries of that.
The next speaker, Guy Hansen, is a senior curator in the collections development unit here at the National Museum. He has worked as a history curator for over 17 years and has worked on a large number of collecting and exhibition projects. These include the Museum’s series of political cartooning exhibitions Behind the Lines, the fabulous Captivating and Curious exhibition, and most recently the outstandingly successful League of Legends: 100 Years of Rugby League exhibition. Not surprisingly then, Guy will give a curator’s view.
A curator’s view — Guy Hansen (National Museum of Australia)
GUY HANSEN: Thank you very much. Today I have been invited to respond to the question of how we can use material culture to inform our understanding of the past. That is, how can we use objects as evidence in constructing historical narratives. In reflecting on this question I was reminded of sitting in a seminar room in the tower block of the University of Technology, Sydney some 20 years ago in a postgraduate public history course discussing the failings of historians. All too often, the criticism went ‘historians come to objects and images after they have completed their work’. Rather than seeing material culture as evidence, objects are reduced to providing a nice illustration to complement an already completed text.
Gaynor Kavanagh’s article ‘Objects as evidence’ published in 1989 neatly summarised this ambivalent relationship that historians have to using objects as evidence. As she described it, for many historians and curators, ‘Objects have become at very best, as useful as illustration to a storyline drawn from other sources, and at worst a drain on resources and energy.’ At the time that Kavanagh wrote these words, I think there was a strong parallel between the emerging interest in material history and oral history. Both areas were seen as new sources of evidence which could provide an insight into histories otherwise hidden. To briefly rehearse the argument of the time: history as a discipline, because of its reliance on documentary evidence, inevitably privileges political elites. Oral and material sources, in contrast, offer the chance to reveal new histories of social groups previously ignored. Material culture, as such, was seen as another important part in the larger historical project of ‘history from below’ or social history.
So have things changed in the last 20 years? Has the early enthusiasm of social historians for exploring new sources of evidence led to the telling of new object-based histories? For some commentators the answer is no, as we have just heard from Mike. Recently, Mike Smith commented in a review that:
With a few notable exceptions, the objects in social history exhibitions are subordinate to histories dependent on documents or oral records. They tend to be used to illustrate or anchor a theme or narrative. Rarely if ever are objects allowed to shape the historical narrative in novel ways, using the object itself to expose gaps or silences in other records.
Reading Mike’s words, I was forced to reflect on whether things have changed so little in the last two decades. I am happy to say I am not quite as pessimistic about the failure of history curators to use objects as evidence.
I want to argue today that there are an increasing number of object-centred histories and history exhibitions being produced in Australia. I also want to argue that there are good reasons why objects can be problematic as a source of evidence and that in order to utilise them as a primary source you need to proceed with caution. Finally, I would like to talk about the symbolic power of objects and how this impacts on their use as evidence. To bring the paper to a close I will look at the example of the Winfield Cup, an object I used recently in the League of Legends exhibition.
Firstly, let me turn briefly to the use of material culture as evidence in Australian history. While not a large literature, there have been a number of major works which have utilised material culture in constructing a narrative about the past. Perhaps one of the best and most influential is Ken Inglis’s Sacred Places: War Memorials in the Australian Landscape. This work, with its detailed survey of Australian war memorials, works its way from the material reality of many monuments scattered across the Australian landscape to the larger themes of the Anzac tradition and Australia’s memory of war.
Graeme Davison’s Car Wars, already mentioned, explores the development of post-World War II Australia through the windscreen of the family car. As Graham says in the opening lines of his book, ‘The history of our times is written not only in words, but things.’ Another recent book which is strongly object centred is Elizabeth Kwan’s Flag and Nation, which makes extensive use of ephemera, objects and illustrations as evidence in compiling her definitive history of the Australian flag. The most recent example which demonstrates how objects can be used as a focal point for exploring the past is Philip Jones’s Ochre and Rust. Mike Smith has already touched on that in his paper.
In addition to what might be thought of as object-centred histories, there has also been increasing interest in the history of collections and collectors. Tom Griffiths’ Hunters and Collectors: The Antiquarian Imagination in Australia published in 1996 is the classic example of this work in the Australian context, and more recently Libby Robin has explored the history of national collections in her book How a Continent Created a Nation.
Turning now to the history of curatorship, I think there has been an even greater acceptance of material culture as an inspiration for historical narratives. This has been expressed in numerous exhibitions dealing with working life and popular culture. In the major history museums around the country there has been a definite trend towards telling histories using material culture. The Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, an early innovator in this area, has produced a number of major exhibitions over the last 20 years using objects as their primary source material for constructing historical narratives. One of my personal favourites is an exhibition entitled Refreshing!: Art off the Pub Wall, which was done in the late 1980s, which focused on the glass paintings which were very much part of the Sydney pub scene in the 1950s and 1960s. Curator Charles Pickett explored the history of this unique art form, working out from the paintings to provide a broader social history of Sydney pubs. Other topics covered by the Powerhouse have included the history of car culture, suburbia and Australian popular music, all using objects to a large extent as the source for their historical narrative.
Drawing from the National Museum of Australia’s recent list of exhibitions, I would cite the Captivating and Curious exhibition, which explored the history of the Museum’s collections. Objects were displayed in terms of how they were collected, with background information provided about the original collectors. In the Museum’s permanent galleries there have been a number of areas where material culture is the centre of storytelling. In the Eternity gallery objects are combined with other primary source material to explore people’s individual stories, and in the Nation gallery objects are interrogated for their symbolic meaning, again moving out from the object to broader historical themes. More recently, the Papunya Painting exhibition explored the history of western desert art by focusing on the meaning of individual pieces. The labels for each artwork provided a matrix of information including artist details, symbolism employed and stories of country.
I mention these exhibitions and books to demonstrate that there has been a growing engagement in the use of material culture in constructing histories. The last 20 years has seen a large volume of work also emerge from the heritage industry and the history of the built environment, which also turns to the material world to make arguments about the past. These streams of work suggest to me that there has been a significant change in the attitude of the history profession to material culture in the last 20 years.
While there have been many examples of object-centred exhibitions, it is also true to say that many others continue in the older didactic tradition where the object selection is subordinate to a larger narrative. For my part, I would have to say it is not necessarily a bad thing. It is not unusual for curators to move from an established storyline to searching for objects. Indeed, in many cases it is almost inevitable that you work in this way. The important thing in this context is that objects are selected because they are relative to the narrative being produced.
Let me illustrate this point with a counter example. A common trap for curators is to select objects because they have an association with a famous historical personality. This association may have nothing to do with the historical theme being explored. For example, in the National Museum’s collection there is Captain Cook’s teacup. This object provides an insight into Cook’s domestic setting and helps to humanise him. It also is an object that reflects the conspicuous consumption of tea in the eighteenth century and the growth of porcelain as a mass-produced item. The object does not, however, assist in understanding Cook’s achievements as a navigator. The temptation is always there to display material which is linked to a famous individual. Using objects in constructing an historical narrative should first pass the test of whether these objects are relevant to the story being told. An object’s association with a famous personage, while significantly increasing its value at auction, does not necessarily increase its significance as a source of evidence.
Returning then to the question of: why aren’t there more object-centred exhibitions? To answer this, I think it is worth pausing to consider some of the problems of using material culture as evidence. First and foremost is the issue of the loss of contextual information about collections. For example, many of the anatomical collections of the National Museum of Australia were acquired by Colin MacKenzie, the head of the Institute of Anatomy. He acquired them as part of a larger research project on comparative anatomy. MacKenzie did not keep detailed records showing the sub-species, dissector and location or origin of each specimen. Rather, the specimens were labelled with a brief description of the organ preserved and the common name of the animal. MacKenzie’s focus on the anatomical attributes of his specimens reduced their significance from a zoological perspective. The individual provenance of many specimens was lost.
MacKenzie’s approach to collecting demonstrates how the circumstances surrounding the creation of a collection impacts on its potential use as evidence. Decorative art, natural science and technology museums all collect material with particular uses in mind. These various collecting paradigms impose a filter on the information recorded at the time of acquisition. The potential use of these collections as evidence is, in part, a function of these filters. If the individual provenance of an object is lost because the collector was only interested in the form and type of an object, a severe limit is placed on its evidentiary power.
The constraints of how a collection was collected can, in some circumstances and with considerable work, be overcome. With painstaking research it is sometimes possible to recover the provenance of an object. Sometimes this is assisted through a forensic examination of the object, as in the case of the Leichhardt plate, but more often than not relies on documentary research. As one of my colleagues recently described it, it is akin to a process of triangulation whereby, in order to make an authoritative statement about the object, you need to corroborate or contextualise the object in relation to other sources. The meaning of the object is established through a matrix of information.
Another problem of material culture evidence is the symbolic power of objects. By this I mean, how an object can operate as a symbol separated from its individual provenance? For example, in the area of convict history there is considerable historiographical debate about the harshness of conditions for convicts. Much of the material evidence which survives the convict era reinforces the popular perception of convict servitude as a form of hell on earth. Objects such as a cat-o’-nine-tails, manacles, leg irons and man traps, all of which commonly feature in convict history exhibitions, carry such symbolic weight that it is difficult to give a more nuanced account of convict life. You cannot help but suspect that the visual impact of these objects reinforces the more bloodthirsty narratives of convicts.
I encountered this problem of the symbolic power of objects most recently in preparing the League of Legends exhibition. One of the key objects for this exhibition was the Winfield Cup — the 1980s premiership trophy for the New South Wales Rugby League. For rugby league fans this trophy is instantly recognisable and is the focus of great nostalgia and affection. While the exhibition was on in Canberra, I had the opportunity to observe how visitors responded to this object. One fan summarised the significance of the trophy in an exit interview, ‘I loved the Winfield Cup — the story — trying to mutilate each other then coming off as mates. Like Australian mateship and camaraderie.’ This celebratory reading of the trophy, which I think is the popularly held interpretation of the object, stands in stark contrast to the event which inspired its creation. The trophy is based on the photograph taken in the aftermath of the Western Suburbs and St George grand final played on a rain-sodden Sydney Cricket Ground in 1963 by Herald Sun photographer John O’Gready. It depicts the victorious St George captain Norm Provan briefly embracing the defeated Western Suburbs captain Arthur Summons. Rather than the popularly perceived image of comradeship and respect associated with the image, the moment was one of high tension. Prior to the match, allegations were made that the referee had been bribed to ensure a St George victory. The Western Suburbs players were convinced that they had been the victim of match fixing. Norm Provan recalls that immediately following the end of the game he approached Summons to swap jerseys, a long practised post-match tradition. This explains how Provan appears stripped to the waist, shoulder pads exposed like a gladiator’s armour. Summons, deeply disappointed and harbouring the suspicion that the referee had manipulated the result, refused to part with his own jersey. In Summons’ words: ‘He wanted to swap jumpers and I told him to get stuffed and that St George not only beat us but the referee was paid to do a job on us.’ The incongruity of the transformation of Provan and Summons post-match encounter into a symbol of sportsmanship is not lost on former Western Suburbs players. Noel Kelly, the player who first spoke about the allegations of match fixing, described the evolution of the image as a ‘huge irony’. Nevertheless he considered that it is a great image, ‘which in its moment of shared mateship after a tough game seems to capture just about everything good there is about the game of rugby league’. Kelly’s words neatly summarise how the power of the image overwhelms the specifics of the historical events that surrounded its creation.
For me the Winfield Cup is a good example of how material culture can generate conflicting historical narratives. Inherent within the object can reside a number of contradictory stories. At one level the story of camaraderie and mateship; at another match fixing and corruption. These alternative histories demonstrate the complexity of using material culture as evidence. The type of narrative produced will be a function of the interpretive tools brought to bear. At one level it is valid to say that the Winfield Cup symbolises sporting values widely held by the rugby league community. At another level the Cup, after a process of deconstruction, can tell a much darker story about rugby league.
I must say here that I have concentrated on the symbolic power of the trophy in this discussion of the Winfield Cup. There is much more to be revealed if we explore the significance of the Winfield brand and the importance of tobacco sponsorship in Australian sport. But that is the topic for another paper.
Returning to the question posed at the beginning of my paper: have historians and curators started to seriously engage in material culture as a source of evidence? My answer is yes, though it may not have eventuated in quite the fashion envisaged by social historians in the 1980s. Institutions such as the Powerhouse, the Victorian Museum, the National Museum of Australia and many others have produced many object-centred exhibitions. These have led to new histories exploring topics such as popular culture, working life, leisure and sport largely ignored in some other areas of history discourse. Academic historians have also begun to actively engage in material culture as evidence. Curators and historians alike have discovered, like all sources of evidence, that objects can be misleading. Objects clearly do not speak for themselves. They need the aid of a competent interpreter. Thank you.
PETER STANLEY: Can I say two things in opening it up for questions and debate. The first is that a couple of the people Guy mentioned, Philip Jones and Graeme Davison, are here today so perhaps they might contribute too. Secondly, one of the things that impresses me about the National Museum of Australia is the degree to which its staff engage in debate about the enterprise they are engaged in all the time. It is a very reflective place, and I hope that will be apparent in the discussion that will follow.
QUESTION: Good morning, my name is Sam and I am from the National Portrait Gallery. I wondered whether you could respond to the idea that objects can be misleading without interpretation. Could you speak to the idea that written histories perhaps also create obviously ambiguous and alternative histories through their translation?
GUY HANSEN: Without doubt, and that is what I meant by my closing comments. The status of material culture as evidence applies to other sources of evidence. No evidence is transparent and no evidence can be trusted. I think the core of historical training is scepticism and bringing to bear analytical tools which helps you trying to say qualitatively better statements about the past. You are not necessarily saying the truth but you are most probably saying a better, more nuanced, sophisticated statement about the past. I think material history generates a particular set of problems, but there are problems associated with the interrogation of documents or oral history which are incredibly significant as well.
QUESTION: Paula Hamilton from the University of Technology Sydney. Thank you for a wonderfully instructive paper. I was interested in the point you were making about the circumstances of collecting and how that shapes how an object can be evidence in the future. Would you argue now that that is inevitable?
GUY HANSEN: No, it’s a very good point. What it means is that now we are saying, ‘Isn’t it frustrating that MacKenzie didn’t record more information?’ But of course we are collecting material right now, so the pressure on us now is to try to work out what information are we going to collect, what do we think is significant and try to be upfront about our assumptions. I think we will always fail to record things which the future may be interested in. It is very important for us to be very clear about what our collecting assumptions are, state those and try to collect as much information as possible at the point of acquisition. It most probably is inevitable, but you can do a number of things to try to improve the situation.
QUESTION: Philip Jones from the South Australian Museum. It is interesting — and this is in relation to Mike’s paper as well — hat there is almost an inverse relationship between the discourse on objects and museums and the number of objects in exhibitions; that is, the ratio. If you look back a century ago you can see a certain confidence by museums in particular in the capacity of objects to tell stories for the museum. Is there a relationship between the suspicion and uncertainty that museums and possibly their upper echelons have in the capacity of objects to speak for themselves? An investment in the curatorial voice which tends to weed out the objects, if you like, and as they are weeded out, suddenly there is space for the discourse to emerge.
GUY HANSEN: That’s a really good question. I think the technique of mass display is one which is coming back and is seen. I have seen some examples in the South Australian Museum and also in a number of exhibitions at the National Museum of Australia we have gone back to mass displays. There are some pragmatic reasons why mass displays don’t occur as often, including the conservation and presentation requirements and design requirements being exhausting to do a 1000-object exhibition, whereas if you can do a 50-object exhibition that is a little bit less work. But there is this playing out of people perhaps wanting to over-interpret single items as well as how to present large numbers of items. That is something which I have been thinking about a lot myself and I don’t have the answer for. I think you have picked up on a key interpretive technique type issue which curators have.
QUESTION: Maria Nugent from the National Museum. I was interested that some of your examples have a strong visual element, thinking about the pub images and the Winfield Cup. I am interested in your reflections on the relationship between objects as evidence and objects with images as evidence.
GUY HANSEN: One of the things which happens with curators is the development of what you might call the curatorial eye. Objects which have visual power and presence are going to be the ones you try to use. That is a combination of aesthetics and their underlying symbolism. There are many ubiquitous, mundane objects which are important pieces of historical evidence but don’t get used because they are not particularly attractive. And that does bias your accounts, because obviously you will go for pretty things. That is something which you have to engage in and think about as a curator when you are doing that work.
An historian’s view — Margaret Anderson (History Trust of South Australia)
PETER STANLEY: Can I introduce Margaret Anderson? Margaret is the Director of that unique and wonderful institution, the History Trust of South Australia. She is well known as a teacher in our field, the author of Material Culture and the Cultural Environment: Objects and Places and in a career spanning more than 30 years she’s worked in museums in Western Australia and South Australia and taught history and Australian studies at Monash University. Margaret will offer an historian’s perspective.
MARGARET ANDERSON: Thank you, Peter. Thank you to the National Museum of Australia for organising such an interesting presentation today. I was going to call this paper ‘Getting thingy about Australian history’ and then I changed my mind; I thought that perhaps wasn’t quite the tone I should be setting. We have heard a bit about the fact that advocates of material history often begin with two premises. The first is that historians have traditionally preferred written texts to material culture as historical evidence. So when Stephen Lubar and David Kingery began their edited volume History from Things, they began with the observation: ‘We are surrounded by things, and we are surrounded by history. But too seldom do we use the artefacts that make up our environment to understand the past.’ The second premise is more an assertion — that studying history through objects suggests new insights and provokes new questions that ‘mere documents cannot begin to approach’. Jules David Prown argued that objects considered in this context ‘reflect, consciously or unconsciously, directly or indirectly, the beliefs of the individuals who commissioned, fabricated, purchased or used them and, by extension, the beliefs of the larger society to which these individuals belonged’.
This is an ambitious claim, particularly I would suggest when considered in the context of industrial capitalism. But it is fair to say that enthusiasts for material culture studies can tend towards the evangelical on occasion. Of necessity perhaps, because there is no doubt that the study of what that doyen of American material culture Thomas Schlereth has called the ‘totality of objects in a culture’ is a daunting task indeed.
Perhaps the sheer scale of the undertaking is one reason why historians drawing literally, on a lifetime of research, have offered to my mind some of the most compelling reflections on material life. I am thinking here of people like Marc Bloc, Fernand Braudel or Emmanuel Ladurie in France; Asa Briggs and Michael Thompson in Britain; James Deetz, Henry Glassie, John Demos and Thomas Schlereth in America; or Geoffrey Blainey, Rhys Isaac and Graeme Davison in Australia. Not all of these historians have been considered, or would consider themselves, ‘material culturists’, a term coined only partly seriously, I think, by Schlereth. Indeed in Victorian Things, published in 1988, Asa Briggs rarely used the term material culture and when he did, it was in inverted commas. You also won’t find the term in his index, but that was his focus nevertheless. I was reminded once again, while reading for this paper, of the incredible scholarship he brought to bear on that study of things. If you think this is an outrageous claim for the advantage of age and experience, you’re right.
In Australia, studies that locate themselves explicitly within material culture or material life are relatively thin on the ground, although as we have heard this morning thankfully that may be changing. Some of the earliest work drew directly on museum collections. I am thinking here of Kimberley Webber’s exemplary study of sewing machines in nineteenth century colonial Australia, Ann Delroy’s work on gas stoves in Western Australia [‘The Introduction of the Domestic Gas Stove in Metropolitan Perth 1900-1950’, honours thesis, 1985], and Ann Stephen and Andrew Reeves’ book on trade union banners [Stephen, Ann and Reeves, Andrew, Badges of Labour, Banners of Pride: Aspects of Working class Celebration, 1985]. Later work at the Powerhouse, which we have heard a little bit about this morning, extended beyond the collections to aspects of material life. Judith O’Callaghan’s catalogue and exhibition on Australian design in the 1950s [Australian Dream: The Design of the Fifties, 1993] and Charles Pickett’s study of fibro housing [The Fibro Frontier: A Different History of Australian Architecture, 1997] are two examples.
When I was at the Western Australian Museum I managed one collaborative research project on national allegory and iconography but I never got around to the book that the topic deserves. Other museums, including the museums of the History Trust, have found it difficult to sustain a commitment to long-term research projects alongside the relentless grind of exhibition production, although the research undertaken for some of those projects has real potential. I am thinking of one of the exhibitions at the Migration Museum Strictly Black and one of the long-term projects they have under way at present called Preserving Cultures, which looks at food ways and the creation of identity in immigrant communities.
One of the main problems for historians wishing to work with museum collections is the random nature of most of those collections. Historical collections have grown in a haphazard way, many in the shadow of natural history or the history of technology, and they don’t always lend themselves easily to answering the more expansive questions about change in society that historians want to ask. Even questions framed with objects in mind — research into aspects of material life, for example —- have generally sought much of their evidence in sources other than the things themselves. The sheer volume of material goods acquired and consumed in the past 200 years is part of that issue. And then, perhaps it is because I am an historian, that I will always consider the ideas surrounding things as important as the things themselves.
But notwithstanding those reservations about museum collections, I would like to return to those initial questions about material culture as historical evidence, and consider some of the recent work published in Australia in the light of two questions: firstly, whether it identifies new research questions that have the potential to change the way we think about past societies; and, secondly, whether the material evidence cited in these studies can support the weight of interpretation placed upon it.
One of the most interesting research projects in recent years is the extended, multi-disciplinary enquiry into the history of inner-city Melbourne’s ‘Little Lon’, that densely settled area around Little Lonsdale Street that is now almost completely given over to high-rise office blocks, but that once housed dozens of poor workers and their families. Both separately and in various combinations, Alan Mayne, Tim Murray and Susan Lawrence have reflected on their approach to this project, which essentially combined the research strengths of historical archaeology and documentary history analysis to bring what they called an ‘integrated analytical framework’ to bear on an ‘urban society and its embedded material culture’. Mayne also had a particular interest in interrogating past and present designations of the area as a slum. The trio introduced their article in Australian Historical Studies in April 2000 in these terms:
This paper integrates history and archaeology in order to reclaim the actualities of one city neighbourhood — Melbourne’s ‘Little Lon’ — from the distorting realities fashioned by outside perceptions.
But when it came to the material evidence, there was very little to go on. Indeed the authors warned quite sternly against assuming any ‘ready-made bridge of consciousness between past and present inherent in an object. We delude ourselves’, they argued, ‘if we pretend that the past is still there, hidden, preserved in things, awaiting our rediscovery’. And yet perhaps the desire to draw some conclusion from all that digging, sorting, classifying and describing triumphed in the end. In a former cesspit the team came upon a veritable treasure trove of ceramic and glass shards, and a number of Staffordshire figurines. They suggested:
These tracings from a poor household with their overtones of domesticity fly in the face of slum stereotypes. Collaboration between archaeologists and historians can thus contradict the universalising axioms of slum myths.
But these slum myths must be fragile indeed if a few pottery figurines and some broken crockery can overturn them. Were slum dwellers really so completely devoid of all domesticity that they couldn’t even own a few cheap knick-knacks? In fact, we suspect from English sources that the poor were quite fond of pottery figurines, even when they appeared to outsiders to lack basic necessities. Indeed, the Staffordshire potteries turned such things out in their millions for what had become, by the mid-nineteenth century, a truly mass market.
Obviously I am not suggesting here that we should dismiss all, or even most, of the findings of this most important project, but I do question the adequacy of the material evidence cited in this particular instance. Part of the problem stems from the partial nature of the evidence concerned, and I had similar reservations about some of the conclusions that Mark Staniforth drew from his analysis of shipwreck material, in his recent study of consumption patterns in early colonial Australia. The difficulty with the material in both cases is that only the imperishable items survive for analysis, and in the case of Little Lon they are, apart from the figurines, almost universally items associated with food and drink consumption. The very things, in other words, that everyone had to own. It may be significant that there was little apparent variation in the material traces to match the grades of housing, but we cannot know what other things these people owned. And crockery was by this time very cheap.
The distinctions within Little Lon, if they existed, and we can be almost certain that they did, may well have resided in other possessions — furniture, clothing, even bedding — or in other aspects entirely, such as in regular employment, literacy or sobriety. In musing on this paper I was reminded of the subtle grades in early twentieth century Salford society, recalled so vividly in Robert Roberts’ 1971 memoir, The Classic Slum. Here caste could turn on a polished front step, curtains at the window or a daughter’s unwed pregnancy, but there was definite currency in bric-a-brac - ‘the more the better’, Roberts wrote. We need to understand much more about what poverty meant in material terms in Australia, and looking elsewhere may help us to ask multiple questions of the meagre material we have to work with.
In thinking about Little Lon, I was also reminded of Carole Shammas’ fascinating study of the consuming society of early-modern England and America, which warned specifically against assuming a linear progression of consumption in the past. She argued:
Being poor and being a consumer, it turns out, were not mutually exclusive. Paradoxically, the individual who drank tea in a teacup, wore a printed cotton gown, or put linen on the bed, could be the same person who ingested too few calories to work all day and lived in a one-room house.
It may seem odd that I am citing a study of early modern England in a conversation about material life in nineteenth century Australia, but I think that some of the points Shammas makes have resonance for Little Lon. I also think that students of material culture need to read across regions and across time, perhaps more than in other fields of inquiry. It is not that I am suggesting there is some sort of universal human response to material goods that is independent of its cultural context — far from it. It is just that in seeking out the ‘small things forgotten’, as James Deetz put it, we need all the insights we can get.
I was going to talk a little bit about one of the objects that Philip Jones talks about in Ochre and Rust but I realise I don’t have time to do that so perhaps it is best to try to explore that in conversations during the day, particularly as Philip is here. The object that I was going to discuss was Master Blackburn’s whip. I would be more than happy to do that in questions or in conversation with Philip later on.
By now you have probably decided that, despite all my years in museums, I am a closet old school historian, who prefers documents to things. Not at all. I have argued quite as passionately as any that historians should take objects seriously and that material life is a worthy field of inquiry. But, and it’s a big but, we need to subject the artefacts to the same kinds of scrutiny we apply to documents or pictures or photographs before we use them as evidence. The mere fact of their existence is not sufficient. We need to understand what I might call the curatorial context — perhaps connoisseurship is a better term. If, for argument’s sake, we want to use costume, ceramics or furniture to support an argument about status symbols or respectability within a particular cultural context, we need some special knowledge of the material we are dealing with. And sometimes that can be a big ask. It takes a long time to acquire specialist knowledge, and historians in museums manage a bewildering array of objects.
But this detailed knowledge can occasionally suggest that we ask alternative questions, provoking multiple readings. I only know Jane Elliott’s work from an interesting article she published in Australian Historical Studies in 1995. The title is intriguing enough, posed as a question: ‘Was there a Convict Dandy?’ Subtitle, of course: ‘Convict consumer interests in Sydney, 1788-1815’. The substance of the argument, for those of you who haven’t read it, is that the people of Sydney, convict and ex-convict, male and female, were enthusiastic consumers and were notably fond of dress. Unlike their counterparts in England, they purchased clothing often and purchased new clothing moreover, rather than second-hand. This fine dress allowed them to look the part of their betters, even if they couldn’t mix with them. It’s a beguiling argument and Elliott paints a vivid picture of avid consumers of haberdashery.
But I find myself wondering if she had considered two other possible explanations, admittedly much more prosaic, for this apparently high level of clothing consumption — Sydney’s climate and the fact that clothing at this time didn’t necessarily wash very successfully. Dies in the pretty printed materials often ran in the wash, and fabrics were not always pre-shrunk. One of the most common requests from newly arrived settlers in letters home, even much later in the century, was for clothing and material that would wash successfully. I will leave it to your imagination to think about the state of clothing worn for extended periods through a Sydney summer. I know that standards of hygiene were different in the early nineteenth century, but I expect there were limits even then.
Then there is the question of status and display. Sydney’s ex-convicts may well have been pleased with their splendid new clothing, but such pretensions were cruelly ridiculed elsewhere. Victoria’s goldfields saw many newly wealthy diggers descending on Melbourne to deck themselves out like ladies and gentlemen. Cartoonists lampooned them mercilessly.
To close, I questioned at the beginning whether artefacts could sometimes suggest interesting, even contradictory readings, of ideas and events. Let me pose one question from my own work as an historian and a curator, although I confess that I don’t have an answer. One of the conundrums that has struck me over the years is the dissonance between women’s increasing independence in the closing decades of the nineteenth century and the styles of clothing they wore. Far from matching women’s freedom, women’s clothing became increasingly restrictive. Bodies, which were relatively lightly clothed in the early century, were increasingly bound and confined. Corsets became longer and more heavily boned. Indeed steel increasingly replaced whale bone in corsets. But from the 1870s, ironically just as women began to enter education and the professions, their skirts drew more tightly around their bodies and bodices began to be boned as well so that they were doubly encased. By the time women began to be enfranchised, even their collars were boned. And feminists were just as confined as other women. Only a tiny lunatic fringe ever adopted the so-called ‘rational dress’. Here is a photograph of Rose Scott and the Women’s Political and Educational League in 1903. All are dressed in the prevailing fashion of the time. I have never found a satisfactory explanation for the complex forces at work here, although I suspect that psychologists would have a field day with it. Perhaps for now I should merely repeat Carol Shammas’ caution against the alluring fictions of linearity. Thank you.
QUESTION: Thank you, Margaret, for a wonderful paper, and not just because you had such kind things to say about the benefits of age and experience. I wanted to pick up a word in your last sentence which was the word ‘linearity’. It does seem to me that, in much of the discussion we have about how objects inform the past, there remains a kind of assumption that in the last resort we have to feed objects back into arguments which assume the traditional forms of the journal article or the linear narrative. Yet we are living through a period when it seems to me narrative itself is now so problematised in all sorts of ways that we historians who still operate in that context often find ourselves looking for ways of expressing ourselves that are quite different, and in some ways are better models on the hypertext, on the web and on the kind of random walk of the museum than they are on traditional forms of expression.
That is why I suppose when Guy Hansen in his presentation asked the question: how can objects inform the writing of narrative? I am inclined to question or at least to pause and ask whether or not we don’t need to ask the question, as you did in a slightly broader way: how do objects inform our understandings of the past? Because I think that may well lead us into thinking about different forms of expression as well as into the most imaginative ways in which we can draw upon not just objects but everything around us that helps us to understand the past. Sorry, that is a comment rather than a question, but would you like to respond to that?
MARGARET ANDERSON: It’s a very nice comment. One of the things that museums can do is to try to facilitate that sort of dialogue or narrative. It seems to me that with Web 2, which I am only beginning to understand and I have very limited technical expertise with, there is a great deal of activity that goes on in the web combining all sorts of material from all sorts of areas including pictures. The users of our museums put material out there which we have absolutely no knowledge of and no control over — and probably shouldn’t seek either. So people can curate their own exhibitions, if you like, online and post them up. Maybe this is one of the ways in which we can put some of this information — what can we call it? — up there and just allow people to explore the ideas that it suggests to them and to bring different insights to bear on it. I think that is particularly important.
QUESTION: Richard Gillespie from Museum Victoria. Thank you for your paper, Margaret. I think you are right to inject a note of caution — in discussing Little Lon [Little Lonsdale Street] — in the notion that you can just reconstruct the centre of a community out of the material culture of the domestic items left behind. That is something that we at Melbourne Museum, in doing the exhibition that has the recreation of Little Lon, are very conscious of. It is something that Tim Murray and Alan Mayne as historians and archaeologists who have worked on that site have been very aware of as well. The sorts of other sources that have been integrated as well as the material culture have been the rate books; the day book of Sister Esther, the missionary sister to the lanes and alleyways; and oral histories that have been done of people who were children there in the early twentieth century looking back. There is a number of ways in which that history of Little Lon has been reconstructed other than just the material culture.
While you were talking, I was thinking that partly what we are doing is historicising that material culture, but the other thing we are doing for people is to try to materialise history. It is about finding other forms of historical practice other than text-based forms that are about reconstructing things and allowing people to kind of put their bodies in and imagine that space — in a highly constructed way, granted, but nevertheless what can be a very powerful form of communication for people. I wonder if sometimes our discussion gets caught up in using academic history as the benchmark by which we judge things, and I have been guilty of making that same comment and making those assumptions myself. What we need to do is to look at a variety of historical practices and to measure what we do in terms of the kinds of audiences that we are trying to reach with that particular historical practice.
MARGARET ANDERSON: Sure, there are a lot of points, Richard, which I will address extremely briefly. In the first place they certainly did use lots of different interpretations and different methods. It is just in that particular instance I think they were overwhelmed by the opportunity presented by material, without necessarily going into the history of that material in as much detail as they might have. Now I don’t know whether that is the case or not, but it certainly seemed that way to me. The reconstruction in the Melbourne Museum I think is fabulous and you do make those points, as do they. My caution though is that sometimes we can be overwhelmed by the desire to make something of material that won’t necessarily bear the interpretation. When we put an argument out there in an academic paper, as this was, then it is quite legitimate to subject it to academic analysis. The museum perhaps can do different things.
PETER STANLEY: Thank you, Margaret.
An anthropologist’s view — Fred Myers (New York University)
PETER STANLEY: It is my great pleasure to introduce Fred Myers who is probably responsible for attracting a good many of you here today. Fred is Silver Professor and chair of anthropology at New York University. Mike has already mentioned Fred’s book The Empire of Things. He is also the author of Painting Culture: The Making of an Aboriginal High Art. That goes back to Fred’s work with the Pintupi-speaking people [of central Australia] in 1973. He is interested in the new formations in the production and circulation of art and culture and is a very welcome visitor today. Fred has come from so far away that we have given him a few minutes extra, which will still give us five minutes at the end of his paper and 10 minutes at the end of the session. There will be great opportunity to interrogate Fred about the ideas he will present. We welcome him to the podium.
FRED MYERS: It is almost exactly 35 years since I first came to Canberra to begin research in Australia, and Canberra has been a kind of second home to me. I am very happy to be here. It is a pleasure.
When I was invited to speak at this symposium I was curating a small exhibition of the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection at the University of Virginia. I thought some of the paintings we selected for the show — works from Papunya Tula artists — would provide interesting examples of material sources of objects as sources for interpretation at least as a starting point.
Partially what I want to do is talk in a broad perspective a little bit about clashing perspectives in authority. The first painting in this exhibition I was dealing with was typically entitled in the collector’s files as ‘Old man dreaming at Yumari’ in 1973. It has been reproduced under that title and attribution since 1988 in the Asia Society Dreamings catalogue and later sold to the current owner with that attribution. A couple of years ago, however, it was published in Bardon and Bardon’s Papunya: A Place Made after the Story, a big compilation of Geoffrey Bardon’s drawings, photographs and notes from the years when he advised Papunya Tula during its beginning. The painting, on an even piece of hard surface unevenly cut — the surface material already suggests a date for the painting — was attributed by Bardon to Shorty Lungkarta [Tjungurrayi] and said to be entitled ‘Spirit travelling dreaming’. The notes accompanying the image in this book, however, do not appear to be from Bardon’s original drawings at the time of his original notebooks but produced at some later time.
We know a bit about the subsequent history of this painting. In the Dreamings catalogue the painting is listed as having come from a private collection, and we also know that it was exhibited in a solo exhibition at the Seaview Winery in South Australia in 1973. We do not know where or when exactly it acquired its current identification. Without deciding definitively, although I do have a view, let me just note that the painting seems to bear some resonance with a later painting of the ‘Old Man Dreaming at Yumari’ — which I know is that since I collected it myself — documented in 1979. The reasons that we think it has some similarity is this slightly tilted cross dimension which seems to be reproduced in both of those. It has been very difficult to source the information very clearly, but I think that the absence of a drawing from the initial period suggests that Bardon in producing this was relying on his memory and not any actual strong documentation.
The other immediate puzzle was in a painting entitled ‘Grasshopper Dreaming’ painted by Uta Uta Tjangala in 1972. I have modified the image with those black semicircles in the interests of respecting concerns about revelation. I never heard any mythological story identified in this way although I spent a lot of time with the painter, and it seemed to me this was a mishearing although reproduced in a materially impressive book. In this painting, Bardon recorded the story as the grasshopper:
… travelling and looking for grass seeds, the travelling indicated by the series of straight lines with dot clusters and by the tracks made by the insect. The ceremonial men of the painting are inside their whirlies [branch shelters], indicated by a short curved line, almost enclosed by a longer curved line. Ceremonial objects, a ground painting and a ceremonial stick are shown, all of which are marked.
The identification of this object with the ‘Grasshopper Dreaming’ is probably an over-specification, identifying the overall story with a part of it, as the painting resembles several examples of Uta Uta’s paintings of Ngurrapalangu, the hill and claypan site, associated with his own conception Dreaming. This is a painting I collected that belongs to the Museum’s collection here, ‘Ngurrapalangu’. In this painting the story by Uta Uta himself is identified with the two women (Minyma Kutjarra) and his ancestral being who was with them —as ‘short legs’ or Tjuntamurtu — and who was frightened by the approach of the dangerous and powerful old man. Tjuntamurtu, frightened by this approach, climbed into a cave, throwing out all the sacred objects inside, some of which became the hill known as Wintalynga that lies behind a series of claypans. The hill is this long oblong object. In these claypans the seed mungilpa grows abundantly after rains. The circles that depict the claypans also depict the seed cakes made from mungilpa, and the grasshoppers are no doubt attracted to this food source. The painting therefore would be an early version of a story represented in several other images over the years and interestingly comparable.
The amassing of an archive, either of images or of objects, allows us then to explore the developments and choices of a painter, and in turn to understand better and evaluate particular paintings such as this one. In the absence of an archive or collection, we have very limited understanding of what these painters have done however much we might know from our own fieldwork.
These examples give some sense of the puzzle presented by the early Papunya paintings, the nearly 1000 extraordinary paintings executed in the first year or so, 1971-72, a period at Papunya about which we have sometimes spotty and uneven knowledge. Here lies the intrigue of the archive and the collection for those trying to understand the intentions, ideas and specificities behind the images of what these Indigenous men were doing in putting marks on the newly introduced two-dimensional surface.
There can be a question of authorship, for example, as there was in the first painting. The information and qualities of the image itself may raise issues of their historical provenance, who documented them, the credibility of the documentation and the documenter, him or herself, as part of the history of the objects, illuminating the relationships in which objects are embedded and circulated. I don’t have in this case an interest simply in specifying the image itself but also understanding the network of relationships in which this information is produced, wrongly or rightly, as part of the broad phenomenon that is this art form.
For Papunya Tula, these examples — and there are many like this — show the kinds of knowledge those who documented had, or even the struggles or conflicts between Geoff Bardon, the first art adviser, and Pat Hogan, the sympathetic gallerist [art dealer] in Alice Springs and sometimes adviser and staunch competitor with Geoff Bardon for authority over the paintings. But for other paintings we might be interested, if we want to know about the making of Aboriginal high art through its uptake into cosmopolitan art worlds, in what particular exhibitions particular paintings were exhibited. How did ‘Grasshopper Dreaming’ or ‘Old Man’ find its way into the market? Was this one of the exhibitions that Bob Edwards, director of the Aboriginal Arts Board of the Australia Council, organised? Was it tied to someone else’s connections to a winery? These are vital questions in understanding a multi-sited story of the development of Indigenous painting in Australia.
In terms of broader anthropological theorising, these dimensions of an object’s biography and materiality are especially interesting, as anthropology’s interest in the object has expanded from understanding and documenting its place in a local system to engaging with the fuller biography, the fuller context, of a situation in which objects are also embedded in intercultural processes of circulation, curiosity, nostalgia and imagined new relationships. These are part of what anthropologists would now regard as the materiality of objects: how they got where they are, what relationships they mark out. The process of collecting itself is of great interest to anthropologists. I am very happy to note that Philip Jones is here, because I think he has written one of the great papers about this on the collection of Churingas in the late nineteenth century. Anthropologists see the objects of a collection not just as illustrative or representative of a culture — which had historically been the framework in which anthropologists engaged with objects, not as static and freestanding — but as historic moments, indicating the interest in objects at a particular time, the connections between cultures, and the processes of their selection.
Most of you are probably not anthropologists, so I want to make a brief mention of the history of anthropology and objects. Principally anthropology was born in museums in the nineteenth century which were object centred. Most of the work of exhibition around these objects was about producing knowledge, narratives and stories in which people in the west, who were the collectors of these objects, could understand themselves and their relationships to these new formations. The principal exhibitionary frameworks involved unilineal evolution from primitive to civilised, which became fundamentally the subject of anthropology’s own critique. That is, nineteenth century anthropology was the object of criticism of the twentieth century anthropology based more in fieldwork. But along with that criticism and with the anthropological movement to fieldwork, especially with social anthropology, came a considerable neglect of objects altogether in favour of people’s stories of what they could say and not anything like the same kind of attention. Nonetheless, exhibitions obviously continued.
I am now going to shift very much forward. We know that the 1970s were a period in which frameworks of critique like primitivism and orientalism rose to the surface in relation to a number of important exhibitions that had their roots in broad changes. What happened in anthropology in relationship to these is that by the early 1980s there is a series of very interesting works about collections and about how they got to where they got to. Douglas Cole’s book Captured Heritage: The Scramble for Northwest Coast Artifacts (1985) on northwest coast artefacts is a very good example of the kind of insane competition for collection that people like Franz Boas, the father figure of American anthropology, was engaged in — a desire for objects so great that Boas was sneaking out at night and digging up graves and sending objects back.
But what happened in anthropology in response to the critiques was that attention turned to the history of collecting itself, to the very broad framework in which objects were based. That is to say, anthropology’s own history and complicity became the subject for anthropological study itself in which objects were themselves the basis of re-analysing these histories. It is the very materiality of these objects that has made it possible for these kinds of histories and analyses to be made. In saying this I want to draw attention to the fundamental property that students of material culture have in one way or other emphasised that make this possible. What Nick Thomas called the ‘promiscuity’ of objects, their capacity to be re-analysed, to be wedded to many different kinds of stories and to have many different kinds marriages. But what Webb Keane has more recently called, drawing on the philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce, ‘the bundling of properties in objects’. That is, as Levi-Strauss noted in ‘The Science of the Concrete’, any object has more sensible properties to it, more histories, more relationships embedded in it than are ever drawn upon in any single symbiotic process in any installation, in any exhibition or even in any collector’s self-conscious collection to what they are seeing and recording about those objects. That has made these kinds of histories possible as people turn back to the archives.
When anthropology which moved into field work, it eschewed the museum. Ironically, anthropologists now find the museum and its objects and collections a principal object of analysis. It is one of the fundamental changes in anthropology that we see our own knowledge production processes, our own engagements with these objects, as part of what we need to understand itself. A number of brilliant exhibitions and books have been written. I feel I should mention them in addition to Philip’s book.
In the US a very significant exhibition that I want to mention was one curated by Diane Fane, Ira Jacknis and Lise Bren at the Brooklyn Museum called ‘Objects of myth and memory’ in which they reconsidered their collection around Stewart Culin’s collection of American Indian material from the southwest.
Second, Sally McLendon recently curated a brilliant exhibition of Pomo baskets at the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI). Pomo Indians are Indigenous people from California in the Mendocino [County] and Sonoma [Valley] areas. These baskets are considered the high art form of textile work in North America. But by the 1840s they were already enmeshed in a market that extended to New York in which particular basket makers were known by name and sought out for their production. In this exhibition the re-historicising of these collecting practices has made it very clear that, far from being what critics have long said about these kinds of processes of collecting, far from it being theft or appropriation, the trade in these baskets allowed many Pomo to return to the areas where they had been born but from which they had been dispersed and to use the proceeds to buy land, which they turned into the basis for their continued life as an Indian nation. It is a very compelling and interesting story about the way in which material culture, attention to other people’s objects, enables us to enter back into the life world of the people themselves.
Also here at the National Museum of Australia, you may not remember but Luke Taylor curated a brilliant exhibition at the Yarramundi Visitors Centre called More Than Meets the Eye: Reflections on the Aboriginal Arts and Craft Industry. What is particularly interesting about that exhibition was that Luke saw the necessity of including, along with the beautiful objects that had been collected, the entire panoply of objects which now circulate as part of the Aboriginal arts and crafts world, including T-shirts and a variety of paraphernalia.
What I want to say, and the reason I have cut everything else short, is something which I think probably needs to be said by an anthropologist. I am doing this because just the day I left, the conservative critic in the New York Times reviewed a book on cultural property in which he lambasted, as he was wont to do, the concerns of American Indian tribes about the representation of their works in museums. He particularly criticises the National Museum of the American Indian, as do many so-called connoisseurs of Native American art, because they have not focused on the exhibition of beautiful objects, although they have many and they do show some, but on making the histories of native people visible as part of their own history. That is to say, this is an Indigenously governed and curated museum. It has been an object of opprobrium by the former guardians of the aesthetics of Native American art. The article in the New York Times reads:
The grievous sins of the past are now being repaid with a vengeance and the risks of repatriation and the requirements of tribal consultation have led to promotional, uninformative and self-indulgent themes in exhibitions about American Indians.
This brings me to the other part that I think anthropologists have been struggling with around material objects which is to say: Who says this? Who speaks through the museum? Who speaks in the interpretation of these objects? For many things we speak on behalf of cultures of which we are a part and as members of communities. We know that what is understood or said about objects can change dramatically depending on the subjectivities of the people who engage these objects. One of the great changes not only in museums but also in the dealing with material culture, especially that having to do with Indigenous peoples but with many subaltern peoples, is the recognition of the contested nature and the complexity of what these objects are. I would add to the sensible properties of objects the memories that people have of them and the ideas of ownership, cultural and otherwise, which they may have, which have become laudably in many places now part of the exhibition in consideration of these objects.
I think this flows from what many of the other discussants have said so far today, which is a perspective coming from the social life of things. The focus on the biography of objects really imposes upon us an understanding of the fact that, when things flow from one place to another, when they move from the hands of a maker to a museum, they do not give up all the traces of their previous life. They are carried with them. That is something that objects have that can be traced sometimes.
I want to tell you a very brief story because I think you will recognise this. A couple of years ago a film festival called First Nations/First Features in which Indigenous filmmakers from around the world came to New York and Washington DC, and one of the screening sites was the National Museum of the American Indian. As part of that, some of the native filmmakers from North America were asked if they wanted to see collections from their communities. They went out to the storage areas of the National Museum, which are extensive. When staff opened up the drawers of these things, people broke down in tears when they saw objects which they hadn’t seen in their own communities for a generation. With some of the objects, people recognised them as having been made by relatives of theirs, which have a very different meaning. It is part of the property of those objects which sometimes is recorded and sometimes not, and in some cases could be recognised by people. That is a compelling part of what these objects bring with them that are not given up. It is one of the changes.
So for anthropologists, I think we live in a space somewhere between memory and history in which these objects are often still bearers of the memories of those who have them as well as the histories that they would tell of them. Since my brief was to talk about an anthropologist’s perspective on material objects as sources of inspiration, those of us who have the privilege to be in these spaces in these times to watch something about the movement of these objects, to be in conversation with people who have these other relationships to them, many coming from communities in which literacy was not an important part — this is what remains of people’s lives, communities and relationships, and they are not abrogated by the movement of these objects. It has been a great improvement in the treatment of them that, in many museums, places have been established in which those relationships can be maintained.
I believe, although maybe some of you may correct me, that many curators have found great inspiration in renewing and re-engaging with those relationships. But it is a major problem and not to be ignored that, however much we may aspire to producing truth and finding the most empirically satisfying understanding of the sourcing and histories of these objects, there are many stories that they carry with them that may not even be truth in a literal sense but which are part of what they carry with them, and as objects they seem to be uniquely able to carry a past into a future in this way. As anthropologists, this is something that we have noted. Our neglect of museums has now made us very aware of these as places in which people’s memories can live beyond what we can even manage in our own notebooks and in our own writings. Thank you.
PETER STANLEY: Fred, thank you very much. Can I say how much I appreciate your flexibility in responding to the theme of this gathering and for speaking both so passionately and so reflectively. I hope that you will take further part in the proceedings. The best thing to do is to ask Fred take a seat along with other three speakers and open the discussion up for you to direct questions to all of them. The floor is open for discussion which connects the papers, which I think do have a theme running through them.
QUESTION: Louise Hamby from the Museums and Collections program at the Australian National University. Fred, I might direct this question to you but I will be happy to get a response from any of the others as well. I was quite interested in your phrase about the space between memory and history. I was wondering if you could elaborate a bit more on how you see that relating to anthropologists and perhaps objects that they have specifically collected.
FRED MYERS: Speaking for myself, I am very aware that objects are collected for the museum here, for example, and that these can be exhibited in many ways. They can be shown as a part of the history of the change in styles of Papunya Tula artists. But for me they are connected and they are in my notes to a whole series of other things that were going on at the time. A few years ago at the Papunya Tula: Genesis and Genius show, Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2000, some great paintings were exhibited. Bobby West, whose father was one of the painters that was in the show, walked past all the paintings and walked right over to his father’s painting and he said, ‘I am so proud. That painting was done by my father. I am just so proud to see this painting here and to see some part of him recognised in this way.’ That is the space I am thinking about here. Whatever many things there are in that painting, for some people it is what they have left of what they can see of their parents or even memories of that time, because they recognise something about the way in which things were done.
Histories are often more narratively elaborated, memories are more sporadic, they are personal, and they are in different kinds of dialogues with people’s lives and so on. I know there is a lot of theorising on memory and history and different kinds of things, but I think I would try to keep some kind of clarity of the differences of the kinds of meanings that these objects can have for people from communities or who are related to the people from those that they genuinely have from other perspectives in which we might want to be also working on.
QUESTION: Kirsten Wehner from the National Museum. I wanted to pick up on Graeme’s point a bit earlier about the relationship between objects and narratives. One of the concepts I have been thinking a bit about recently is object biography, which Fred you referred to in the phrase ‘biographies of objects’. One of the things I am interested to think about is when we are writing about objects and, for example, we use a practice such as the idea about biography, which has arisen from writing about human lives and which tend to be heavily narrativised, how well or in what ways that can then be applied or employed to write about objects which, picking up some of the things you said, Fred, and other people as well, the idea in which objects seem to almost explode in their interpretive possibilities. And whether that is not in conflict with a form of writing that is heavily organised around a practice of quite linear narrative. I was interested that you were reflecting on your own experience about writing about objects and whether that has emerged as a kind of conflict or what forms of writing and writing practice you have come to use in thinking about objects?
FRED MYERS: Maybe I shouldn’t have used that word. I think once memory and history got used, I was only left with biography. Some people use biography in a literal sense, especially if they have a very strong sense of object as agentive. In some way they may want to see them as willing a kind of history to them. Really the term came out of Arjun Appadurai’s The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective when he wanted to talk about what basically you might call it the history of an object. He was desperately trying to interrupt the gift commodity sense in talking about it. I think it’s a very loose usage.
There is a narrative style that has been discussed by people tracking the object. That is one way of telling a story, especially in a situation in which location is not stable, so that you can move through a number of what I call ‘machines of value’ or a number of contexts by following an object, and it allows you to show contrasts. I think that’s a narrative trope really that people can use to show change of meanings, different perspectives that people have. It is ironic: it has great capacities to eliminate through irony unimagined and unintended relations between people. I think that is used to recreate the experience that many people have. For me, the problem with writing cleverly is that it often doesn’t work, which means it wasn’t very clever. For me when I was writing about Papunya Tula when I was first there, nobody wanted to buy the paintings so then it became this hugely important thing. I wanted to make that irony very powerful. It works very well to follow things in that way, although sometimes readers don’t follow it, so maybe it isn’t always great. But it does carry people along but I think it could be written in a different way. It is not a necessary mode.
MIKE SMITH: In archaeology I think ‘object biography’ is just a convenient term, a metaphor. I don’t think we would be seeing the evidence or the interpretation necessarily constrained by conventions of literary biography or narrative. It’s a way of reconstructing a whole nested set of events modified and left physical traces on the object. It’s a way of perhaps reconstructing or unpacking an object’s history. It has a little more resonance than other more prosaic terms that describe the same process — a reduction sequence, a chain operator. In that way I would see looking at the biography of an object is a tool to get somewhere else not necessarily as the end in itself. I think all of the speakers this morning have shown quite an interest in how objects circulate through systems — move, ascribe value, change their function and so forth. In archaeological terms, an object biography is about trying to reconstruct that from the physical traces on the object.
GUY HANSEN: I would just say that I think when you are given the freedom to write an extended piece you can start to trace out the multiple meanings in an object. I find the real challenge is when you have a 45-word label and the object is sitting in the case. Then the fear is that the meaning can get frozen and perhaps it’s a meaning which might not be the main one or the most important one. And that is even before we get into all the meanings that the audience has when they view the object as well. That is where I think it is interesting. At least in an extended piece of writing you have the opportunity to begin to explore the multiple meanings.
MARGARET ANDERSON: Just very briefly, I think we have to be very careful to distinguish between narrative just as telling stories and linear narrative. I hope we are not all being constrained by the former prime minister’s view of writing history as narratives. I don’t think that is what we mean or what we are talking about here.
PETER STANLEY: Thank you, that is the end of the session. I think this session has delivered exactly what we had hoped. Our speakers have reminded us of the foundation disciplines and of the essential ideas and debates as a basis for the discussion that will continue throughout the day.
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Date published: 01 September 2008