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DISPLAYING POSTS TAGGED: donald thomson (3)

Consulting with Gupapuyngu community

Author
by Kate C
Publish date
17 October 2012
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Comments (1)

Bark paintings present particular conservation challenges for museums and over many years, conservators have developed low-impact techniques to stabilise objects at risk of deterioration. However these objects often have deep cultural and spiritual significance to the people who created them, and any alteration to an object – including conservation treatments – may forever affect its meaning.

This issue has fascinated MV conservator Samantha Hamilton since her Mellon fellowship at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in 2005. For around two decades, NMAI conservators have worked closely with communities to better understand the cultural implications of preservation. "Involving traditional owners provides meaningful insights into the creation and appearance of cultural materials," says Sam. "This allows conservators to make clearer ethical treatment decisions."

Two significant bark paintings in the Donald Thomson Collection needed considerable conservation treatment, which meant they were not included in the travelling exhibition Ancestral Power and the Aesthetic. Given the long-standing relationship between senior curator Lindy Allen and the Arnhem Land communities from which anthropologist Donald Thomson collected the paintings, here was an opportunity to work closely with the cultural owners of the works. Sam and Lindy began consulting with direct relatives of the original artists last year and visited Milingimbi Island to discuss these particular conservation issues. This consultation project has received funding from the University of Melbourne and the Copland Foundation.

Two men with bark painting Artist George Milaybuma Gaykamangu and his brother Dr Joseph Neparrnga Gumbula holding a small bark painting made to show traditional painting techniques.
Image: Ben Healley
Source: Museum Victoria
 

During the first week of October, Gupapuyngu Elder and Indigenous scholar, Dr Joseph Neparrnga Gumbula and his brother, artist George Milaybuma Gaykamangu (Milay), came to Melbourne to exchange knowledge about how the paintings were made and how they should be preserved. In return Sam demonstrated various ways to consolidate paint and stabilise bark so that Joe and Milay could decide on appropriate treatments. Says Sam, "the concept of preservation or conservation treatment is quite foreign to the Gupapuyngu because theirs is a living culture and they're actively painting these designs. Joe has said, 'if this was back at home, we'd just bury it and make another one.'"

Men and woman testing glue on bark Conservator Samantha Hamilton demonstrating a conservation technique on some samples of bark.
Image: Ben Healley
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Sam had many questions for Joe and Milay. "There is a layer of meaning in each brushstroke, so if we directly apply adhesive to consolidate the paint, are we altering its cultural meaning? Is it better to document the painting with detailed photographs and leave it untouched? Also, these designs are body patterns worn only by men, so should female conservators be treating them?"

During the visit, Milay demonstrated the traditional techniques used by the original creators of the paintings. He ground and mixed charcoal, white clay and two types of ochre with water to prepare the paint. He also fashioned paintbrushes from grass stems and showed Sam and Lindy how djalkurrk (orchid stem) was used to bind only the background paint layer to the bark. Sam was particularly fascinated to learn this, as it was common understanding that the binder was used with every paint layer.

traditional Yolgnu painting materials Milay's painting kit: lumps of ochre and charcoal, grass stem paintbrushes and orchid, all brought to Melbourne from Arnhem Land.
Image: Ben Healley
Source: Museum Victoria

Hands applying ochre to bark Milay demonstrating how orchid stem is used to apply a background layer of rich red ochre to the bark slab.
Image: Ben Healley
Source: Museum Victoria
 

After seeing Sam's demonstrations, Joe and Milay advised that a technique called misting would be acceptable to the Gupapuyngu community and that no direct application of adhesive should be performed with a paintbrush. They also approved conservation's technique of stabilising split bark and agreed that Sam was the right person to perform the treatment.

Sam hopes that this project will have lasting impact. "MV conservators have consulted with community in the past and it's becoming more common around the world. Where possible, I'd like to see it continue as an ongoing practice especially with our Victorian Indigenous objects and the Koorie community." During the Bunjilaka redevelopment project Sam has been consulting with the Yulendj reference group, and is very excited about collaborating with Yorta Yorta Elders to determine a long term preservation plan for the historic possum skin cloak.

Links:

Ancestral Power and the Aesthetic is at the Albury Art Gallery until 18 November 2012

MV Blog: Ancestral Power opens in Benalla

MV News: Ancestral Power and the Aesthetic

NMAI Conservation Outreach

Senior Australian of the Year

Author
by Lindy Allen
Publish date
1 February 2012
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Lindy Allen curates the Northern Australian Collections at Museum Victoria. These collections include important historical ethnographic, manuscript and image collections of Baldwin Spencer and Donald Thomson.

On Thursday 26 January, Laurie Baymarrwangga was announced as 2012 Senior Australian of the Year. There wasn't much coverage about this extraordinary Australian in the press; the only report I saw was on the ABC on the morning of Australia Day that showed a segment of film of this grand old lady on Murrunga, a tiny island in the Arafura Sea of northern Australia that can only be reached by charter plane or by boat.

Laurie Baymarrwangga Laurie Baymarrwangga, Senior Australian of the Year 2012.
Image: Mari Ekkje
Source: Mari Ekkje at Broken Yellow
 

From her biography on the Australian of the Year website:

...Laurie Baymarrwangga has seen the arrival of missionaries, exploitation by Japanese and European fishermen, war and tumultuous change. Undaunted, she has almost single-handedly nurtured the inter-generational transmission of local ecological knowledge through a lifelong commitment to caring for kin, culture and country. In the 1960s Laurie established a housing project on her homelands that has benefitted generations of kin. Speaking no English, with no access to funding, resources or expertise she initiated the Yan-nhangu dictionary project. Her cultural maintenance projects include the Crocodile Islands Rangers, a junior rangers group and an online Yan-nhangu dictionary for school children. In 2010, after a struggle stretching back to 1945, Laurie finally received back payments for rents owed to her as the land and sea owner of her father's estate. She donated it all, around $400,000, to improve education and employment opportunities on the island and to establish a 1,000 square kilometre turtle sanctuary on her marine estate. In the face of many obstacles, this great, great grandmother has shown extraordinary leadership and courage in caring for the cultural and biological integrity of her beloved Crocodile Islands.

Baymarrwangga is at least 90 years of age because she was about 13 years old when a young anthropologist called Donald Thomson sailed to the island and stayed for a few days in 1935 taking photographs of her and other family members. He also photographed the sophisticated system of barriers constructed to trap fish.

I first met Baymarrwangga in 2004 on my very first field trip to Milingimbi, the largest of the Crocodile Island group, the preservation of the culture and environment of which Baymarrwangga has been deservedly recognised by the award. Fortunately I had a 4WD (taken in by barge), which meant that I could drive out to Bordeya, an outstation in the middle of the island, to find the old lady that everyone told me I needed to talk to. Baymarrwangga was still there after a funeral days earlier, and I talked to her about the photographs taken by Thomson at Murrunga and at Milingimbi. She recognised herself and the close relative who had just died in some of the images, and because I had a printer with me was able to provide copies of these and others including her father and grandfather also photographed by Thomson. During discussions at Bordeya, Baymarrwangga also identified each of the five Burarra men from Cape Stewart (on the mainland to the west of the Crocodile Islands) painted up for ceremony in another of Thomson's photographs. This proved to be of immense importance to the descendants of these men when I met them a few weeks later on my way back to Darwin via Maningrida.

The following year I travelled by charter plane to her home at Murrunga and spent a week working with this remarkable woman. While the island has no power and few facilities that one would expect to be available to a 2012 Senior Australia of the Year, it is a community led by this strong old lady and is alive with a thirst to teach and nurture the young in the ways of their country and culture. I have encountered few people in Arnhem Land with her extraordinary capacity for language (she speaks eight languages and understands at least another four) and cultural knowledge as there are very few Yolngu who survive to such an age.

Fish fence by Laurie Baymarrwangga Fish fence made in 2003 from undyed vegetable fibre by Laurie Baymarrwangga, Arnhem Land. Size: 610 (h) x 1135 (w) x 130 (d) mm. Registration number X101208.
Source: Museum Victoria
 

In late 2004 a gift for the museum's collection arrived from Baymarrwangga. She had made a section of a fish fence from sedge, just as it would have been made in 1935 when Donald Thomson was at Murrunga. She had given it to Gupapuyngu elder Joe Neparrnga Gumbula when he was coming down to the museum to work with me in the collections. And then in 2006 Baymarrwangga herself travelled all the way to Melbourne to see the Donald Thomson Collection. Members of her family who were to come abandoned the trip, but Baymarrwangga spent a week with me at the museum and at my house. It is only through her generosity and patience in sharing her knowledge and teaching me that I am able to understand the importance of what is here at Museum Victoria in the Indigenous collections.

Links:

Australian of the Year Awards

Donald Thomson Collection

Crocodile Island Rangers

Ancestral Power opens in Benalla

Author
by Kate C
Publish date
8 December 2010
Comments
Comments (0)

A crew from MV spent much of last week in bushranger country in the town of Benalla in Victoria's north, readying the exhibition Ancestral Power and the Aesthetic: Arnhem Land paintings and objects from the Donald Thomson Collection for its opening on Saturday 4 December.

The exhibition, curated by Lindy Allen, was first shown at the Ian Potter Museum of Art at the University of Melbourne in 2009. This showing at the Benalla Art Gallery is the first stop on a tour that will include other galleries in regional Victoria plus the Northern Territory and New South Wales.

Installing Ancestral Power The exhibition crew carefully cover a display of objects with a protective case.
Image: Nicole Alley
Source: Museum Victoria
 

The exhibition features large bark paintings by Yolngu people that were collected in the 1930s and 40s by Donald Thomson. They capture the sacred patterns, known as minytji, that were painted onto the bodies of ancestors in creation times. The same destictive designs were painted onto ceremonial objects also.

Nicole and I were there to interview Lindy about the exhibition for an upcoming Ancestral Power website, but it was a rare treat for us webteam staff to see an exhibition being installed, too.

Lindy Allen preparing for interview Lindy Allen preparing for her video interview about the works in Ancestral Power and the Aesthetic.
Image: Nicole Alley
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Benalla is well worth a visit to see this amazing show. Admission is free and it will be on display until 30 January 2011.

Links:

Ancestral Power and the Aesthetic MV News story

Benalla Art Gallery

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