New book on museum collections

17 September, 2008

The Makers and Making of Indigenous Australian Museum Collections book cover
Cover image of the new publication
Image: Melbourne University Publishing
Source: Melbourne University Publishing

Lindy Allen, Senior Curator of Indigenous Culture at Melbourne Museum, has co-edited and contributed to a book examining the history, practices and processes behind the creation of museum collections of Indigenous cultural material.

The publication, a joint enterprise between Museum Victoria and Melbourne University Publishing, emerged from a project supported by an Australian Research Council Linkage grant. The Makers and Making of Indigenous Australian Museum Collections, also edited by Nicolas Peterson and Louise Hamby, was launched by Dr Gael Jennings from the Museums Board of Australia at the end of August this year.

The book includes essays by twenty authors, and canvases most of the major collections in Australia, including the Donald Thomson and Baldwin Spencer collections held at Museum Victoria. An international perspective is offered by discussions of collections that ended up in overseas museums. What was not collected – whether because it was not known about, ignored or seen as inconsequential, or because Indigenous people withheld such items – also provides significant insight into the nature of collecting.

Allen suggests the book highlights the importance of “critically analysing collections”, by focusing on the methods of collection used, the historical context  in which collecting took place, and the motivations, world-views and prejudices of those who collected.

Allen adds that The Makers and Making of Indigenous Australian Museum Collections is intended to “raise awareness of material culture” as a method of understanding and analysing history, community and society.

The volume traces the changing ideologies and shifting intellectual frameworks in which collecting practices were pursued over time, and considers the differences evident in collections depending on whether the collector was an amateur or professional.

Lindy Allen is an Arnhem Land specialist and during research for the Australian Research Council project that focused on the Donald Thomson Collection she closely consulted with the Yolngu community resulting in the identification of a few hundred individuals in the photographs taken by him in the mid-1930s and early 1940s.

The book represents the most significant scholarship to date on the holdings of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural heritage material in major museums in Australia as well as key collections overseas.

The Donald Thomson Collection includes thousands of objects and an extensive archive of images, papers and audio-visual material from Arnhem Land, Cape York Peninsula and the Great Sandy and Tanami Deserts. It is on long-term loan to Museum Victoria from the University of Melbourne and the Thomson family. Donald Thomson was an Australian anthropologist and biologist.

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