Thomas Ramsay Fellowship

28 November, 2008

Museum Victoria
Gareth Knapman in the library where much of his research takes place.
Image: Museum Victoria
Source: Museum Victoria

Dr Gareth Knapman, a PhD graduate from RMIT’s Globalisation Institute, is the 2008 Thomas Ramsay fellowship holder. Dr Knapman will be exploring “symbolic value in the exchange system between museums” from the period under the first director of the then National Museum, Fredrick McCoy, up to the early twentieth-century when the museum was overseen by Baldwin Spencer.

Museums in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries built their collections and acquired new objects and items by receiving donations, purchasing items, and by accruing specimens they collected on field trips and expeditions. They also regularly practiced exchanges.

Dr Knapman's project will consider the global trade in natural history specimens and cultural artefacts as a method of building collections and cementing relationships. Dr Knapman, who is in the early stages of his research, will trawl through documents and letters in Museum Victoria’s archives, as well as the State Library, Public Records Office, National Gallery, and archives at Melbourne University.

Dr Knapman’s research is cross-disciplinary, intersecting with the fields of history, anthropology, natural science, and postcolonial studies.

Dr Knapman's states that his project raises the question “why did museums connect given items?” It aims to uncover how objects were selected for exchange, why they were linked, and what value and meaning was implicitly attached to them.

As Knapman observes, there is “a huge anthropological literature on exchange; these relationships have fascinated people for a long time.” While financial constraints and an existing “tradition of collegial relations” prompted some exchanges, Knapman’s hypothesis is that exchange “was instrumental in shaping the relationship between museums and other institutionary bodies” and that it necessarily involved attaching “symbolic value”. His research will be supported by museum staff and resources.

The project raises questions including, under what circumstances and for what reasons did museums exchange items instead of purchase them? How were the items selected for exchange chosen? How did the changing historical conditions and leadership of the museum influence the practice of exchange?

The gaps in the historical record are proving just as compelling as details that can be uncovered. Dr Knapman has followed paper trails only to learn that some items were sent out to be ‘exchanged’ but there is no record of what was received in return.

As Knapman notes, the role and nature of museums has changed enormously since McCoy’s time and the habit of conducting exchanges has transformed too. “You cannot compare” he suggests, “a museum with approximately five staff to today’s institutions, which have more than five hundred”. The drive to acquire vast collections is not necessarily a feature of the modern museum, which is a public resource with a distinct understanding of science and a modern ethical framework.

Dr Knapman is the nineteenth beneficiary of the scholarship. The fellowship, which was established in 1978 and aims to encourage original research linking science and the humanities, is named after local philanthropist Sir Thomas Ramsay.

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