"A chance to catch up"

28 August, 2009

Ron Vanderwal
Ron Vanderwal with Oriho'obo masks from the Gulf of Papua.
Image: Benjamin Healley
Source: Museum Victoria

Dr Ron Vanderwal, Senior Curator of Anthropology (Oceania) and long-time staff member of the museum, received an emotional farewell this week to mark his retirement from full-time work. Ron’s colleagues, collaborators, friends and family gathered in the Te Pasifika Gallery at Melbourne Museum to celebrate his contributions to anthropology, the museum and Pacific Islander communities.

Ron has been a vital part of Museum Victoria for 28 years. With a curator’s attention to detail, he can quantify it exactly. “I started here on August 31st, 1981,” he says. “It was a Monday. And my last day is Friday 28 August, so it’s a nice round number.” Curating the diverse Oceanic collection of more than 20,000 artefacts from Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, Fiji, the Solomons and nearby islands, he was instrumental to the collection’s relocation to the new museum in 2000 and the development of Te Vainui O Pasifika. One of his proudest achievements was establishing the Pacific Islands Advisory Group to include Islanders in the development of this exhibition.

Ron’s recent award - the 2009 Award for International Relations by the Australian branch of the International Council of Museums - recognised more than twenty years of outstanding work promoting the cultural rights of Pacific Islanders and collaboration with the Fiji Museum. With characteristic regard for others, he describes his role as merely a catalyst. “Lots of people were involved. I just led the group, so I got the prize.” The collaboration with the Fiji Museum began in the 1990s with Ron’s efforts to repatriate skeletal remains held in the collection to their countries of origin. Ron worked with the Fiji Museum to preserve and manage its extensive cultural collection, and to produce the website Fiji’s Treasured Culture: Highlights from the Collections of Museum Victoria and the Fiji Museum.

Ron has worked in museums since 1959, broken only by a six-year spell of teaching archaeology and prehistory at La Trobe University. Originally from the USA, he studied in Michigan and Wisconsin before relocating to Kingston to help create a museum at the Institute of Jamaica. In the 1970s he moved to Australia, initially to do a PhD in the prehistory of Papua at the Australian National University, and then to work at the Tasmanian Museum.

He is fascinated by the distinctive cultural adaptations people make to isolated or restricted island resources. Aspects of his work that he particularly loves are travelling and experiencing other cultures. During his research in Papua New Guinea, he was taught how to handle a crab – “gingerly” – and to eat ship worms – “not with any great relish, because they were full of mud!” This year he travelled to South America to attend a conference in Brazil about rock art and to explore Peru’s Machu Picchu.

At MV, Ron’s excellent professional reputation is overshadowed only by his warmth, generosity and good humour. These characteristics have earned him profound respect and admiration from his colleagues and Pacific Islander communities alike. Fortunately he is not truly leaving Museum Victoria, since his new title of Curator Emeritus will allow him, as he puts it, to “catch up”. He will continue work on the collection, drawing upon his decades of experience to identify and document the objects. With a laugh, he summarises retirement as “the time when I can do what I want to. I pretty much do that now, but I still have to go to meetings.” 

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