Shifting Boundaries

Shifting Boundaries: Mediating Interpretations of Indigenous Cultural Heritage in Museums

Part of the History, Culture & Collections Seminar Series.

Mediating Interpretations of Indigenous Cultural Heritage in Museums

Museums are repositories of vast Indigenous collections that constitute a fundamental component of Australia’s national heritage; but at the same time, this heritage remains isolated from the original context within which its significance can be established. The current museum environment is referred to as the ‘new museology’ entrenched in aspirations of ‘engagement’ and ‘collaboration’ and ‘inclusiveness’ in relation to Indigenous people. The ‘things’ in museums are a trigger to memory and provide a unique and tangible link to events, places and people in the past. However what is often overlooked is the capacity of these ‘things’ to hold their stories, histories and knowledge, and their agency in negotiating interpretations of the past and shaping the future.

In this paper Lindy will demonstrate how in this context museums no longer operate as ‘sites of conflict’ but rather as what James Clifford identifies as ‘places of hybrid possibility and political negotiation’. Examples from Australia and overseas are brought together with a case study focused on a collaborative research project undertaken with the Gupapuyngu Daygurrgurr people of Arnhem Land in relation to bark paintings collected in 1937 by the anthropologist Donald Thomson.


Lindy Allen is Senior Curator, Anthropology (Northern Australia) in the MV Humanities Department. She has worked for over 35 years in the museum sector, curated over 30 major exhibitions, the most recent being Ancestral Power and the Aesthetic: Arnhem Land Bark Paintings and Painted Objects from the Donald Thomson Collection, co-edited the volumes, The Makers and Making of Australian Indigenous Collections and The Photographs of Baldwin Spencer, and has fostered relationships with Indigenous communities across Australia, particularly in Arnhem Land and on Cape York Peninsula. Lindy has been Partner Investigator and Chief Investigator on four ARC research projects, including the current The Legacy of 50 Years of Collecting at Milingimbi.

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