Consulting with Gupapuyngu community

by Kate C
Publish date
17 October 2012
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.


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

Comments (1)

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Kimberley 17 October, 2012 19:18
Fantastic to see the museum collaborating with the Milingimbi community on the conservation of the communities objects. Sharing of knowledge and culture is what its all about!
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