The permanent and official blog of the University of Leicester's School of Museum Studies PhD student conferences and special events.

6 November 2013

Transmutation #17 - Intermediaries to Collaborators: international nmuseum representation of Australian Indigenous art

Aboriginal art is used in a wide range of ways in the cultural media. Misunderstandings and ambiguous labelling are commonplace. In this paper, Tasha Finn discusses three models of museum which engage with aboriginal art; the Arbitrary, which does not allow for aboriginal inclusion in representative practice; the Intermediary, which allows for some dialogue but in which majority power still lies within the museum; and the Collaborative, in which participation is welcomed. Whilst post-colonial and poststructural discuorses have exerted some influence on exhibitions since the 1980s, arbitrary and intermediary model still exist.

Her thesis is based on the notion that museums are not neutral sites; as Peter Vergo suggested in his paper 'The Rhetoric of Display'. What was most disturbing for Vergo was the denial of the subjectivity of the space which seemed to predominate within many museums.

In 2009, the Pitt Rivers rehung its cases. They exhibit aboriginal art as ethnographic artifacts, rather than a contemporary form of art. The cases contain a mix of historical and contemporary works, by artists of various degrees of fame. Words from Pitt Rivers are used, ethnographic photographs. There appears to be a hesitation in displaying the aboriginal peoples in a contenmporary context. It was only recently that contemporary aboriginal works began to be collected and represented. For Finn, this suggests that they had little desire to represent the aboriginal people as vital and living.

Clifford's idea of the 'contact zone', appropriated from Pratt, allows for collaboration and dispute. Debate and exchange, rather than dominance and control, are forgrounded. The contact zone idea followed on from the notion of the museum as forum. The museum, in this model, becomes a space for dialogue and negotiation about the power over representation. 'Museum frictions' is a term which acknowledges the negotiations and complex perspectives that exist within the museum.

The Kluge-Ruhe collection of aboriginal art in Virginia, USA, was based on a series of paintings collected by two men - Edward Ruhe, collecting from 1965, and John Kluge, from 1988 onwards. The Museum opened in 1999, and immediately began a series of residences. So now, the artists act as the collectors and producers of the art. Clifford's idea of the contact zone can be applied here, particularly in the cases where artists make specific interventions into the museum's space.

In 2006, the Musee du quai Branly commissioned eight architectural installations. Whilst direct funding from Austrailian arts organisations was found, and diplomatic relationships forged, the installations were interpreted by the staff of Quai Branly. Whilst Penelope Wensley, Australian Ambassador to France, called the installation one of the most significant representations of Australian art abroad to date, there were still significant problems.

The text for the artworks lacked political context, and were highly ambiguous. Thus, they eclipsed the social and political aspect of Judy Watson's work Two Halves with Bailer Shell; much of which was a discussion of France's nuclear testing in the sea.

There are various models, then, for the ways in which a museum might engage with aboriginal artists and people. What should a museum do? Should they be free to chose any of these models? No matter what stance they chose, it is their responsibility to be aware of the consequences; they represent not only other cultures, but their own attitudes and the societies from which they arise.

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