Thesis title: Objects can speak: Indigenous languages and collections in Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand
This thesis examines interconnections between indigenous languages, objects and professional practices within Australian and New Zealand museums. Early collecting practices did not include the documentation of descriptions, context or provenance in indigenous languages. Historically, collectors saw indigenous languages as a means for making contact with indigenous communities to produce displays that represented dying cultures to non-indigenous viewers. Indigenous cultural materials are therefore documented in contemporary collection management systems in English; the language of the coloniser.
Indigenous words hold knowledge on kinship, law, context, place, ancestors and methods that lose meaning and understanding once simplified in English. Museum professionals have long considered indigenous language documentation too complex due to a history of displacement of indigenous communities in Australia and New Zealand following colonialisation, which resulted in a decline in language use.
This thesis explores a critical snapshot in time between 2010–2011 that was a turning point for both museum practice and indigenous language revival in Australia and New Zealand. Indigenous communities were becoming aware that their objects held in collections were disconnected from their languages. Literature in the interdisciplinary fields of museum studies, material culture studies and indigenous studies was addressing decolonisation, self-determination, new museology, new curatorial praxis and co-curation theories. Contemporary museums were being pressed to become cross-cultural and contested terrains required to invest in cultural strengthening, debate and social inclusion.
Although extensive literature existed on the importance of indigenous language renewal and the need for museums to address cultural diversity in collections, there was a significant gap in literature on why and how indigenous languages may be engaged in collections management systems and professional museum practices. Through a historical ethnographic analysis of museum practices during 2010–2011 within the Melbourne Museum, Koorie Heritage Trust, Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa and Tairāwhiti Museum, this thesis provides the first comprehensive analysis of the significance of indigenous language documentation in professional museum practices. The museums selected for fieldwork held internationally significant indigenous collections and an interest in data enhancement and language documentation.
Through qualitative interviewee responses, participant observations and an analysis of quantitative data, the thesis identifies whether indigenous terminology in collections management improves understandings of the historical life and contemporary role of indigenous objects held in museums today. It also identifies how collaboration between museum collections and indigenous communities leads to improved collections management practices on the one hand and language rejuvenation on the other. Engaging action research, a project that benefitted collections management practices was completed during fieldwork as a contribution to the museums.
The thesis contends that objects in museum collections can be mutually beneficial to communities, museum professionals and the general public if collections documentation and data (provenance, description and contextual information) is recorded and preserved in collections management systems using the indigenous language of the object; allowing the objects to speak.
For further information please contact Karina Lamb.