Ms Karina Lamb

Ms Karina Lamb

Position: PhD candidate in Interdisciplinary Cross-cultural Research
School and/or Centres: School of Archaeology and Anthropology


Thesis title: Objects can speak: Indigenous language and the object in Australian and New Zealand museums
Language is critical to the survival and revival of Indigenous cultures. Although extensive literature exists on the importance of Indigenous language renewal and the need for museums to address cultural diversity in collections, there is a significant – and acknowledged – gap in the literature on whether, why and how Indigenous language should be documented together with the object.  The thesis will investigate interconnections between Indigenous language and material culture in Australian and New Zealand museums in order to contribute to the practice of collections management in these countries. The research will be interdisciplinary, spanning museum studies, material culture studies, linguistics and Indigenous studies. The research will explore the following questions:

To what extent (if at all) are Indigenous languages included in collections management practices in Australian and New Zealand museums? 

How might improved awareness of Indigenous terminology and language use improve understandings of the historical life and contemporary role of Indigenous objects which are held in museums today?

Might community collaboration between museum collections and Indigenous communities lead to improved collections management practices on the one hand, and language rejuvenation on the other?

The aim of the thesis is to contribute to two main, interconnected goals:

  1. improved community interest in, awareness of, and access to Indigenous collections, whereby collections become part of language renewal programs; and
  2. a greater employment of Indigenous languages for the purposes of documenting and creating knowledge about material culture collections held by museums in Australia and Aotearoa. 

The thesis proposal extends from my professional experience, personal life and previous studies in cultural heritage. My professional life includes twelve years working in museums and galleries. As a collections manager, I have struggled to catalogue objects from Indigenous communities without the ‘voice' of the community in traditional language describing the significance, provenance and additional information related to the item. Indigenous words, phrases or oral recordings could be incorporated into the acquisition and registration and cataloguing processes of collection management. Indigenous language carries descriptions, cultural information and tone that are not possible to present in English. To hear the pronunciation of words in traditional voice, including the correct pronunciation of names, places and phrases, is important in contextualising the object. The thesis will discuss whether language is as important to document and preserve as is the documentation and preservation of the object itself.

The thesis will analyse collections management practices at two large publicly funded museums, and two smaller privately/publicly funded museums, in Australia and New Zealand. The comparative study will document how countries with similar colonial histories are managing Indigenous language within these collecting institutions: Melbourne Museum, Indigenous Collections and Te Papa Tongarewa The National Museum of New Zealand, the Koorie Heritage Trust (Melbourne) and Tairawhiti Museum (Gisborne, NZ). Through qualitative interviews, observations and participation, a new way of thinking about Indigenous language documentation in museum collections will be developed.

For further information please contact Karina Lamb.


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