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Understanding Museums - Australian Museums and Museology: Edited by Des Griffin and Leon Paroissien

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John E Stanton is Director) of the Berndt Museum of Anthropology and has had extensive experience and involvement in Aboriginal arts. More on John Stanton

Ethnographic museums and collections: from the past into the future
by John E Stanton

The 1978 UNESCO Regional Seminar on the Role of Museums in Preserving Indigenous Cultures, held in Adelaide, [1] marked a turning point in the relationship between Indigenous communities and the museum sector in Australia, as well as in Oceania between Pacific Island nations and the museums of Australia and New Zealand. It demanded Indigenous representation throughout the museum world – in collections, at senior management level and on boards of trustees. The UNESCO seminar spawned an immediate response from curators of Indigenous collections in the region, with representatives of communities and museums from Papua New Guinea, New Caledonia and New Zealand joining their Australian counterparts at the Conference of Museum Anthropologists held in Melbourne the following year.

The Conference of Museum Anthropologists (its acronym COMA was thought apposite at the time) met annually for over two decades but, once it had achieved its primary aims, local dynamics at the state level took over, to be played out by a new generation of museum anthropologists. COMA conferences were strongly supported by members of the Council of Australian Museum Directors (CAMD), some of whom may have – at least initially – feared the possible outcomes. Instead, museum directors listened to their museum anthropologists and, accordingly, developed policies and programs that promoted Indigenous interests within the sector, both in Australia and overseas. Museums took different approaches to these issues and sought divergent outcomes. COMA remained an informally constituted body, despite the efforts by some members at times to restructure on a more formal basis. This encouraged a wide range of participants, as well as an enthusiastic grassroots response to museum issues of the period.

The annual conference, internationalist in its positioning, was centred on fostering attendance by junior museum staff, as well as a constantly large number of Indigenous participants. Issues of recognition, representation, repatriation, and reaction were discussed from the multifaceted points of view provided by this annual gathering. The COMA Bulletin, published on a voluntary basis at first by institutions hosting the conference, but later by Lindy Allen at the Museum of Victoria, disseminated the issues raised at conferences to an international audience.

Many of the issues raised at COMA meetings inspired similar discussions at comparable conferences overseas, especially in the United Kingdom and the United States, where museum-based anthropologists were actively promoting the central role of Indigenous communities in the custodianship and representation of institutional collections.

The vigorous role played by Indigenous curators in many of Australia’s museums is indicative of the dramatic changes in museological practice that have emerged over the past 25 years, as well as the commitment of museum-based anthropologists to the restructuring of the relationships between museums and communities of origin (as the communities from which these collections derive have become known). It is not a coincidence that this period has also seen the revitalisation of state and national museums across the continent through new exhibitions, fresh engagements and additional appointments.

The past three decades, in particular, have witnessed extraordinary changes in the relationship between museologists and Indigenous (especially Australian) peoples, as well as the nature of their roles and engagement with the wider museum profession. These changes have reflected broader processes evident elsewhere, but the Australian experience has helped to influence developments at the international level. At the same time, the experience of the past three decades did not occur in a vacuum: it emerged from the economic and social vitality of postwar Australia, the affirmation of a new and unique Australian identity, and a degree of conscious self-reflection not often evident in the earlier era. Australia has only recently celebrated the 40th anniversary of the 1967 referendum that gave Aboriginal Australians formal acknowledgement by the Australian government; and in 1992 the Mabo decision gave recognition to the prior sovereignty of Indigenous Australians. These two key events in the history of Aboriginal/non-Aboriginal relationships frame – and indeed inform, as it were – the parameters of this paper.

Ethnography means different things to different people. The diversity of museum-based departments of anthropology, their varied emphases and output, are testament to this multiplicity of perspectives. In the Australian context, ethnographic collections are firmly anchored within the discipline of anthropology, which is the study of people and society.  Although elsewhere in the world collections that are made in the course of ethnographic fieldwork may be known as ‘ethnology’, this delimited term is not used in Australia. The strength of ethnographic collections lies, or should lie, within the depth of field documentation, and its use in understanding cultural formations in communities of origin.

Within the discipline of anthropology, one of the key attributes of conducting anthropological research that distinguishes it from other related fields is its objective of encouraging researchers to establish and maintain long-term associations with communities and individuals. In the Australian context, at least historically, anthropologists (trained or untrained, amateur and professional) working within a diversity of settings have collected an enormous quantity of research data, in the form of both recordings (notebooks, photographs, magnetic media and the like) and physical items. These tangible objects I have termed elsewhere the ‘material manifestations of culture’. [2]

The origins of the European museum clearly lie with the ‘cabinets of curiosities’, and there are still a few museums around the world that echo this approach to the ‘mysterious’. Anthropology and ethnography have moved an enormous distance from the early collecting environment, where ‘crude’ oddities became peculiar obsessions. There is, nevertheless, an enduring influence of perceived exoticism because many Australian museums have ethnographic collections – or least ethnographic components of their collections – that were collected in a different era, in rather different contexts to those that prevail in the twenty-first century. This, in itself, presents significant challenges to present day curators; most important among these is the question of what to do with those earlier collections. How can they be used to tell their own story? Whose story, which story? [3] Some of the early collections are well documented. Often they are the only materials extant from the period. But many of them are very poorly documented, and it lies with later researchers to induce meaning and attribution.

Museums are not just about objects; they are about the cultures that produce them, and comprise the photographs, films and other records associated with them. Deeply grained documentation remains a key achievement for ethnographically-based museums, as this documentation ensures a continued relevance in research, teaching, and in the minds of members of the communities of origin. As in the past, field collections are an intrinsic element of anthropological fieldwork, and museum collections provide an outstanding resource through which to understand a society and explain it to others.

The cabinets of curiosities speak more of earlier collectors’ preoccupations and preconceptions about the world, and their place in it, than they do about the items they contain. This fascination with categorisation was not the realm of anthropologists or ethnographers alone; many others were collecting and classifying, making order where there seemed to be chaos. A curatorial urge to sort and categorise is very much a heritage of the Enlightenment, even if today it takes rather different forms, including Indigenous perspectives on classification. Contemporary classification procedures may still be founded on typologies of function, media or whatever. Nevertheless, digital technology has encouraged museum ethnographers to think of new ways of classifying items, and of creating thesauri to bridge different, but equally important, systems of classification. Classification remains  a fundamental issue for today’s curators, especially in considering the impact classification has had on effectively distancing one culture from another – even, indeed, creating the very notion of ‘the other’. Some of the classical anthropologists, like Malinowski and others, spent lengthy periods of time in the field, yet were rarely to return to the communities. The kinds of engagement with local communities that they had in that much earlier period were very different from the kinds of engagement nurtured by museum-based anthropologists today.

In the current museum environment there is a steadily increasing engagement with communities of origin that involves a redefinition of roles and responsibilities, and the development of new processes of commitment between the key players. Collections are becoming more accessible. Former distinctions between scholars and ‘the observed’ are being diffused as more and more Indigenous researchers (who may also be museum staff) participate in a shared trusteeship for the continuing care and use of collections. This is nothing new: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander societies have long emphasised the continuity of knowledge and the enduring care of particular ceremonial items. It is simply that the scope of collections, and the manner in which they are obtained, managed and used, is being redefined.

Anthropology is not only typified by prolonged fieldwork: it is also characterised by extended discussions with a diversity of people, talking to a multiplicity of voices and hearing a variety of voices. What anthropologists then do with that material, and what museum curators do, is a very different matter. Indigenous anthropologists, like Indigenous curators, bring a new dimension of knowledge and comprehension to this debate. But there is an engagement with communities of origin, nevertheless. It is a close engagement; however, what we have to remember is that historical collections very quickly develop an energy and a primacy of their own. The objects contained in them start to accumulate other meanings, new interpretations and novel applications, perhaps imposed by curators or by members of the communities of origin.

Ethnographic collections in Australia are primarily Indigenous collections – or at least they have been – for historical reasons. Anthropology has in the past been concerned with discrete small-scale societies; postmodernity and the global market economy are shaping new practitioners and their research foci, just as Marshall McLuhan [4] predicted almost four decades ago. Ethnographic museums must consider the place of their earlier collections in the modern world, just as postmodern researchers, whether anthropologists or ‘cultural studies’ advocates, should be aware of how their own collections (multi-media or otherwise) may be used and interpreted in the future. Ethnographic collections should not belong alone to Indigenous environments: they should address the non-Indigenous and, most importantly, the interface between the two, in what James Clifford called the ‘contact zone’:

When museums are seen as contact zones, their organizing structure as a collection becomes an ongoing historical, political, moral relationship – a power-charged set of exchanges of push and pull. [5]

This is, however, something for future (and more considered) debate.

Anthropologists and their ethnographic collections have a legacy of partnership, an enduring collaboration, with communities of origin. What is collected in one period may become iconic in another. Anthropologists have seen such momentous changes over recent decades in the lives of all Australians that the materials and associated documentation collected earlier have assumed a new importance not envisaged at the time – the ascription of new meaning, reviewed (indeed, renewed) significance, and the attribution of purpose utterly distinctive from the kinds of meanings and layers of meaning that are added across generations.

Museums Australia, with its publication Previous Possessions, New Obligations [6] subsequently revised as Continuous Cultures, Ongoing Responsibilities, [7] has spread the accumulated insight and experience of museum anthropologists and Indigenous staff working throughout the sector into the other parts of Australian museology. This perspective has embraced other kinds of collections and other sorts of institutions, from large institutions such as state museums for example, right down to small local community museums. Museums Australia has provided an important and useful template for professional practice in the relationship between museums and Indigenous peoples.

Ethnographic collections very often began as exotic collections of ‘the other’. Today though, ‘the other’ is no longer ‘the other’–‘the other’ is part of ‘us’; alternatively, ‘we’ are part of ‘the other’. The nature of the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous scholars, their methodologies, goals and aspirations, remains contentious, given that Indigenous groups in Australia still sometimes see museums as a product of European thought. But this is changing as more Aboriginal Australians work in senior positions within the sector, not only as curatorial staff but also as conservators, exhibitions staff – even directors. Enduring partnerships can only evolve in such contexts. This is not to suggest that Indigenous museologists are adequately represented – far from it. But neither are adequate numbers retained in universities to receive the advanced level of training now required for museum employment.

There has been a profound shift in the nature of the relationship between collections and people, whether these are the people who use or see the collections, or those who have principal cultural interest in the collection materials themselves. [8] Some Australian museums (and the Berndt Museum is proud to be counted among them) have set a benchmark for best practice in this respect. This, in turn, has influenced museum practice elsewhere in the world quite profoundly.

So no longer is ‘the other’ in the midst of our museums. As time goes by, the nature of these relationships between collections and people is becoming more and more complex. The complexity is, in part, about histories. It is also about sharing the knowledge associated with collections. It involves issues such as how to handle culturally sensitive items, and concerns such as the repatriation of skeletal and ritual materials, authorial interpretation and advocacy. A key issue remains the logistical issue of maintaining linkages with so many communities of interest. Most museums hold collections from an enormous diversity of regions, if not countries and or continents. It is, quite simply, impossible for curatorial staff in such contexts to maintain meaningful relationships between all of them, regardless of the resources at their disposal. Increasingly, museums must rely on linkages with key peak government and regional bodies, such as national and state museums in countries overseas and, in the Australian setting, Aboriginal land councils and research bodies such as the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies in Canberra. At the core, though, these complex issues are being articulated through, and between, individual staff. For Indigenous Australians, as I have been told repeatedly by those who have taught me over so many years, personal relationships are very, very important. As a result, it is sometimes very difficult in the minds of community members to differentiate the curator from the person, if only because these relationships are most often expressed through the individuals that participate in these bonds. This creates all kinds of extra responsibilities for curatorial staff where individuals have an identified custodial role that is recognised by communities, whether they are Indigenous or not.

This linkage involves special kinds of relationships and particular kinds of obligations that extend far beyond what is commonly viewed as professional curatorial practice. Consulting community leaders, attending their funerals, acting on their requests, are all part of the mélange of responsibilities that fall on the shoulders of any curator of ethnographic materials. Indigenous ascription of roles for women, and roles for men, command the awareness of those developing and managing staffing recruitment. These kinds of relationships are heavy responsibilities indeed: it is the duty of incumbents to maintain the relationships that have been built and elaborated, often agonisingly so, to renegotiate the kinds of histories, the kinds of voices that are involved in this process we call museology.

Another significant shift in perspective regarding the purpose and use of ethnographic collections has been the move from a preoccupation about ‘preservation’ to one of ‘cultural maintenance’, which implies a less passive role for museums and for their staff in the care and use of these physical manifestations of culture. From the 1940s to the 1960s many anthropologists (and, indeed, members of the taxpaying public) saw ethnographic collections as means of preserving culture. Even the 1978 UNESCO seminar was published under the title Preserving Cultures.

Of course it is not simply a matter of the Western world preserving something, putting it in a jar, leaving it there, and looking at it, because all the world’s cultures have living successors. Indigenous communities are using the materials held in ethnographic collections to elaborate, reconstitute, or even reconstruct what has been broken and torn and disturbed in their lives. The Berndt Museum’s experience with the Bringing the Photographs Home Project [9] highlights the ways in which ethnographic museums can work with communities and assist them, according to their wishes, to use historic as well as recent photographs to reconstruct broken family lives. It was a very moving experience for Museum staff to be involved in what was sometimes an emotional, but always very important, element of what museums can do in association with Indigenous communities. Photographs, like ethnographic objects, represent the quintessential materials that can be used to harness and project future understandings of social being.

Authorial voices remain very important in this debate, especially in the context of collections that are ethnographic in nature. These collections have their own histories, a vibrancy that derives from past accounts of manufacture, usage and perhaps abandonment, to new interpretations and novel sources of inspiration. These collections can have a momentum of their own, something that is rather different from the original context of collection, or even the reason for doing so. Museums have to be able to accommodate and facilitate these changing narrations, as much as they must reflect on these insights in communicating the stories within which they are embedded. These histories come not from communities of origin alone. They come from visitors, scholars and, indeed, curators. Curators have a right to tell a story too. Curators are not neutral bodies wafting in the air like ghosts. Curators are people with experiences and aspirations, and their stories should be told, too.

Together, these processes lead Australian museology towards a profound sense of community engagement – a real practical engagement, not just a theoretical one that just sits isolated in the Museums Australia template for best practice. Routes to engagement need to be reviewed constantly, to be reflected on, and to be a topic sought out for discussion with communities of origin. Proactive may be a dreadfully overused word, but it probably describes how museum professionals should be working.

Ethnographic museums are looking toward their futures. There are many participants in the work of a museum, including many members of the communities of origin. There is also a multiplicity of users, including other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. Problems emerge in those contexts, where something that is perhaps appropriate in one community is not appropriate in another. In a global world these are profound issues that have to be addressed first at a community level. They are being addressed, but the involved and time-consuming processes can make the work of curators rather complex. The context of human rights and wider awareness of the full range of cultural rights and responsibilities requires a considered response. As curators of anthropology we are already observing – and in some cases documenting – the impact of inter-generational change taking place directly in front of us. Within this setting, museums will require a flexibility of approach, and a willingness to engage beyond the predictable or readily understandable, in order to position museums and their collections for the future.

The increasingly pervasive influence of the World Wide Web, for example, and its impact on Indigenous societies, is an example of competing interests and contradictory perspectives. [10] The Web is a wonderful tool for communication in the Western world, which is predicated on the free exchange of information, but how can it best be harnessed in a culturally appropriate manner in societies that treasure secrecy and privacy? For many Indigenous people in Australia, as well as others elsewhere, their societies are not predicated on the free exchange of information. How can the Web be controlled so that those kinds of information are not unwittingly made available to people who have no right to them or who are ineligible to know about them? This is an important topic for all of those who work in the cultural sector.

The issue of authority to speak about items held in ethnographic collections is also highly contested. [11] The primary authority, of course, comes from the artists, the originators of works, and this rests on the assertion of cultural knowledge and rights to speak. Museum documentation of items represents a powerful tool for the expression and consolidation of cultural birthright. The memory and the voice of the ethnographic item are enhanced by historical recordings and present-day affirmations and interpretations.

What is an ethnographic collection today? Is it something created in the past, a part of historical and political processes? Or is it something that endures in the contemporary setting? Few if any museum staff today continue the ‘vacuum-cleaner’ approach, travelling into communities collecting everything that somebody has used to tell a story of their culture. For many museums, work is being conducted in very different social contexts. The works themselves, the artefacts, the artworks, still have embodied meanings and enduring histories. The authority of the creator is profound but, removed from its context, is still subject to interpretation. Memory is simply a glimpse; it is not a ‘fact’ that can be recorded. It is a matter of interpretation within a changing context, a selective attribution if not a discriminating account. There are many different voices for a variety of different occasions, with different explanations for different people. Museums need to facilitate this unpredictability of both memory and voice.

Ethnographic museums look at whole constellations of knowledge, knowledge that is shared, knowledge that might be segregated, knowledge that follows different paths. The objects in their collections are media for the communication of information. They convey insight in different ways: what curators of such collections have to always be aware of is the primacy of information. The pre-eminence of documentation is what both makes the meaning, and what conveys the meaning.

Museums of anthropology, then, are the public face of anthropology. They resonate with the rich data collected by anthropologists in the field, and provide a conduit for communicating these insights to the wider public. Anthropology museums provide the raw materials for research and teaching within the academic setting, but they are increasingly valued for their outward focus. They are more and more seen as ‘treasures’ by the public, highly visible and perhaps more readily appreciated than rows of taxonomic expression. Ethnographic collections are a concrete validation of the cultures they express; they are witnesses to cultural diversity and social change. Museum-based anthropologists have a critical role to play in this process; they are keys in the public-scholar interface. Ethnographic collections provide a prime means through which multiple social expressions can achieve a public presence and, through this engagement, recruit potential supporters and advocates into the highly politicised arena of cross-cultural engagement. This is the stuff of ethnographic collections, a shared journey through which the objects speak to us in many tongues.


1 R Edwards and J Stewart (editors), Preserving indigenous cultures a new role for museums. Papers from a UNESCO Regional Seminar, Adelaide 1978, AGPS, Canberra, 1980.

2 JE Stanton, ‘Snapshots on the Dreaming: photographs of the past and present’ in L Peers and A Brown (eds), Museums and source communities, Routledge, London, 2003, pp. 136–51.

3 JE Stanton, ‘Telling it right: whose story, which story?’ COMA Bulletin No. 28, 1997, pp. 32–5.

4 Marshall McLuhan, Culture Is Our Business, McGraw-Hill, New York, 1970.

5 J Clifford, Routes: travel and translation in the late twentieth century, Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA, 1997, p. 92.

6 CAMA, Previous Possessions, New Obligations: policies for museums in Australia and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, Council of Australian Museum Associations, Melbourne, 1993.

7 Museums Australia, Continuous Cultures, Ongoing Responsibilities, Museums Australia, Canberra, 2005.

8 JE Stanton, ‘At the grass-roots: collecting and the community in Aboriginal Australia’, in S Toussaint and J Taylor (eds), Applied Anthropology in Australasia, University of Western Australia Press, Perth, 1999, pp. 282–94.

9 Stanton, ‘Snapshots on the Dreaming’, pp. 143–7.

10 B Glowczewski, L Pourchez, J Rostkowski and J Stanton (eds), Cultural diversity and Indigenous peoples: oral, written expressions and new technologies, UNESCO, Paris, 2004 (CD-Rom).

11 M Ames, Cannibal tours and glass boxes: the anthropology of museums, University of British Columbia Press, Vancouver, 1992.

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Cite as: John E Stanton, 2011, 'Ethnographic museums and collections: from the past into the future' in Des Griffin and Leon Paroissien (eds), Understanding Museums: Australian Museums and Museology, National Museum of Australia, published online at ISBN 978-1-876944-92-6