By Kimberley Moulton

27 December 2013 - 17:28

Curator Kimberley Moulton at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at Cambridge (image credit: Ali Clark)
Curator Kimberley Moulton at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at Cambridge ©

Photo: Ali Clark

Kimberley Moulton, an Australian museum curator of Aboriginal heritage, writes about her visit to the UK as part of the British Council's ACCELERATE programme for Aboriginal leaders in the creative industries. She explains how indigenous people can reclaim the way they are represented in museums by reframing the way their cultural artefacts are displayed.

I am a descendant of the Yorta Yorta Aboriginal people from the north-east of Victoria, Australia, and my heritage also extends to Mauritius, Germany, Scotland, England and Portugal. My Yorta Yorta great-great grandmother, Ada Cooper, married my Mauritian great-great grandfather, Thomas Shadrach James. They raised my great-grandmother and grandmother at Cummergunja Mission on the banks of the Murray River. My people have lived and cared for their country, culture and each other for more than 60,000 years, and this spirit continues through me.

I work at the Bunjilaka Aboriginal Cultural Centre at Melbourne Museum, which celebrates the living cultures of the Aboriginal people of Victoria, and Australia as a whole. It's part of Museum Victoria, which cares for the state's scientific and cultural collections. I develop exhibitions for the Birrarung Gallery, a space within the centre dedicated to contemporary art and cultural expression by the Victorian Aboriginal community.

Coming into contact with UK museums

I applied for ACCELERATE, a leadership exchange programme run by the British Council for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people working in the creative industries, after finding myself in a position in my career where I felt like I needed that little push. I was looking for help to develop my leadership skills, ideas and networks.

As part of the programme, I spent time at several UK museums, exploring their collections, curatorial practice and public engagement. It was important for me to visit these places to make connections with the collections, but also to meet the people working there and build professional relationships with them.

Reframing the way Aboriginal heritage is presented in museums and galleries

I wanted to look at Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island cultural objects and historical materials in the museums. Often, the labelling of Aboriginal artefacts is missing information about the culture they came from. There may even be more information about the collector than the objects themselves.

I wanted to engage contemporary Aboriginal artists to respond to these collections with new works, and create new stories around them. By creating this connection, the 'lens' and ethnographic gaze can be switched. It gives us agency over our own representation and self-determination, so we can 're-claim' these objects and our space within museums and galleries. This concept has been researched and looked at across the world by many people, but being a part of the British Council's programme opened a path for me to look at these ideas in my own way.

A complex history of cultural appropriation

The representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in museums has long been through objects that were seen as relics of the past, physical evidence of a culture that was 'dying out'. The most 'authentic' of these, unimpaired by the white man's tools, were often displayed in typological clusters to comparatively show the evolution of man, from primitive through to civilised. With the Age of Enlightenment and the 'discovery' of Australia, in came anthropologists, early explorers, amateur collectors and missionaries. They began taking, trading and buying objects and human remains, often in circumstances that would be deemed unethical today.

These objects were sent over to museums across the world. The UK has a significant collection of early Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural materials, including important pieces from the south-east of Australia, where the impact of colonialism was devastating and can still be felt in the community today. For me, working in the museum and gallery sector is an important way I can continue my family and community's legacy in Aboriginal rights and cultural heritage. It's important to me to be involved, create change and tell our stories in museums and galleries, to share and educate people about our culture.

While these historical collections are from our past, they also represent our present. For some people, our identity and culture are intrinsically linked to these objects. They are a tangible connection to our ancestors, and embody the cultural connection we have to our history and to our reality.

Some museums and galleries still present our cultural artefacts in a dated ethnographic way, and homogenise us as one people. This continues to perpetuate an incorrect representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture, and boxes us in cases as relics of the past. It can be frustrating to see exhibitions that misrepresent who we are, and undervalue the complexity of our culture. If there is no collaboration or engagement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people now, how can a collection remain relevant to the world today?

How museums are collaborating with contemporary Aboriginal artists

All museums I visited were open to collaboration, as international guests present an opportunity for them to improve their display methods and check sensitive knowledge on issues geographically (and sometimes culturally) removed from them. They gave me access to their collections, and were incredibly generous with their time and knowledge. All of them had invited contemporary artists to engage with their collections. Having the opportunity to visit these places and meet with curators who made me feel welcome and inspired was an amazing experience. I was able to hear about new exhibitions in development, community arts programmes and collaborations.

There is so much opportunity to learn and share knowledge between Australia and the UK. Having an open dialogue and building trusted professional relationships are so important in creating new ways to tell old stories. It's important to understand that there is much that we do share in our histories, and that working together is the next step in our journey.

The next call for applications to the ACCELERATE programme will open in early 2014. Follow the link to sign up for e-mail updates.

Kimberley spent time at  the Tate Liverpool, the Slavery Museum in Liverpool, the British Museum, Saffron Walden Museum, the Pitt-Rivers Museum at Oxford University, the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at Cambridge University, the Royal Academy London, and the Serpentine Gallery in London. 

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