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Pacific Cultures Consultation June 2009: Emerging themes

By: Dr Lynda Kelly, Category: Museullaneous, Date: 10 Aug 2010

As part of the front-end planning for a Pacific Cultures exhibition, four separate consultations with Pacific Island communities were conducted in June 2009 to inform the development of the concept brief. These were comprised of two workshops with secondary school students; one with primary school students and their parents; and a fourth with adults. This post summarises the main themes/ideas that emerged.

Pacific gallery feedback

 © Australian Museum

What objects should we include and what stories should we tell?

  • Tattoos – tools for tattooing, meaning of the symbols, stories, history, modern interpretation
  • Conflict – weapons, warfare, spears, clubs, armour, crime – hard issues, conflict between islands, tribal wars, impact of Europeans, traditional power relationships, history of settlement
  • Environment – sea, land, beaches, stars, navigation, migration, canoes, food, climate change, animals, sustainability, caring for the environment
  • Music – performance, song, dance, instruments, drums, haka
  • Jewellery – making, wearing, significance and meaning
  • Weaving – cloaks, mats, bags, baskets, flax, patterns, dyes
  • Feasting – tools and utensils, sharing, ceremonies, costumes, special events – weddings, funerals, coming of age

For the young people we consulted tattoos, music and jewellery were particularly strong themes. Christianity and the role of the church and the importance of connection were also strong themes.

What information should we provide with the objects?

Two distinct levels of information emerged. The first of these is the more basic, commonly sought information such as:

  • What is it?
  • How was it made?
  • How old is it
  • What is it made from?
  • Where is it from?

A deeper level of information was also desired and relates to the significance and value of the collection items and also their relationship to the Australian Museum:

  • The stories associated with the objects.
  • The cultural significance of the objects.
  • How is it used and by whom – only special people or at particular times.
  • How did it come to be in the Museum’s collection?
  • Who donated or collected the object?

How would they like to access information about the objects in the collection?

  • In all groups there was a very strong preference for the notion of a ‘knowledgeable guide’ in the space who could talk about the exhibition and the objects on display. Participants stressed the importance of showing the objects in context with their purpose made clear and not just as art objects displayed in a showcase.
  • The sharing of information through demonstration and active participation was also recommended and the ability to handle objects was emphasised as important to understanding and appreciating their value and significance.
  • A multi sensory approach was favoured with the sights, sounds and smells of the Pacific providing an immersive experience for visitors.
  • People were less interested in reading large amounts of text and moving images, film and sound were seen as more effective ways of communicating information.

How could the collection be linked with a contemporary context?

This question was surprisingly easy to answer and became very obvious in discussions about the objects in the Museum collections. Conversations naturally turned to comparing what was done or used in the past and what the modern equivalent is. The links between the historic and the contemporary will need to be an important component of any exhibition about Pacific Cultures and many participants described contemporary practices as a way ‘into’ understanding history.

Many of the themes that emerged from this consultation had obvious historic and contemporary context and participants pointed this out when they spoke about the cultural practices they maintain in their lives. Some examples include:

  • tattoos which are very popular today have a long history in Pacific Island cultures
  • the design of contemporary jewelry is based on traditional patterns
  • contemporary music and dance such as hip hop has links to traditional music and dance

Finally
Contributing to a discussion about the proposed exhibition of Pacific Cultures was warmly embraced by all the people we spoke to. They were, without exception, delighted to be asked to participate in this consultation. It is important that we maintain these relationships and keep participants involved in the process as it evolves. These networks will grow and develop if they are nurtured and are a great asset to the exhibition development team. As one person commented:Thank you for taking the initiative to consult with us, it is greatly appreciated and will benefit both the people and the Museum.

More quotes from participants can be found here.