People usually assume that museums are primarily collections of objects, but they are not, says Director Frank Howarth.
Science specimens or cultural artefacts are of no use to anyone if they are kept locked away and preserved safely for ‘the future’ and never used.
Museums are about stories and knowledge, with people using the collections as catalysts and information carriers for those conversations. Museum philosopher Stephen Weil put it simply when he said that museums would re-invent themselves when they realise that they are not about things, but are for people.
We had a telling example of this philosophy recently when four groups of visitors came to the Museum to access the cultural collections – all in one day. First was a delegation from the Northern Territory’s Northern Land Council, who wanted to know what objects, stories and knowledge the Museum holds about their heritage and how we might work with them to learn more about their stories and knowledge.
The second were visiting artists Barayuwa Mununggurr and Geoffrey Ngurruwuthun from Arnhem Land, who came here to connect Museum visitors with Aboriginal art from their Country, to learn from our collections and add to our stories and knowledge. Next was a wonderful Australian band called the Stiff Gins (see photo), also artists-in-residence, who are exploring stories and songs retained in Aboriginal cultural material to develop material for a new CD.
Finally, there was Eric Bridgeman, a contemporary artist of Papua New Guinea and Australian heritage whose work explores the rapidly changing culture of that vibrant and sometimes troubled country on Australia’s doorstep. Each of these visitors interacted with the collections in their own way to tell stories and, ultimately, leave the collections all the richer for it.
Another group of storytellers in the Museum is our own staff who have learned a thing or two about the collections over the years. To hear Geoscience Collection Manager Ross Pogson bring a meteorite to life (so to speak) or Archives Manager Vanessa Finney speak passionately about Frank Hurley’s photographs is one of the great delights of working here.
The value of the Museum’s collections resides in these stories that tell how the objects came to be here, how they help us make sense of this world and how they help shape our futures. With this in mind, we are publishing a book later this year that aims to capture some of these stories, people and objects. This new publication is just one of several initiatives that continue to bring the Museum’s collections to life. Stay tuned for more information about the book closer to the publication date.
Frank Howarth, Director of the Australian Museum
First published in Explore 35(1) p1, 2013