A new permanent exhibition at the University of Sydney’s Chau Chak Wing Museum is a collaboration with communities from seven Aboriginal art centres across Australia. It champions Indigenous perspectives, languages and stories.
Ambassadors features some of Australia’s most precious cultural artefacts among its 100 objects, covering aspects of cultural practices of 25 language groups.
“The Ambassadors exhibition represents a marked departure from past practices of exhibiting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island culture in Australian museums,” said Matt Poll, Assistant Curator of Indigenous Heritage at the Chau Chak Wing Museum.
Aboriginal art centres and communities across Australia have collaborated with curators at the University of Sydney to design an exhibition that seeks to deconstruct the misguided depictions of the Aboriginal past that museums have been instrumental in creating, Poll explained.
Eight Ambassador exhibition cases are located throughout the museum, tangentially placed inside, and in relation to, other exhibitions in the new Chau Chak Wing Museum.
“For many Aboriginal and Torres Strait community members today, so much of their personal history has been obscured from them through non-Indigenous people dominating the historical literature about the Aboriginal past. Ambassadors is an important opportunity to flip the narrative from that of historical disadvantage, into a demonstration of cultural authority,” Poll said.
All objects to be exhibited are drawn from the Macleay Indigenous heritage collections, which are a part of the oldest natural history museum collections in Australia. Much of this collection was created in the 19th century by public servant and entomologist Alexander Macleay and his associates or by the earliest staff and students of the anthropology department at the University, which began in the 1920s. In past lives, these objects were used to teach anthropology, education, geology and social sciences students at the University.
“The exhibition title refers to objects being ‘ambassadors’ of the philosophies and cultural values of the regional cultural centres or ‘embassies’ they belong to, where in the past they may have been used to teach inaccurate depictions of Aboriginal culture, today they are being transformed by community members into a narrative that empowers First Nations’ perspectives,” Matt Poll said.
“We’ve made the conscious choice to shift the voice of authority and knowledge outwards to those who have nurtured and maintained their cultures over millennia. The exhibition recognises each display as an ambassador of Country, a diplomatic mediator that encourages deep learning.”
“In preparing this exhibition, for instance, some members of the Larrakiya community in Darwin learnt of the existence of objects such as Mangalma (reed necklaces) from 1877 that they didn’t know existed but are extremely important to them, sparking renewed interest in materials and craft practices that were mistakenly presumed lost,” Poll said.
“We are already discussing touring these objects in Darwin in the future and participating in the launch of a museum there. It is a great example of how Ambassadors is a dynamic project that is ongoing and will hopefully inspire Aboriginal community members to become curators, artists, teachers and professors in their own communities.”
Poll says the Chau Chak Wing Museum’s ability to draw on a diverse range of collections from art, archaeology or natural history is an important opportunity to recontextualise all the collections in incredibly different ways.
“The Ambassadors exhibition is both the starting point of a new conversation and community dialogue as well as an end point to non-Indigenous theories of what Aboriginal culture is thought to be.”
Ambassadors will allow students and the public to better understand the countless networks, accumulated knowledges and experiences of just some of Australia’s diverse Aboriginal communities. It also examines colonial histories that are not widely known, such as the history of pre-settler trade with the Pacific Islands and language preservation and regeneration. Objects range from clothing, ornaments, sculptures and photography to grinding stones, shields, fire sticks and axes.
“Art centres are often the ‘front door’ to remote Aboriginal communities,” Poll said. “Ambassadors is about the Aboriginal people whose culture is represented in the Chau Chak Wing Museum expressing their willingness and sometimes obligations to interpret those objects.
“The consultations have been a long process of participating in local and national community networks. Museums play a crucial role in transforming the conversations that take place around history. Australian museums, working with Aboriginal communities, are ahead of much of the rest of the world in gradually understanding how a collection should be valued for its power to enact restorative justice by giving prominence to First Nations people authoring their own versions of the First Nations’ past.”
Poll explains the role of objects not only as ambassadors but as ancestors of contemporary peoples means visitors might have to work to connect the dots between the different messages but that is part of the exhibition design. It breaks down the idea of a homogenous Aboriginal Australia to reflect alternative entry points into the many different nations that comprise contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australia today.
Regions and Art Centre Embassies:
Gadigal (Sydney) – Redfern community Centre,
An acknowledgement of the Gadigal people is built into the forecourt of the Museum, which sits on Gadigal land, and Gadigal
Wiradjuri classification underpins the selection of objects and the inclusion of Wiradjuri names for objects long-held in the Macleay Museum comes out of a language revitalisation
Northern Queensland – Girringun Aboriginal Art Centre
This art centre covers a region between Townsville and Cairns and has two cases in the exhibition. Basket making, shields and swords will be a focus of this display.
Tiwi Islands (Northern Territory) – Jilamar
This display comes out of the University’s existing relationship with the The Tiwi Strong Women’s Group and student placement programs in the Tiwi Islands.
Iwaidja (Coburg Peninsular Northern Territory) – Associat
Language and its use in interpreting items and paintings will feature outside the Museum’s education room.
Kimberley (Broome and Derby Western Australia) – Mowanjum Aboriginal Art and Cultural Centre
Features pearl shells and research on the Karadjari and
Larrakia (Darwin, Northern Territory) – Larrakia Nation
Larrakia Nation have requested that these objects be a community-operated cultural space using objects from the Chau Chak Wing Museum.
Verity Leatherdale M +61 403 067 342 E email@example.com.