: You’ve worked extensively with Aboriginal art at major institutions in Australia, including the Art Gallery of Western Australia, the National Gallery of Australia and, presently, in the New Museum Project at the Western Australian Museum. During this time you have maintained an ongoing focus on Indigenous objects in your work as a curator. I’d like to speak with you about the cultural nexus that exists between objects, institutions and communities, and your views on the relationships between cultural institutions and Aboriginal communities.
: My own heritage as an Aboriginal man led me to work with Aboriginal art and objects, so for me the nexus between these cultural objects began as an incredibly personal one. Culture, whether it be ephemeral or material was always something I was drawn to. From childhood through to adulthood, I had a curiosity about how things were made, but even more compelling for me was understanding why they were made, and what they meant. After completing my fine arts degree, and moving into a profession within the cultural sphere, I was given the opportunity to engage more rigorously with cultural materials and expressions. Interestingly, this fostered a shift in the relationship I had with objects and culture. Rather than become one of two points in a dialogue, I became a conduit between community and institution, a mid-way point between object and collection; object and display; object and publication. Having trained as an artist, this was a strange space to find myself in, and one that came with an overwhelming sense of cultural responsibility, a self-generated pressure to ensure that everything was done the ‘right way’.
When I think about collections, for me they really are the keeping places for moveable (and collectable) culture and heritage. Of equal importance is that they are places resourced with the people, expertise, knowledge and connection to community, that enable the object to retain a life within its own cultural framework; to be engaged, reengaged, revitalised and reanimated through a series of public and private activities, some community-led, others initiated by museum or collection. This activation of an object, whether by exhibition or display, or through cultural retrieval by community in the privacy of a collection store, ensure that the object retains its identity and sense of place in the world.
These open relationships between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and museums/collections are central to ensuring that museology continues to progress, and that cultural agency and authority aren’t confused with professional expertise and acquired knowledge. Cultural agency and authority belongs with community, and is directly aligned to cultural hierarchy, societal structure and worldview. These are structures that one is born into, or adopted into, but cannot be acquired through study in formal systems of non-Aboriginal pedagogy. The expertise one acquires professionally is, of course, instrumental in the sharing of culture, and there are many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, like myself, who have acquired knowledge through both streams but it is my own thinking that professional expertise should take its lead from those with cultural agency; from community.
This trend of shifting agency and authority is unfolding within museums around the world, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, and is also being used as a tool for engagement across many industries. It is very exciting to be working on the New Museum Project, working alongside departments who are committed to these values being reflected in all of the work that we do with Aboriginal communities.
: un Magazine
10.1 is focused on the idea of the co-worker and examines some of the evolving relations between people and the material world. How would you describe your relationship with the objects you work with?
: I have often thought of objects as cultural talismans, physical manifestations of the ephemeral and spiritual worlds, of knowledge, ritual, ceremony and the everyday. That being said, I have always been drawn to objects, not just things, but objects that carry with them memory and personal meaning. Being born into a family of European migrants on one side and Aboriginal Australians on the other, I was always surrounded by objects that were revered, whether by my parents or grandparents. These objects served so many functions for both sides of my family. From Scottish silverware and tartans, to Dutch delft blue china and hand-carved clogs, from hand-carved emu eggs to vibrant Aboriginal paintings, there has always been a sense of reverence and importance placed on objects in my family. They were beacons of identity, symbols of faraway homelands, and reminders of family and community. Working closely with art and artefacts over the past decade, I have tried to bring that same reverence to my approach, treating objects with respect and delicacy while trying to always stay true to the intent of the maker, especially in the interpretation of objects. Too often we see layers of meaning applied onto objects by onlookers.
Within the context of our own personal response and interpretation as a visitor, these responses are important and often greatly insightful, but we as curators and interpreters, the caretakers of other people’s cultural material, need to take great care that we create inroads and understanding, without projecting meaning onto the object which might be incongruous with the culture from which that object heralds. These objects have great power to activate new ways of thinking and to build greater understandings of humanity with audiences, however placed within an alien context, or repurposed in a way that doesn’t honour the maker’s intent and the cultural worldview of the maker, devalues the object, shifting it from object to cultural currency.
Working with people and communities, and sharing stories in their own voices, allows us to present stories in a deeply personal way and provide access to the intended meaning, story and or significance of an object, and this is very much in keeping with the approach the New Museum team are taking in developing content and engaging with communities.
: Through your work as a curator you bring together diverse cultural contexts: major institutions and Aboriginal communities (those in the cities and more remote regions). Can you tell me about the values that communities and institutions hold towards cultural objects and material? What are some of the departures or intersections of these values?
: Value is such a subjective term, especially when we think about culture and museums. Community value on art and objects always make for interesting debate. Many objects which have functional purpose in community life are often framed as purely functional, utilitarian objects. Yet within many Aboriginal worldviews, objects don’t exist within a purely functional space, they hold within them culture, lore and custom.
This notion of secularity of the object for me has always felt like a kind of artifice, actively removing layers of cultural complexity and sophistication which exist within Aboriginal people, objects, Country and community. An object may simply be a ‘basket’, but the basket is a receptacle, contained within are layered knowledge systems around ecological knowledge, gender roles and responsibilities, Indigenous pedagogies and important cultural narratives surrounding creator ancestors, significant sites and the rules by which people must live.
In the present day, with museums being far more aware of and engaged with the complexities of culture and worldview, we are seeing more discussion, consultation and dialogue resulting in meaningful collaboration. Museums are embracing the value systems of other cultures, and building these into their content, and also into the visitor experience, creating resonance for Aboriginal visitors which align to their own unique ways of knowing, and this is really important.
: How does the meaning and value of an object shift across the different contexts you engage with? And what have you discovered about the role of translation in this process?
: Meaning, context and value are each interpreted individually and often rather personally. When we take an object from an original context and place it within a new one, we have to make sure that the object’s identity, and place in the world isn’t lost. A perfect example of this is the presentation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art and culture within the fine art context.
The ‘white cube’ certainly isn’t the natural setting for an ornately carved woomera, an engraved pubic ornament, a ceremonial headdress or a dancing board. Each of these objects has a home, a place and context to which they belong. Yet they take on new presence and meaning within these stark and often minimal spaces; comprised of polished marble floors, large white walls and often sparsely furnished with black leather Corbusier furniture.
In these spaces, an object’s value, importance and cultural significance can be greatly elevated purely by the surrounding environment, something simple, functional, yet still inherently imbued with culture, can take on significance beyond that of its value within a community setting. To negate or balance this, the interpretation offered to a viewer needs to be crafted in such a way that the object is located geographically, socially and culturally, while also giving rationale for its display.
Within an art world context this might focus on materiality, aesthetic beauty, technical complexity and craftsmanship, and within a museum environment, the focus may include all of the elements I have mentioned but also layered information about society, culture and custom.
Ideally, all of this information should be offered regardless of what kind of museum or space this is being presented in, after all, these mirror the understandings and interpretations of the object within its original cultural context. Many curators engaged in curatorial ‘practice’ actively work interpretation or intentionally omit it, as a way of shifting focus onto, or away from the object, but for me, the focus has become much more about being a conduit, than being a ‘curatorial practitioner’.
: The New Museum Project is a major redevelopment of the Western Australian Museum, that works towards very meaningful forms of community engagement, collaboration and ownership. What projects are you currently working on in partnership with the Western Australian Museum and Aboriginal communities in WA?
: The New Museum will share stories from around Western Australia, of our people and our place from the past, present and future. It’s an exciting project that allows us to work directly with individuals and communities to share stories in their own voices.
At the moment we are connecting with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities around the state, from the Kimberley in the north, to the desert Country of the far east of the state, down to the far south, and as many places in between. We have been speaking with people about the potential of the New Museum project, evaluating our content ideas as we go, and spending time familiarising ourselves with the amazing projects that are happening across the state and talking with people about their experiences, aspirations and concerns. WA is huge, so this will take some time.
The next stage will be working closely with communities to strategically develop formal partnership and projects of all scales, some of which will end up having a home in the New Museum and others which will have a place within the community. 2016 is going to be a busy year with our team travelling to all corners of the state, and towards the end of the year, we will begin working with community on exciting co-creation projects.
Glenn Iseger-Pilkington is Curator of Content Development at the New Museum Project at the Western Australian Museum.