Exhibiting Concepts, Experiencing Meanings

I’ve just joined Manchester Museum as Trainee Curator in Anthropology as part of the Future Curators programme at the British Museum. A couple of weeks ago, Stephen Welsh and I attended a symposium at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, organised to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Sainsbury Research Unit for the Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas. The symposium was entitled ‘Exhibiting Concepts, Experiencing Meanings: Current and future curatorial challenges’. The programme brought together curators and academics from across the world to discuss the intellectual and practical challenges which surround exhibition making with ethnographic collections. There were many fascinating papers, but here I’m going to highlight just a few of the projects discussed.

In a session entitled ‘Experiencing exhibitions ‘at home’ and abroad’, Gaye Sculthorpe, Section Head for Oceania at the British Museum spoke about the project she is currently working on to develop exhibitions about Indigenous Australia to be shown in London and Canberra in 2015. The major temporary exhibition at the British Museum will be an outcome of a five year research project which has sought to engage indigenous communities across Australia. Many of the objects will then travel to the National Museum of Australia for a related exhibition. Gaye spoke of the intense emotional reactions she’d witnessed from indigenous visitors when faced with objects which represent the contentious history of Australia.

This shield was collected in Australia when Captain Cook landed at Botany Bay in 1770. It represents the first contact between Europeans and Indigenous Australians and will return to Australia in 2015 for the first time since it was collected as part of a loan from the collection of the British Museum. This is likely to have a huge emotional impact on Indigenous audiences for the exhibitions in London and Canberra.

The emotional power of objects was also addressed by Noelle Kahuna who spoke about the loan of Kū figures to the Bishop Museum in Hawaii. This was the first time in over 150 years that three monumental carvings of the god Kū had come together. The carvings from the collections of the British Museum in London, the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts and the Bishop Museum are thought to be the last remaining examples of this quality and size in the world. Kū is a god known is several Pacific cultures associated with procreation, prosperity and warfare. In this exhibit, the lenders agreed that the objects could be dressed in loincloths called a malo, honouring traditional beliefs and acknowledging the power of museums to explore issues of cultural identity.

The three Ku figues on display at the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum in Hawaii in 2010.

Many speakers addressed the need for exhibitions to be more than geographical or typological arrangements of objects, and suggested ways that displays could use concepts drawn from indigenous cultures. Aristoteles Barcelos-Neto spoke of how a new framework had been developed for Amerindian studies which contributed to a change in anthropological approach. His ethnographic film about the Amazon’s Wauja community made in 2007 shows atujuwa masks, the manufacture of which was revived as a cultural practice in 1997. Fourteen masks have been made to go into private collections in Paris and Lisbon, as they would not exist for long in the humid rainforest climate. Exhibitions of the masks were developed around the Wauja concept of apapaatai, which are spirits thought to cause illness. This type of illness will not kill but can only be cured by a shaman, and once cured allows the person to take on the power and protection of that spirit.

The range of papers presented across the three day symposium was vast, and raised many questions which will require further thought going into the future. In the opening remarks, it was suggested that anthropological museums need to begin to address environmental issues as these concerns are of particular relevance to many indigenous communities as well as to the wider world. While climate change and deforestation have been easily incorporated into displays within museums of natural history or science, these issues are yet to be tackled in ethnographic museums. This theme was not revisited for discussion during the symposium, but presents an interesting challenge to curators: in a time where many institutions do not have the capacity to continue collecting contemporary objects and need to make our historical collections relevant, how can we use them to provoke discussion around environmental concerns?

Several speakers also discussed the role of the curator – as a guardian for collections, but also as a translator, to let people know what they’re looking at and why they should want to look at it. Do they also have the responsibility to ask questions and provoke reactions?

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