15 June 2023

‘Un-Disciplining the Museum’ – 2023 MEG Conference in Cambridge, 18-19 April 2023

 The prospect of writing a summary report of this year’s MEG conference is, quite frankly, pretty daunting. The range of papers, the complexity of ideas, the combined wealth of knowledge and experience shared both in the lecture hall and so freely over lunch, pages of notes to try and make sense of … So, what follows is a personal, but I hope adequate, overview of some themes, comments and examples that had a particular resonance for me.

It felt so appropriate to discuss the potential, and pitfalls, for ‘Un-Disciplining the Museum’ in Cambridge. Hosted by the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and held in Emmanuel College, we were surrounded by contrasting (conflicting?) epistemologies, and what can often feel like a divide between academic and professional museum practice, at least to those outside of the university/university museums. But MEG has always aimed to push at the core structures of practice, with its combination of curators and academics putting interdisciplinary conversations at the centre of its discussions. What these annual conferences provide is the opportunity for us all to consider new and better ways of working, many of which come with challenges, in a safe and supportive space. The conference was split into six themed sessions of papers, plus a session of short work-in-progress reports. But it struck me that these themes were themselves undisciplined, refusing to stay in their sessions, and spilling over and connecting ideas in a very satisfying way throughout the two days of fascinating papers and lively discussion.

Many papers demonstrated the mistake of thinking that only the west -- or the academy -- or the museum -- have disciplines, and showed the tremendous, and mutual, value of multivocality and centring the many forms of non-Western knowledge into our museum practice. We were also challenged about the very way we think of objects – and, indeed, even the use of that word. Instead, we were asked to consider how we move away from the notion of material culture as museum property towards a reality of at least some being treated as ‘More-than-Objects’ that have their own needs, desires, and rituals. How could/should engagement with collections change if we think of them as alive, containing spirits or representing a living person, and what are the ethical implications of this?

The materiality and physicality of objects and the experiential power they have was frequently reiterated. Larry Bright, Shona Coyle, and Lester Coyle’s enthusiasm for their project with the Robert Neil collection showed there is no substitute for physical interaction with artefacts, and how the learning from close observation and examination of them can be fed back into contemporary making practice and community knowledge. There were also some excellent examples of projects that showed how, by rethinking their practice and taking risks, museums could, in fact, enact greater care in ways that had real significance for Indigenous communities. Being respectful to the traditional ways that communities of origin use, view, or handle objects, and the ritual needs of the objects themselves, shone through project work by Inbal Harding, Alisa Santikam/Imogen Coulson, and Anya Gleizer/Faye Belsey. We can all imagine only too well how difficult conversations around feeding objects and having fire in the gallery must have been to initiate with colleagues at all levels. Their willingness to question and challenge institutional hierarchies and engrained practices was truly inspiring.

Another linking thread between papers was the game-changing potential of digital spaces for both care and knowledge. It is important to continually ask who is using digital platforms, and who is alienated, and some excellent case studies demonstrated the challenges and opportunities of putting new approaches into action. Megan Backhouse observed that good museum documentation practice is challenging and more than simple data-cleaning, but that revisiting documentation is an opportunity to put back people who have been erased. This is particularly vital in cases where violent accession has led to absences and silences in the museum record, such as the Tibetan collections discussed by Chukyi Kyaping. We were shown how museum staff must be open to new terminologies and aware of exclusions caused by transliteration and non-phonetic spellings -- digital platforms may make information more searchable and accessible than ever before, but this doesn’t necessarily make it more democratic. A number of speakers showed that we all bring our own frames of reference into our work, and that this can feel at odds with the perceived institutional need for neutrality or the fear of ‘getting it wrong’. But these can also sometimes help us to understand objects and materials better, and, as Katrina Dring noted, the changes that we make now will make the field of museum documentation better for the future.

The conference opened with an observation that it was worth delving deeper into disciplinary histories to forge new praxes, and it ended with an afternoon of papers on the histories of change and hidden voices, followed by Jago Cooper’s thinking behind the radical revisioning of the Sainsbury Centre. Clare Wintle’s exploration of the professional experiences of ethnography curators in the post-war period exposed the shame most curators invariably have had about aspects of the back-office work of museums at some point in their careers: unseen, unappreciated, often overwhelming, and rarely prioritised by the public, decision-makers, or funders. Anna Freed suggested that changes happening now are not necessarily new, but that many good examples of collaborative working have faded in institutional memories. Curators have generally tried to do their best to practice care, but as papers through the conference showed, our understanding of what this means is rapidly changing, and will undoubtedly continue to do so. As this conference showed, there is no question that museums in the global north must find better ways of doing things. This often means experimental work, but as Nicole Anderson pointed out, the worst mistakes have already been made through violent and colonial collecting. Museums have a responsibility to do whatever they can to repair this damage to individuals and communities in places of origin and the diaspora, and this means being proactive now. Perhaps the difference between curatorial efforts in the past and ours today is the accessible documentation, public discussions and, hopefully, transparency around both the aims and process of museum practice. These place clear markers for future generations of curators to recognise and understand, even if professional practice has transformed again by then. As always, the MEG conference has issued plenty of challenges but, I feel, also given all of us lots of inspiration and practical examples of how to meet them with greater confidence.

It has been impossible here to give anything close to the credit due to every paper and speaker, but a full set of abstracts is available at https://maa.cam.ac.uk/whats_on/events. Check them out and let’s carry on these important conversations.


Catherine Hirst

PhD Researcher (Art History)

University of Sussex

3 January 2023

People and Plants Workshop 2: Western Australia (blog 2)


This blogpost reflects on the second in-person workshop of the People and Plants project which took place on 7th November 2022 in Edinburgh. It brought together speakers from the Australian Tropical Herbarium, National Museums Scotland, Ngarluma Yindjibarndi Foundation and University of Western Australia. We collectively focused on a group of historic Ngarluma and Yindjibarndi biocultural material now held at National Museums Scotland. The Museum holds dozens of Aboriginal objects sold and given to it in the 1890s by Dr. Emile Clement, a collector who was managing gold mines in Western Australia. Clement was the most prolific known contributor to British and Irish collections of so-called ‘ethnographic’ objects from Western Australia during the colonial period, and his reflections once dominated how western museums acquired and interpreted Aboriginal material. Now, however, the collection demonstrates the potential of indigenous ethnobotanical material for knowledge-sharing work.

In this, the second of two blogs about the workshop, Nicola Froggatt (Research Manager, the National Trust) discusses her experience of the day.

 Kevin Guiness talks through items from Ngarluma and Yindjibarndi Country with workshop participants (c) Ali Clark

Knowledge through Country

A common thread emerged throughout the day’s discussions: the centrality of Country in better understanding these Ngarluma and Yindjibarndi objects. ‘Country’ is ‘the term often used by Aboriginal peoples to describe the lands, waterways and seas to which they are connected. The term contains complex ideas about law, place, custom, language, spiritual belief, cultural practice, material sustenance, family and identity’.[1] Ngarluma and Yindjibarndi Country, in the Pilbara region of Western Australia, encompasses a rich and diverse landscape of coastline, rivers, mountains and more. Clement sold or gave over 1,600 Aboriginal objects to European museums, of which the overwhelming majority came from the Pilbara. Ali Clark (National Museums Scotland) and Alistair Paterson (University of Western Australia) reflected that for many European museums the region effectively became a proxy for Australia, downplaying the diversity of the continent’s hundreds of Aboriginal cultural groups. Speaking with Kate Oosterhof, senior Ngarluma woman Kerry Churnside and senior Yindjibarndi man Kevin Guiness (all Ngarluma Yindjibarndi Foundation) flagged how problematic it is for Aboriginal people to continue finding their distinctive cultural identities carelessly lumped together.

We saw how objects are embedded with information that inherently challenges the ‘flattening’ of diverse indigenous cultural knowledges within colonial worldviews. For example, when read with appropriate cultural expertise, Kevin explained, a wooden spearthrower’s markings can be identified as specifically Ngarluma or Yindjibarndi. Clement’s notes on this point are lacking, but for too long they were the major lens through which curators understood and interpreted the items. Today, working across different collections and ‘types’ of museum connects stories and reveals relationships between objects that have too often been discussed in isolation. We considered a hand fishing net made of spinifex grass cord, and its potential usage alongside botanical fish poison such as an example held at Kew Gardens in London. Such stories of use challenge traditional western divisions between ‘plant specimen’ and ‘ethnographic artefact’.

Objects as connectors

Kerry powerfully discussed how Ngarluma and Yindjibarndi biocultural objects sit within a wider holistic system of being. She introduced the Galharra (skin group) system, within which everyone is connected and understood to carry different roles and responsibilities. People, plants, animals: all sit in relationship to the land and each other under a system written into Country back ‘when the world was soft’. I was struck by the need to appreciate the Galharra system’s significance when thinking about Ngarluma and Yindjibarndi material culture.

Objects are connectors of many different stories and meanings, and this proved especially striking given that many Aboriginal objects are multifunctional. These diverse functions may not be recognised in museum documentation. Kevin returned to a spearthrower, drawing our attention to notches carved along one side. These marks, he explained, reveal something not documented in the museum record. Their significance starts to emerge when placed alongside an unassuming-looking pick-saw, which can be brushed across the notches to make music. Tool, weapon, musical instrument: this spearthrower is all these and more.

Working well

Our conversations also turned to how indigenous biocultural knowledge and objects were and are being used by non-indigenous researchers. Gerry Turpin (Australian Tropical Herbarium) observed that all the world’s biodiversity hotspots have been managed in some way by indigenous peoples. How can we ensure that indigenous biocultural knowledge benefits these communities? How can western researchers and practitioners break cycles of biopiracy, the taking of plant knowledge without negotiation with and consent from those who nurtured and sustained it? These questions are as pertinent to museum practitioners as they are to commercial enterprises like the bushtucker and medicine industries.

Gerry Turpin discusses recording and preserving Indigenous Biocultural Knowledge (c) Ali Clark

Kevin and Kerry highlighted a further ethical dimension stemming from the irrevocable link between the objects in Edinburgh and their Ngarluma and Yindjibarndi Country. No matter how far it travels, Kevin noted, a boomerang remains tied with its homeland and the tree it came from. Objects can be homesick, so visiting them is a hard but important thing for Traditional Custodians to do. It is therefore important to respect the emotional and cultural burdens that Aboriginal knowledge holders may be carrying to make research collaborations between Britain and Australia possible. When done respectfully, the knowledge gained through these relationships has the potential to transform how museums can understand and communicate the rich knowledge embedded within ethnobotanical collections.

[1] Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, ‘Welcome to Country’, https://aiatsis.gov.au/explore/welcome-country [accessed 20 December 2022].

People and Plants Workshop 2: Western Australia

The second in person workshop of the People and Plants project took place on 7th November in Edinburgh. The workshop focussed on collections from Western Australia collected by Emile Clement, and brought together speakers from the Australian Tropical Herbarium, National Museums Scotland, University of Western Australia and Ngarluma Yindjibarndi Foundation. 

In this first of two blogs about the workshop, Kathleen Lawther discusses her experience of the day:

Kerry Churnside and Kevin Guiness in conversation with Kate Oosterhof. Photo by Ali Clark, 2022

I was able to join the first People and Plants workshop at the Powell-Cotton Museum as I was just beginning my own collections research project there. This time I was attending as a new doctoral student, having just started a PhD with the University of Leicester. My research project looks at connecting data from different museums as part of the Museum Data Service, so I approached this workshop from a collections data point of view. I have worked with more than one museum that has items collected by Clement, and so I was interested in how museums could share information relating to collections with shared provenance. From Ali Clark I learnt that the majority of Australian Aboriginal material from Western Australia in National Museums Scotland and other UK regional museums came from Clement. This means that his collecting has become a proxy for Australian Aboriginal material in many  museums. Where museums are displaying their collections as representative of the vastness of ‘Australia’, in fact most of these items came from one specific area and were mediated by the collecting of one man. 

While this aspect of the history of collections is revealing about museums, the great thing about these workshops is having the opportunity to hear directly from people with a cultural connection to the collections and the land from which they originate. My museum-centric perspective on collections information was shifted by hearing from the other speakers. 

Gerry Turpin from the Australian Tropical Herbarium described how part of his role at the Tropical Indigenous Ethnobotany Centre (TIEC) is to provide assistance in recording and preserving Indigenous Biocultural Knowledge (IBK). This includes sharing information that the herbarium has about collections back to local language groups - Indigenous names for plants are of particular interest because of the loss of Indigenous languages. He also offers training around intellectual property, protocols and agreements, and legislation to help people understand and advocate for their rights. 

From a data management perspective, I was interested to hear about TIEC’s use of the Miromaa database, which has a cost for institutions to use, but is free for indigenous people to use. It is favoured over more sophisticated systems because it is easy to use and because each database is standalone. While in museums conversations are about how to connect and share data, the Aboriginal groups who work with TIEC prefer that these records are not online because of sensitivity around sharing data and consent. These concerns, which are based on the historic and ongoing exploitation of indigenous knowledge, must be considered when museums which hold collections dating from the colonial period are working on data sharing initiatives. 

In the second part of the day we heard from Kerry Churnside, Kevin Guiness and Kate Oosterhof of the Ngarluma Yindjibarndi Foundation, and had the opportunity to see some of the objects. I appreciated the gestures that NMS staff made towards acknowledging Kerry and Kevin as having ownership over the collections - for example participants were asked to seek permission from them, rather than museum staff, before photographing any objects. 

Kevin Guiness discusses Yindjibarndi spearthrowers with the group. Photo by Ali Clark, 2022.

Kerry and Kevin explained some of the cultural protocols in their communities which museums need to understand when approaching Indigenous groups to work with collections. For example Kerry explained that she and Kevin are considered senior in the community but are not elders. The long distance travel involved in this project made it difficult for elders to participate. She also explained how the Western Australian Museum had suggested training young people in the community as curators to work with the collections, but this was inappropriate because it would not have been culturally safe for a more junior or less experienced person to engage with the collections. Museums need to know this to respect cultural safety and to make it safe to engage with the collections. 

This made me reflect on several aspects of museum work. Firstly the need for large and diverse teams of people to work with collections. People with cultural knowledge (in this case people with appropriate cultural seniority, and both men and women) and people with knowledge of museum systems and history need to work together. Secondly, the way we in museums expect to be able to know and record everything about an object, or collection, and have the ambition to share this knowledge as widely as possible. We think it is our right to know everything, when in other cultures, sometimes the ones from which the collections originate, this is not the case. Of course in the sector there is an awareness of cultural protocols, and I was aware of some of these issues before the workshop, but there is a difference between reading a summary in a book or guidance document (probably written by a non-indigenous person) and having the opportunity to hear directly about people’s experiences and to discuss it in a group of people with diverse connections to the collections. Finally, I reflected on safety and museums. The language of ‘safe spaces’ has become commonplace in museums, and this was reflected in some of the sessions that I attended at the Museums Association conference, also held in Edinburgh that week, so it was a subject that was on my mind. Museums need to do more than assert that they are safe spaces. They need to listen to people when they explain what will make engaging with museums and collections safe(r) for them and follow through with the action required to change their practice accordingly.