Published 10 August 2020
The Critical Companions Series celebrates innovative and rich thinking. The series aims to traverse disciplinary silos to provoke different perspectives and invite new conversations.
Ethnographic museums across Europe are full of objects with a troubled past. The interests of early collectors rarely extended to detailed provenance and the often-colonial context of early collecting left such material tainted by unpalatable histories, not easily rescued even by the new taxonomy of ‘world culture’. But these collections have lives beyond their historic problems. As archives of shell, fibre, hair, tendon, feather, leather and wood, they also offer environmental snapshots of the place and time of their origin, some more than a century old.
Through a case study of an Australian shell ornament held in Stockholm’s National Ethnographic Museum, this project explores the opportunity to reconceive such collections as baseline environmental data. Collected in 1911, the riji – incised pearl shell – carries the shame of its collection by the grave robbing Swedish explorer Eric Mjöberg; the ceremonial power attributed to it by the Baardi people of northern Western Australia; and environmental information dating back a hundred years. Today, the tropical Leeuwin Current, the birthplace of this Pinctada maxima, is warming, slowing and acidifying. The descendant bivalves of the riji, unable to move, are increasingly dying before maturation. Now more than a century old, this ethnographic curiosity carries the stories of its origins, both scientific and cultural, into the changing climate-future: a hundred years of data and story is captured in its crust.
Reconfiguring ethnographic collections as both scientific and cultural not only invites western biodiversity scientists into museum storehouses, it shines a light on non-western knowledge systems in communities of origin, born of deep ties to more-than-human life-worlds. In this exchange, new environmental understandings are advanced and new relevance is given to objects stranded in European collections.
Christine Hansen is a historian with cross-disciplinary interests in critical heritage studies and the environmental humanities. She has an Honours degree in Aboriginal Studies from UWS and completed her PhD in History at the Australian National University in 2010. She has been a Post-Doctoral Researcher at the Centre for Environmental History at the Australian National University and a Post-Doctoral Researcher in Critical Heritage Studies at Gothenburg University. Her current research project in Gothenburg, funded by Formas – the Swedish Research Council, focuses on Aboriginal knowledge systems in relation to fire in south-eastern Australia. She also has an active research interest in Australian Aboriginal collections held by European ethnographic museums. Christine is currently the manager of knowledge and content at QVMAG, Tasmania.
Rebecca Lawrence is a Senior Research Fellow at the Sydney Environment Institute where she joined in 2020 after her time at the Department of Political Science, Stockholm University as Research Fellow. She is Chief Investigator for a major research project funded by the Swedish Research Council for Sustainable Development on the impacts of mining on local and Indigenous communities in Sweden, Norway, Finland and Australia. Rebecca is also funded by the Norwegian Research Council for a project concerned with the integration of Indigenous knowledge systems into environmental decision making.