Opinion

The First Visiting Fellow Comes to SEI

Jennifer Newell is the Curator of Pacific Ethnography at the American Museum of Natural History. She is SEI’s first visiting fellow and wrote about her time with us in Sydney.

I am the Pacific curator at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) and I had the great good fortune to be the recipient of SEI’s first fellowship. Professor Iain McCalman offered me the fellowship to continue conversations begun last year at the “Collecting the Future: Museums, Communities and Climate Change” conference in New York. This conference explored the role of museums and museum collections in engaging communities in issues of climate change. It was hosted by the AMNH and Iain’s HfE Australia Pacific Observatory, and convened by Professor Libby Robin (Australian National University & National Museum of Australia), Dr Kirsten Wehner (NMA) and I. Highlights included Iain’s public lecture on Charlie Veron’s paradigm-shifting research on coral reefs and corals in museums. The focus of these few days was how we can make connections to crucial issues through collections.

Many of the themes raised at the New York conference were explored more fully at the SEI’s ‘Encountering the Anthropocene’ conference in Darling Harbour. It was an enlightening, inspirational and beautifully crafted event that brought together a stimulating group from a variety of ‘tribes’. There were writers, historians, anthropologists, artists, curators and geologists who investigated how we in the humanities can work to create engagements in the concepts and realities of the Anthropocene. From gaining a more grounded and nuanced conception of the Anthropocene as an era, to recognizing what writing and talking about whales, up-close and personal, can achieve – all this, and more, underlined for me how powerful it is to share with Western audiences, in particular, the simple recognition that humans are a part of nature. And that we have become our own nemesis.

I was part of a panel that considered these issues through museums and objects, with Lumepa Apelu  (Museum of Samoa), Jacklyn Lacey (Anthropology, AMNH) and Leah Lui-Chivizhe (University of Sydney). Leah introduced us to a TSI artists’ greeting a mask in the form of his totem, a crocodile, in the British Museum’s storeroom, approaching it on his belly, one crocodile to another. I spoke about museums opening their doors and supporting growing numbers of displaced people to find connections to their new places, to rethink relationships to heritage, and find new ways of caring for country.

During the second week of my fellowship Libby Robin, Kirsten Wehner and I, pulled together the volume coming out of the New York conference. Titled Curating the Future: Museums, Communities and Climate Change, the book is structured around the three key themes of the conference:  the workings of museum objects, connections to place, and conceptions of futures, in the context of a changing planet. Chapters are twinned with object essays, with the object as a starting point for broader discussion.

I can highly recommend this intensive style of working to any editorial team – time away from one’s institution (and one’s email) to work with friends, single-mindedly, in a calm environment, cafés nearby, was a complete luxury. The book is shaping up handsomely, and we are on a fast track to getting it submitted to the Routledge Environmental Humanities Series later this year.

Another highlight for me was an evening discussion session for members of the SEI and a collection of museum people, held at the Macleay Museum with wine and jazz. I gave a slide talk on how we have been thinking through climate change in museums, focusing on the AMNH.

My time with the SEI team was delightful and precious. I am a part of ‘Discovery’ grant application Iain and colleagues have just submitted to the ARC, so I can hope that we will have opportunities to continue to think – and drink!- together sooner rather than later.


Jennifer Newell has been exploring Pacific history and culture for over 20 years, and she is currently the Manager West Pacific Collection at the Australian Museum. Jenny has worked in museums and with Pacific communities in London, New York and Australia. Her research focus has been on relationships between Pacific people, environments and material culture. Her particular focus is on cultural dimensions of climate change, including Pacific Islander activism and changing relationships to the ocean.