Opinion

Objects of Science and Culture: Rethinking The Museum

Ahead of her Critical Companions talk next week, Christine Hansen dives into the archival collections of colonial museums, questioning the past and future of ethnography and object curation.

Ethnographic museums in Europe have a problem. It’s not a new problem and it’s no secret, but it is intractable. Having spent a century or so collecting material from around the globe, these institutions were caught short when the cultural winds of the late 70s and 80s blew the ‘ethnographic crisis’ through their galleries, calling out the fiction that ethnography reported a ‘truth’ undiluted by the perceptions of the ethnographer (and by extension the curator). In just a few short years their intellectual legitimacy was dismantled. Despite the subsequent generations of scholarship, these museums still struggle to find a new meaning for the material sitting in their stores.

One of the favoured strategies at the moment is to rebrand as Museums of World Cultures, often bending the narrative towards a post-colonial re-reading of their own histories. The Rautenstrauch-Joest ‘Cultures of the World Museum’ in Cologne for example has its entire (extensive) collection of Aboriginal weapons on display with accompanying graphics depicting the collection by weight, mass and volume – a disconcerting window into the scale of plunder in Central Australia during the early-to-mid 20th century. In Frankfurt, the entire ‘house’ has been turned into an artist’s studio where objects from the collection are available as inspiration. Experiments in Madrid, Leiden, Neuchatel and Copenhagen are following the same trajectory.

While a welcome innovation in its first flush, this new-wave curatorship is starting to date. Contemporary communities of origin don’t necessarily want to be depicted only in relation to the colonial story, even when it is ‘post’. Now, as First Nations scholars and activists increasingly raise issues of sovereignty, these museums are abandoning their collections for themed displays of contemporary material such as ocean rubbish or industrial waste (the Anthropocene is a favourite topic).

“Regardless of their orphan status, these objects come from a time and place…They are carriers of their own histories, even without their human relatives to speak for them. And these histories are not irrelevant.”

Despite these public shifts, the objects in storage remain un-remediated. There’s the odd skirmish over repatriation (European museums are generally onboard, British museums are notoriously resistant) but the high-status material at the centre of these claims leaves the mountain of objects that populate storehouses in the shadows. In truth, ethnographic collections are not crammed with human remains and secret sacred objects. That material is still found of course, but the vast majority of objects are domestic – baskets, tools, clothing, musical instruments, decorative adornments or innovations (such as boomerangs) that appealed to the collector in the moment as much as they elucidated any ‘scientific’ theory about culture.

Despite this arbitrary foundation, one of the contradictions of ethnographic collections is their overweening ambition to be encyclopaedic. The momentum driving collecting was about developing new taxonomies: what insight does a ‘set’ of objects offer? By the time this question failed, the objects of peoples from every corner of the planet had melded into a museological melange and new institutions had been purpose built to house them.

Colonised Australia was not immune to the collecting craze – we could even be accused of having fuelled it in part – and the national ethnographic collection still exists; it was one of the founding collections of the National Museum of Australia. But the advocacy of people who speak for this material has shifted it into a new relevance. Today these objects address invasion, violence, survival, history, legacy. They connect with ancestors, community, country, cultural practices. Not so in Europe. Despite a few flurries aimed at connecting with communities of origin, the sheer volume and geographic breadth of the collections makes this task impossible, not to mention the mostly non-existing provenance. Where would they start? And who would they ask?

“…the weft of interdependence leads us away from a human-centric narrative towards compassionate attention to the more-than-human weave. The objects speak multiple languages, including those of their own materiality.”

Regardless of their orphan status, these objects come from a time and place. They are made of leather, fibre, bone, timber, shell, feathers, stone. Some are more than 100 years old. They are carriers of their own histories, even without their human relatives to speak for them. And these histories are not irrelevant.

In 2016 the Swedish Museum of World Cultures in Gothenburg ran an experiment with a small exhibition entitled Crossroads: Choice of Path (Korsvägar: Vägskäl). One of the hero objects was a set of fish skin clothing from the Amur Oblas River region in Siberia, made by people deeply identified with fishing heritage. The narrative swerved away from a story of culture, instead refracting into multiple strands: the species of fish from which the skin was taken is extinct, the river now one of the most polluted in the world and descendants of the Indigenous people who made the clothes dispersed into surrounding cities and towns. These entanglements throw up questions of riverine-biology, climate change, pollution, international border disputes and global trade.

This approach neither ignores the ethnographic legacy nor looks to it for a definitive story. Rather, the weft of interdependence leads us away from a human-centric narrative towards compassionate attention to the more-than-human weave. The objects speak multiple languages, including those of their own materiality.

Inspired by this approach, I began to explore the Swedish collections for ‘lost’ objects that told a story of southern oceans. How might objects from this place, stranded orphans from the south, tell a century old story of the East Australian Current? This is how I met the shells. In a box, on a shelf, in a room in Stockholm. Accessioned in 1905, poorly provenanced and immediately forgotten. I was in no way prepared for what came next. I really look forward to telling the story of these shells and their journey when I present Objects of Science and Culture next Thursday.
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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.


For media enquiries, contact Christine Dundas, SEI Communications and Project Officer on +61 2 8627 9857 or christine.dundas@sydney.edu.au.