Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Visiting Researchers

© Zoe Rimmer
My name is Zoe Rimmer and I am a proud member of the Tasmanian Aboriginal community with 11 years’ experience in museum curation and cultural heritage management. Over this time I have had the privilege of working with the Tasmanian Aboriginal community to help protect, preserve, and revitalize our cultural practices and heritage. I am particularly passionate about how museum collections can be utilized by Indigenous people to maintain, revive and elaborate on cultural practices through effective and meaningful engagement between institutions and Indigenous communities. 

Through a Churchill Fellowship I have recently had the unique opportunity to travel overseas to explore the ways that museums outside Australia are engaging with Indigenous (source) communities and to look at different methods used to present Indigenous cultures to international audiences.

Over 9 weeks through May, June and July 2014, I travelled to the US, Canada, UK and France and embraced the opportunity to experience new directions, methodologies and outcomes in museum cooperative partnerships with Indigenous communities. Somewhere between the 12 flights, 62 hours in the air, 1,900kms by train, 1,200kms by car, 1,000kms by camper van and at least 1 ferry ride – I managed to take 4500 photos and visit 35 museums, art galleries and cultural centers. Not all of these institutions were strictly related to my research but I found that even on my days “off” I was going to museums and art galleries. I think I have developed a serious addiction, and of course I bought home several extra kilos of catalogues and museum publications.

I was absolutely blown away by some of the largest cultural institutions in the world, had unforgettable experiences at some of the smallest and met countless inspirational people along the way. Since I’ve been home EVERYONE has asked me what the best part of my trip was and I think I give a different response every time, as there were just so many. Visiting the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, wandering the galleries, experiencing the uniquely curated cabinets and going behind the scenes to meet Pitt Rivers staff was certainly one of the highlights of my trip. 

Model canoe PRM 1893.50.14 © Pitt Rivers Museum
Searching for the Tasmanian Aboriginal canoe models and the precious marina shell necklace on display in the Pitt Rivers galleries and having the opportunity to view the rest of the Tasmanian Aboriginal collection of necklaces and baskets was an exciting and emotional experience as these objects are a real and tangible link to our ancestors. The Tasmanian model canoes are very rare objects and are significant to the Tasmanian Aboriginal community as they are three of only eight known surviving models from the 1840s (the other five are held by the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery). The reed canoe models are particularly special as they are the two known to be made of this material. The bark canoe models at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery have been used by the Tasmanian Aboriginal community to help revive the practice of making full size bark canoes. 

Model boats, left PRM 1893.50.13, right PRM 1893.50.15 collected by John and Jane Franklin in the 1840s
© Pitt Rivers Museum

Basket PRM 1884.44.24 © Pitt Rivers Museum
For the Tasmanian Aboriginal community, ancestral stories, ceremony, ritual and spirit are embodied in shell stringing and basket weaving practices that extend back for many generations, far beyond living memory. In 2009 the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery toured an exhibition called tayenebe, which was the culmination of 6 years of traditional basketry revival within the community. Since 2010 I have been working on a similar revitalization project with shell necklaces stringers and over the next 12 months will be developing a touring exhibition titled kanalaritja: String of Shells for which we are hoping to secure some international loans. Shell stringing requires an intimate knowledge of ‘sea country’ and the time consuming and painstaking skill of collecting, cleaning and stringing shells is one of the oldest continuous cultural practices of Tasmanian Aborigines dating to at least 1800 years ago. The pearlescent but scarce marina shell and the delicate and unique nature of these necklace makes them very sought after items.

Meeting with the wonderful staff at Pitt Rivers was also a great opportunity to learn about some of the amazing collaborative projects they have undertaken
Shell necklaces PRM 1886.1.1577,
1923.87.332 and 1923.87.333
© Pitt Rivers Museum
with Indigenous source communities, as well as their numerous local community engagement projects. I was particularly inspired by the ‘
Blackfoot Shirts Project’ and the ‘Globalization, Photography, and Race: the Circulation and Return of Aboriginal Photographs in Europe’ project.  The numerous Community outreach and engagement programs including the ‘Twilight Takeovers’ and the upcoming ‘Need/Make/Use Day’ were also particularly interesting (I wish I was still in Oxford to attend this day!).

My Churchill Fellowship experience has reaffirmed my belief that museums can and do make a difference, and now that I am home I am excited to apply the ideas and inspiration I have gained. I am particularly excited about the opportunity to connect more Tasmanian Aboriginal people with our cultural material in international institutions and to expand our own curatorial practices to include more contemporary cultural expressions. I will be forever grateful to the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust for providing me this opportunity and to the Pitt River Museum and staff for being such great hosts during my visit. wulika, nayri nina-tu (goodbye & thank you).

Zoe Rimmer

Curator, Indigenous Cultures
Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery

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