AIC’s 39th Annual Meeting – Objects Morning Session, June 3, “Tangible vs. Intangible Collections: The Journey of Two Objects,” by Vinod Daniel and Dion Peita

The first three talks in the Friday morning OSG session all dealt with the issue of finding a balance between preservation and access.  In his talk titled “Tangible vs. Intangible Collections: The Journey of Two Objects”, Vinod Daniel, head of Cultural Heritage and Science Initiatives at the Australian Museum, demonstrated the ways in which he and his colleagues are working to bridge the gap between collections and communities.  While the Austrian Museum holds a wide variety of cultural material, half of the objects in the collection (some 60,000 objects) come from the Pacific region; almost three quarters of this material is from the indigenous cultures of Papua New Guinea.  Vinod and his co-author Dion Peita, Collections Coordinator for Cultural Collections and Community Engagement at the Australian Museum, engage in regular exchanges with people from the Pacific Islands and, more recently, with Pacific Island peoples living in the greater Sidney area.  These exchanges allow these groups to access their material culture in a very tangible way.  Objects from the collection are used for ceremonies and performances, which necessitates a dialogue between the caretakers of the object and the users.  For example, a bowl from the collection was used in a Kava Ceremony—part of an Intangible Heritage Forum held at the Museum in 2009—to mix water and plant materials.  The bowl was cleaned after the ceremony, and although no physical change was observed, its appearance was somewhat altered.  On hearing this anecdote I found myself wondering where this arguably acceptable change to the object would fall in the conventional ethical framework of our profession.  Yes, the bowl was altered through its use, but the intangible benefits of the activation of the bowl and the documentation of its ceremonial context, were evident.

Much of Vinod’s talk centered around an exciting cultural renewal project that is reconnecting people from the Vanuatu Islands, particularly the Island of Erromango, with their material culture.  After European contact in the mid 19th c., a dramatic decrease in the population and the discouraging of traditional practices led to an almost complete loss of the Island’s material culture.  Fortuitously, some of this material ended up in the Australian Museum, brought there by a Christian missionary.  Today, a collaboration between the Vanuatu Cultural Center and the Australian Museum is allowing the people of Erromango once again to access their cultural heritage.  Through the Visiting Elders Program, members of the Erromango community were able to study and handle objects from the Museum’s collection, many of which were no longer produced on their Island.   Sophie Nemban, a woman from Erromango working for the Vanuatu Cultural Center, was provided with funding to study the Museum’s collection of 532 objects from Erromango.  Ms. Nemban was able to examine and touch the objects, some of which she then recreated back home.  Her work aims to revive traditional female crafts on Erromango, and the acquisition of some of this new material by the Australian Museum speaks to the success for her efforts.  Vinod then showed the following video, available on the Museum’s website, in which Chief Jerry Taki talks about the singing arrows from Erromango: Singing Arrows. When asked if he wanted these objects to be repatriated, Jerry Taki said no, he believes that the objects are “at peace” where they are.  In an interview he referred to the Museum’s collection areas as a “sacred dancing ground”.

In addition to facilitating access within the Museum, Vinod and his colleagues believe that it’s also important to bring the collection to the Vanuatu Islands.  Most of young people on the Islands have never seen these objects or any like them, and the Australian Museum has put together a “suitcase” of sorts containing a digital version of the collection that can be brought to schools.  The Museum is also working to facilitate web access, particularly for diasporaic Pacific Island communities in the West, through projects like the Virtual Museum of the Pacific.

Vinod ended his talk by discussing the broader concerns raised by increased access: the physical handling of objects (“do people have to wear white gloves all the time?” and “is change to objects acceptable?”); security issues; and the inability of conservators and collections people to have complete control over what happens to the objects.  He believes the secrets to the successful balance between preservation and access include establishing relationships, investing time, showing genuine interest, repeated visits and, of course, a dedicated budget.  As someone who deals mainly with archaeological materials, I spend most of my time thinking about the tangible nature of objects…but Vinod’s talk was a very effective reminder that the stewardship of cultural heritage must also include the preservation of its intangible properties.