Tangible vs. intangible collections: The journey of two objects

Vinod Daniel and Dion Peita


The Australian Museum’s cultural collections number around 110,000 artifacts which are divided into three broad areas; Australia (40,000), the Pacific (60,000) and the rest of the world (10,000). The Australian Museum has embarked on a range of initiatives to unlock its internationally recognized Pacific cultural collections and in the process provide increased access to creator communities in the Pacific for cultural rejuvenation as well as to Pacific diasporic communities in Australia assisting them to better connect back to their cultures. The Museum has limited information about many of the collection objects and often the knowledge inherent in the objects has been lost from the originating or creator communities.

This presentation will highlight the conservation challenges and tensions between preserving the tangible and intangible aspects of cultural collections using examples of two objects that were for the first time activated in a traditional Ceremony.

As part of an Intangible Heritage Forum (November 2009) that was held at the Australian Museum, a Kava Ceremony was held. An object from our collection of Kava Bowls, a Wooden Circular Kava Bowl (1988) was used for the Ceremony. This bowl was chosen out of a group of three by Museum staff as it was the most modern and robust. There was interest to document its Intangible Heritage value through a ceremony where its traditional custodians were involved as well as to activate the Collection. Museum staff worked very closely with the Fijian community on this project. The object was pre-conditioned by increasing the moisture content overnight in a humidity controlled environmental chamber to reduce the risk of splitting, as the wood had been dry for so many years. Conservation staff also cleaned off the kava residues after use the next day and examined the bowl. There was no sign of damage to the wood but the surface appeared different after contact with the kava.

The second object was activated during the opening of a Pacific community exhibition “Body Pacifica” (May 2010), a ceremonial club “Nifo Oti” from the Museums Pacific collections was used for the first time in a traditional dance by a Samoan Tuinga. This wooden club went through a similar process as the Kava Bowl in preparation for the ceremony. After the dance, the condition of the object was assessed and there was no physical damage observed.

This presentation will highlight the negotiations and the feedback from all participants including Pacific Islander communities, collection and conservation staff and museum management. The presentation will also contribute to the debate on use of museum objects in ceremonies where a certain physical change may happen, but the intangible benefits are very valuable especially as we strive to rejuvenate cultural traditions and practices and work closely with diasporic and creator communities.

2011 | Philadelphia | Volume 18