Detail of a carved pearl shell, fish hook and headband with carved shells.

Shaping Ambassadors

5 July 2021
Exploring the museum’s ongoing display of First Nations culture and heritage
Including cultural materials from 25 different Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander language groups, curator Matt Poll explains how the Ambassadors exhibition represents a new way of working with First Nations collections.
A glass display case with several artefacts inside including woven bags, staffs and a shield.

Thum-pupiya (Firestick), Cape York Ambassador, installation view, 2020
Level 2, Chau Chak Wing Museum

The Macleay Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island collections have already had several lives — first as personal items, then within a private collection, and later as teaching implements in University departments, often thanks to philanthropic bequest. Today, the collections are the consultation tools that the Chau Chak Wing Museum is using to connect and engage with Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities on common ground.

Map of Australia with certain regions highlighted

Highlighted regions represented in the 8 exhibition display cases throughout the Museum. Map adapted from AITSIS map of Indigenous Australia, 1996 by Jeffrey Samuels. 

Over several years, my consultative research process has involved connecting Indigenous staff, students and community visitors to the collections as well as actively participating in events such as the Darwin Art Fair and the annual general meetings of Arnhem, Northern and Kimberley Art Centres (ANKA). The outcome of this work is the Ambassadors exhibition, the museum’s permanent display of First Nations culture and heritage, a result of sustained communication and dialogue with various individuals, communities, and remote art centres.

Museums are changing - a new layer of consultation with community is becoming central to the collections' biography.

Many contributions, insights and perspectives over many years have been formative in shaping how the Ambassadors exhibition has come together. The exhibition is the result of inspiration from community leaders such as Linda Burney MP, the first Indigenous female MP elected to the House of Representatives. Ms Burney, wearing a Kangaroo skin cloak made by artist Dr Lynne Riley for her maiden speech in parliament, was an early starting point for exploring the power of art in community restorative justice. In the exhibition, an excerpt from Senator Burney’s maiden speech, delivered in Wiradjuri language, accompanies shields provenanced from the Wiradjuri peoples. This is one example of the way the voices of community members have authored interpretive layers to the materials on display in Ambassadors.

Objects as instruments for connection

Painting of a dugong on bark

Marndiyingunyuny, dugong
Port Essington, Cobourg Peninsula, Northern Territory
Collected by Edward Spalding or James Cox before 1878
Macleay Collections, ETP.993

As museums around the world increasingly become spaces of transformative engagement with First Nations peoples, it is important that the collections embrace the languages and contemporary needs of community members to reflect how the collections portray the rich and unique story of Australia’s First Nations’ past. Through proactive processes of engagement and collaboration, the objects and their histories are presented as instruments for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities to engage with new narratives, and to encourage deeper engagement with Aboriginal worlds. This strategy seeks a more ethical and competent version of the Aboriginal worldview and experience.

Included in the Ambassadors display are objects from the original Maclaey bequest, some of the oldest Australian bark paintings in any collection. Collected from the Iwaidja people on the coastline of the Northern Territory, they were first exhibited at the Linnaean Society of New South Wales in Sydney in 1876. 

Museums are changing

Consultation is not a supply and demand process; many artists and community members passing through Sydney while conducting other research, business or performing, generously engaged with the collections. Sometimes it was as if the objects themselves were assembling people together in their own arrangements. The Tiwi Ngarukuruwala (we sing songs) Strong Women’s Group visit was a day that informed an entirely new way of thinking about positioning of Tiwi objects in relations that were not apparent from existing collection stories. Consultations and conversations, held in the storerooms with the objects, have added new interpretive layers. One thing that was consistently reiterated was that these objects were ambassadors, holding knowledge across generations. 

Display case featuring spears, a bark painting and smaller objects

Murrakupuni (Place, country), Tiwi Ambassador (right) and Mangara, Wo? (Do you intend to give this to us?), Iwaidja Ambassador (left)
Level 4, Chau Chak Wing Museum

The final selection of objects represented in each of the Ambassadors encompass conversations over decades.

The more than 100 objects assembled, from the nations of 25 different Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander language groups, are shown across eight different display cases. Dispersed throughout the museum, they operate as a disruption to the orthodoxy of past exhibition practices where Aboriginal culture in museums was authored by non-Indigenous people. The independence and autonomy of each Aboriginal nation is respectfully acknowledged, while at the same time a glimpse of a deeper thread that connects and illuminates the intricacy of many different nations is revealed. Ambassadors seeks an alternate pathway for the display of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island community heritage. Museums are changing - a new layer of consultation with community is becoming central to the collections' biography. 


Matt Poll is Assistant Curator, Indigenous Heritage and Repatriation, Chau Chak Wing Museum

This article was first published in Issue 26 of Muse Magazine, November 2020. 

Featured image (top of page): Jill nga (detail), headband, Wik-Mungkan language association, ETA.1032, Bera (detail), fishhooks, Sydney language association, ET2014.1871, ET2014.1872, Riji (detail), pearl shell, Bardi language association, ETA.2009. All Macleay Collections.

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