Accepted paper:

Reversing the [museum] gaze: culture at the edge of the world


Sandy O'Sullivan (Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education)

Paper short abstract:

The presentation examines the strategies in national museum spaces to comprehend and respond to contemporary concerns over the engagement and representation of their own First Peoples.

Paper long abstract:

Funded by the Australian Research Council, our multi-year research program has visited over 250 museums in an attempt to examine the capacity of major national museums in the US, the UK and Australia to represent and reflect the lives and perspectives of their own contemporary First Peoples. Through discussions with museum professionals, the notions of success for the museum are examined. The primary research work has been carried out by an Aboriginal Australian researcher, exploring the idea that reversing the focus away from the Indigene and back to the museum space appropriately places the museum at the centre of its own epistemological challenge. An arguably risky, singular perspective providing review and judgments could be located as skewed and unrepresentative. It does, however, mirror a position that many museums deploy when they send institutional representatives to connect with a community, or employ a pan-Indigenous expert to develop a community-focused or representative project to exhibition. It, if cheekily, 'reverses' this gaze. Further exploring this relationship, 'culture at the edge of the world' describes the difficulty for these national museums, often located far from the action of robust First Peoples' communities, to accurately represent their lives and histories. These museums at the edge of the world, risk occupying an extra-cultural space to the Indigenous community and, arguably to many communities that they seek to represent. This presentation highlights some moments of 'success', explores the engagement and imperatives for communities and visitors, and ponders the changing role of national museum spaces in these relationships.

panel MUS01
A museum ethnography: decolonisation, reconciliation and multiculturalism