Accepted Paper:

Remembering the String Figures of Yirrkala: Action, Intervention, Exhibition  


Robyn McKenzie (The Australian National University)

Paper short abstract:

As the record of bodily movement collections of string figures literally contain 'latent possibilities for action.' This paper considers the affordances of a museum collection made in Yirrkala in north-east Arnhem Land as revealed through reconnection with its contemporary source community.

Paper long abstract:

As the record of bodily movement historical museum collections of mounted string figures (patterns made on the hands with a loop of string also known as cat's cradles), literally contain 'latent possibilities for action.' In the Australian Museum in Sydney is a collection of nearly 200 mounted string figures collected in Yirrkala in north-east Arnhem Land in 1948 by anthropologist Frederick McCarthy. My fieldwork experience reconnecting this museum collection with the contemporary Aboriginal community in Yirrkala provides a case study of the scope for interventions to realise the latent potential of collections. String figure making is no longer the ubiquitous everyday activity that it once was. I worked with a number of older women in the community remembering a repertoire of figures they used to know. After analysing the different modalities of action and interaction involved in the process of remembering for these women, in this paper I look at the way the production of a series of etchings using string figure designs fostered a 'remembering' of string figures as part of Yolngu cultural identity in the present, by the larger Yirrkala community and a broader audience. The process of the string figures 'becoming art' can be seen as situationally dependent on the history, experience and expertise of the institutional and individual actors involved. I conclude with the general argument that the so-called 'hidden affordances' of collections, as exemplified here, is wholly in keeping with the future purpose envisioned for collections in the Museum Tradition of anthropology.

Panel P032
Museum Affordances: Collections, Interventions, Exhibitions