(P067)
Ambivalence about art: dilemmas for ethnographic museums.
Location British Museum - Stevenson Lecture Theatre
Date and Start Time 03 Jun, 2018 at 15:30
Sessions 1

Convenors

  • Howard Morphy (Australian National University) email
  • Gaye Sculthorpe (British Museum) email

Mail All Convenors

Short abstract

Curating objects as art or ethnography is a theme that cuts across disciplines and institutions. Anthropologists have played a major role in negotiating this complex terrain. We invite papers that look at how the dilemmas have been conceptualised and how the associated issues have changed overtime.

Long abstract

Art brings out the contradictions of anthropology as a discipline mediating between different cultures in an increasingly interconnected world. Ethnographic collections have housed works of great aesthetic power and technical accomplishment that were long denied entry into western museums of fine art. The celebration of indigenous and non-western arts has been dismissed by some as a sign of colonial romanticism while others for different reasons have seen its absence from the art gallery as a consequence of colonial attitudes. These debates have been particularly salient in settler colonial societies but ramify across the museum world. Curators struggled with a different but ultimately related dilemma: should aesthetically powerful works from non-western societies be exhibited and curated as artworks or placed in the context of their significance to the cultures of production? To do both in the same space was difficult because of the different criteria and styles of exhibition required by art galleries and ethnographic museums, and differences in their respective cultures and resources. Most anthropologists working in museums or with museum collections have been sensitive to these issue and currently museum anthropologists are playing a major role in negotiating this complex terrain. For this session we invite papers that look at the ways in which different people have approached these issues and how the dilemmas have been conceptualised and have changed overtime.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.

Papers

From folk art to fine art - exhibiting painting of India

Author: Barbara Ewa Banasik (The Asia and Pacific Museum in Warsaw / University of Warsaw, Faculty of Oriental Studies) email

Short abstract

This paper presents the solutions to some of the problems that come with exhibiting paintings from India. The Asia and Pacific Museum in Warsaw explores the ways of presenting them as fine art in the context of the theory of art from Sanskrit treatises of Brahmanical tradition.

Long abstract

Exhibiting artworks and artefacts from India in Poland has always been a challenge. Despite a great interest in the culture of India, its artistic side is still little known here. The popular view of Indian culture concentrates on radiant colours, sensuality and mystery of exotic countries. Miniature painting is well known and its position as art is well established, but other kinds of painting struggle for proper reception. Maithili paintings, Bengali Pats, and other are still considered as folk art, expression of private, rural culture, and not as important as fine arts. While the truth is that they are the most valuable representations of visual culture and artistic tradition that has been continued for several centuries. The main challenge for a curator is then to exhibit these objects in a context, which would be easily understood by the viewers and would allow to broaden their perspective on the definition of fine arts.

In this paper I would like to present the solutions to some of the problems that arise while attempting this task. The Asia and Pacific Museum in Warsaw has a variegated collection of Indian paintings and as a curator of this collection I explore the ways of presenting them as fine art in the context of the theory of art from Sanskrit treatises of Brahmanical tradition. By exhibiting painting in such manner we create a space where they can be perceived and appreciated as artworks, but also we contribute to the better understanding of the culture of India.

Seeking new theories of epistemology and the Berndt museum: Caring for Culture in the 21st Century

Author: Vanessa Russ (University of Western Australia) email

Short abstract

This paper argues that such dialogue to investigate the best way to represent two distinct cultural systems must start from the collection store to the gallery floor; and should seek to provide a better pathway into the future.

Long abstract

As a study of the nature of knowledge, justification and rationality of belief, epistemology has a role to play in setting new pathways between the way in which Museums today unpack what they do and go beyond the general public's view of norms from the past century. The Berndt Museum as a collection of cultural material manifesting in art works, archives, photographs, audio-visual and research, has been working with Aboriginal Australian communities since the 1940s when its founders Ronald and Catherine Berndt commenced a lifetime of social anthropological work on the impact of European influence on Aboriginal culture. As Aboriginal people continue to gain higher levels of education, seek to be better informed and engaged in new dialogue surrounding caring for country, using GPS tracking, computer applications and western survey techniques to manage and care for country, so too are they seeking to improve the way in which culture is cared for in Collections.

This paper argues that such dialogue to investigate the best way to represent two distinct cultural systems must start from the collection store to the gallery floor; and should seek to provide a better pathway into the future.

Art and Baldwin Spencer - resolving the contradictions

Author: Howard Morphy (Australian National University) email

Short abstract

Baldwin Spencer is recognised as one of the great collectors of Australian Aboriginal 'art.' However because he is often positioned as an archetypal evolutionist his role in the recognition of Aboriginal art is devalued. To the contrary I argue he was a significant actor in a time of category change

Long abstract

Baldwin Spencer (1860-1929) Professor of Biology at Melbourne University and director of the National Museum of Victoria is recognised as one of the great collectors of Australian Aboriginal art. He was trained as an artist and was a sponsor of the Heidelberg School of Australian impressionists. His writings, photographs and collections had an impact on early Australian modernism. His collection of bark paintings from Oenpelli played a major role in the recognition of Aboriginal art. However because he is often positioned as an archetypal evolutionist his role in the recognition of Aboriginal art has been downplayed. As a theorist his strongest influences were Tylor and Fraser but as a pioneer of fieldwork methods with his colleague Frances Gillen his ethnography challenged the received categories. In this paper I reflect on the categories he employs and his descriptive vocabulary and show the ways in which his writing about art changed over time. I argue that the prevailing critique of Spencer fails to understand the historical context of his research and collecting and a trajectory of change in which he had considerable agency.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.