Mabo and Museums: 'The Indigenous (Re)appropriation of Indigenous Things.'

By Pannell, Sandra | Oceania, September 1994 | Go to article overview

Mabo and Museums: 'The Indigenous (Re)appropriation of Indigenous Things.'


Pannell, Sandra, Oceania


Caution: Objects in mirror are closer than they appear.

message printed on a car side-door mirror

Oh, Kitty! how nice it would be if we could only get through into Looking-glass House!

Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There.

Lewis Carroll.

INTRODUCTION

Each time I go to the museum and look into the neatly arrayed glass cases, peering intently in my efforts to capture that extra detail or ethnographic minutiae the printed caption draws my attention to, I not only see the specimen, object or artefact entombed within but, strangely enough, I also see myself, caught in the reflection of the glass. As this experience suggests, museums can be considered as 'looking glasses'. What they primarily produce and reflect back to the viewing public (in a largely non-reflexive manner) are the colonial and post-colonial images the West constructs of itself and some imagined other(s). In this respect, museums act as 'mirrors of production' (Baudrillard 1975). True to their reflective characteristic, the images produced in this context also have the capacity to refract (and, thus, distort) the relations, mode and means of their own production. To see beyond this self-reflective gaze we have to, like Alice, go through the looking glass.

In recent times, a number of writers (many of them anthropologists) have cast light upon some of the often concealed and 'cooled' (Pannell 1994) processes involved in this production of the museological imaginary. In so doing, they not only illuminate, so to speak, the other side of the museum looking glass but they also challenge the comfortable and convenient artifices which have, for so long, masked the relationship between indigenes and Europeans. Nicholas Thomas (1991) is one of those who cracks the mirror when he argues that the act of appropriation is not the sole prerogative of Europeans and that, contrary to popular beliefs, Indigenous people were not the hapless victims of first contact, seduced by the fatal attraction of European goods. Rather, as Thomas states, 'the early phases of their [Pacific islanders] entanglement [with Europeans] were grounded in local cultural and political agendas, rather than naivete' (ibid.:88). Entanglement, thus, involves not only a consideration of the nature of the European appropriation of Indigenous things but also, as Thomas so eloquently argues, an awareness of the 'indigenous appropriation of European things'.

While Thomas' work is avowedly an attempt to break up, what he terms, 'us/them oppositions', by presenting alternative interpretations of first contact and other European/Indigenous encounters, in the end we are still left with a yin yang anthropological version of appropriation. In this paper I want to extend upon Thomas' binary categories of appropriation and include a third classification -- 'the Indigenous [re]appropriation of Indigenous things'. The things I have in mind here are the 'secret/sacred objects' (cf. Maddock 1991), housed in Australian and overseas museums, which Europeans generically refer to (using an Aranda term) as tjurunga but which are known to Indigenous peoples in Australia by a number of localised names.(1) The act of appropriation I have in mind is more commonly referred to as 'repatriation', 'restitution' or 'return' [of objects/cultural property]. Arguably, the use of these terms functions to present Europeans, such as anthropologists, curators and archaeologists, and European institutions, for example, museums, libraries and universities, as the active agents in this process; they are the ones who send the objects 'back to their country of origin' (as the Oxford English Dictionary defines 'repatriation'), while Indigenous people are semantically positioned as the fortunate recipients of this benevolence. Until recently, this semantic structuring of European/Indigenous relations was also legally authorised. There was no specific legislative recognition of Indigenous ownership rights in cultural property and thus no legal requirement for Australian museums to 'repatriate' material from their collections (Anderson 1990). …

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