`Wellnigh Impossible to Describe': Dioramas, Displays and Representations of Australian Aborigines

By Russell, Lynnette | Australian Aboriginal Studies, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

`Wellnigh Impossible to Describe': Dioramas, Displays and Representations of Australian Aborigines


Russell, Lynnette, Australian Aboriginal Studies


Writing and `doing' history is, as Greg Dening (1996:xiii) reminds us, a `performance' and like any performance, to be successful, an audience is required. Exhibitions and displays also need an audience: someone needs to see, experience and sense what is offered for view. In writing a history of displays and exhibitions we must constantly reflect on and attempt to negotiate between the audiences concerned: those who attended the exhibitions and those who read the history. Attempting to understand an audience from the perspective of the exhibition is fraught with difficulty. Although striving for a self-defined authority and authenticity the museum display often tells more about the motivations and political and social interests of the curators and designers than it does about its subject or its audience.

In this article I explore a number of historical and contemporary museum and exhibition representations of Australian Indigenous culture. My concern is to both analyse the materials offered for view as well as consider the coded subtexts developed by those who constructed the displays. It is my aim to look at exhibition images and related texts and attempt to unravel the meanings with which they were imbued by the European museologists and audiences. Although my focus is on the colonial relationships between Australia and Europe, I will also explore the wider implications for the argument and consider some of the contemporary exhibition practices within an historical context.

Static objects: malleable meanings

Materials offered for view in museums and government exhibitions claim authority from both their locale and the status of the sanctioning organisation (Teslow 1998:53). As James Clifford (1988:222) has noted, an authenticity is bestowed on objects displayed within museums that (with some circularity) relies on the power of the museum. These authentic objects--offered for display--are both the image and reflection of the curatorial imperative, which is itself the subject of prevailing trends. In a recent analysis of the treatment of African peoples and cultures within a number of British museums, Annie Coombes (1994:3) wrote:

   Representations of the African were, and are, evidently not fixed but
   eminently recuperable and variable, depending on the political exigencies
   of any historical conjuncture. As such, they necessarily tell us more about
   the nexus of European interests in African affairs, than they do about
   Africa or the African.

Thus, Coombes argues that, despite the fixity of the static state, mute object-based representations of indigenous groups are rarely fixed. Instead, the depictions are imbued with myriad political and social connotations. The depictions, complete with tacit meanings, act as mimetic devices for reviewing the audience's own culture (see Torgovnik 1990:76-7).

The British Museum in the nineteenth century has been described as an `enlightenment institution in a post-enlightenment world' (Bohrer 1994:202). Although access to its collections began in 1759, this was reserved for `ticket holders' only (Caygill 1981:12). During the early decades of the nineteenth century, entrance to the museum was carefully controlled and restricted. Visitors were escorted around the collections in groups of five `and were not permitted to upset routine by gazing at the objects' (Caygill 1981:13). In 1815 had visitors managed an extended gaze they would have found, according to the `Synopsis of the Contents', an Australian spear displayed as Oceanic material in a cabinet alongside extinct Pleistocene fauna from Britain (British Museum 1815). In this overt gesture Australian material culture and by extension the societies from which it derived became synonymous with the European past. Although solid evidence for the antiquity of Europeans was not available until the 1850s with the excavation of Brixham Cave (Daniel 1978:57), this display alone demonstrates that ideas relating ancestral Europeans with extinct Pleistocene fauna circulated much earlier. …

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