Museums, Society, Inequality

By Richard Sandell | Go to book overview

11

Developing a community of practice: museums and reconciliation in Australia

Lynda Kelly and Phil Gordon

Introduction

Museums in Australia have been actively involved in reconciliation since the late 1970s, long before its recognition as a formal political movement. In 1978 the UNESCO regional seminar, Preserving Indigenous Cultures: A New Role for Museums, was the first time museums and Indigenous people 1 sat down together as equals to talk about obligations and processes: the obligations of museums to respect Indigenous people’s rights to their cultural heritage and addressing this within the practices of museums at the time. 2 Since then there have been immense changes in how museums have dealt with these issues, resulting in new relationships forged between Australian museums and Indigenous peoples in response to both internal and external political and cultural forces. This has produced a community of practice (Lave and Wenger 1991), where ‘collective learning results in practices that reflect both the pursuit of enterprises and attendant social relations. These practices are thus the property of a kind of community created over time by the sustained pursuit of shared enterprise’ (Wenger 1998:45). Museums in Australia and the Indigenous communities that they work with have formed a community of practice: a learning community sharing common goals and developing sets of practices within a social relationship built over time, a community that continues to grow and shape its future.

This paper outlines issues for museums 3 in promoting reconciliation in Australia and the roles that they have played and continue to play, as agents for social change and inclusion through public learning and working with Indigenous communities. A number of audience research and evaluation projects will be discussed that show the difference museums can make in the reconciliation process and the consequences for future practice and social change, with a specific focus on the Australian Museum, Sydney. 4 We propose that the process by which Australian museums have built working relationships and shared understandings with Indigenous people, particularly at the practitioner level, could form a template for how museums deal with other issues and make themselves relevant to the broader community through active engagement with multiple communities of practice. 5

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