Spirit, Story, Symbol: Indigenous Curating in the Queensland Rainforest

    Tahnee Innes is a PhD student in Anthropology. Tahnee tells us that her thesis has now been examined, and she is looking forward to being conferred in December this year.

    Her research project set out to ask a basic question: “what is Indigenous curating?” Other questions she wanted to answer included how do we as Indigenous peoples ‘keep’ artefacts and their complex histories? Are we really able to harness the imposing power of museum institutions to our benefit? And can we hope to decolonise museums when so many scholars today are skeptical of cultural preservation activities?

    She answered these questions and more, through participant observation, field notes and recorded interviews. Firstly, Tahnee investigated the curating activities of Jirrbal elder Dr Ernie Grant who, over a lifetime, had independently collected and selectively communicated about his people’s culture, history, and artefacts to diverse audiences. To enrich this discussion, she then turned to his wider community, giving an account of artists who made ‘new artefacts’ at an Aboriginal Art Centre on Girramay country. Their art practice was another kind of ‘keeping’, which ensured rainforest artefacts and their stories would persist in the heart of sugarcane country.

    Tahnee recalls that several findings were exciting. Theoretical conceptualisations of ‘artefact’, for example, have grown to accommodate the emic notion that a rainforest artefact is far more than mere object. In other words, the theory is catching up, so that we might even claim to have a universal language for artefacts.

    Moreover, Tahnee found that artefacts in museum storage are ‘wild’, as in the Aboriginal English sense of angry, but also like wild Country that is left uncared for. She states “This is why Indigenous care and curatorship is so important.” Finally, contrary to the idea that preservation must only be ‘a western thing’, she found that rainforest people were in fact deeply concerned with preserving their artefacts.

    Building on the core proposition that curating is cultural, the thesis argued that material rainforest artefacts within the community are selected, preserved and communicated – curated – as spirit, story and symbol, and that this curating does not necessarily occur in a traditional exhibition space. People have many ideas about what an anthropologist does, but one view is that we address large matters through small cases.

    It is through an anthropological approach that Tahnee was able to make this argument. She explains she has learnt so much from Uncle Ernie Grant and the Girringun artists. Tahnee pays credit to her amazing supervisors as they have also taught her how to be a thorough researcher. She now takes this gift to her work in Applied Anthropology working on Native Title in the Cape York region.

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