Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Conference Writeup: The Makers and Making of Indigenous Australian museum collections

The Makers and Making of Indigenous Australian museum collections. A three day conference; Thursday 9th February to Saturday 11th February 2006 (Melbourne Museum)

My notes for what I attended were quite brief, so what I’ve written up for most of this is a bit sketchy. Anything that doesn’t have my notes after the abstract means I missed the session.

A brief introduction looked over what the conference would encompass:
- There were few museums in Australia who were founded by people who made collections
- No strong links between museums and the formation of Anthropology departments at Australian Universities
- The legitimacy of collecting
- Indigenous agency through collections
- Museum bureaucracies affecting the way collections are managed

Keynote Address: Professor Nelson Graburn, University of California, Berkeley

A lot of what Professor Graburn had to say was quite interesting, but for a keynote address it was pretty dry. (It was sort of strange having an overseas academic give the keynote address for a conference on Australian issues, too.) To begin with, he looked at the changes in museum activity throughout history:
14 – 16 centuries – Museums for prestige and display; cabinets of curiousity
17 – 18 centuries – Centres of systematic research and knowledge
19th century – Democratisation, museums used for educating middle classes
1960s onward – Empowerment and access, “Museum literacy”

He mentioned the “ethnology of collecting” as well as the “anthropology of anthropology”, saying that reflection was quite interesting, so it was good to see a conference like this. When you look at collections, it’s not just the actions of collectors that’s shaped them, but also curators – deciding what goes and what stays.

Trade was linked quite heavily with collection – not just here in Australia, but very much so in North America as well. Much of the time “spare” or “good for nothing” things were asked for, and often things were collected as novelties or souvenirs; some things would be especially commissioned for museum collections. [This was of interest to me, especially in regards to the idea of expected “authenticity” in museum collections.]

(I spent a good time laughing at the names of collectors Niebaum, Gerstle and Schloss at this point, once again proving I’m not the adult I think I am.)

Anyhow, following on from this idea of “authenticity”, he spoke of Franz Boaz, who was quite precious about the pristine preservation and recording of native culture. Graburn felt that considering “non-traditional” artefacts were just as important for collections – and this is something that Leonn went into a little in his end of conference paper.

A couple of the last points he made were quite good, in regard to general ideas about museum collections. The first was that museums are “weirs in the rivers of time”, designed to stop history and artefacts flowing away. The second was that the transparency of the collection process can be a positive and educational thing, which can enhance museum literacy. I think that was a good note to end on, especially considering there’s a pretty low level of museum literacy in Australia.


Professor John Mulvaney: ‘amassing all I can lay hands on’ - Baldwin Spencer and collection building at the National Museum of Victoria
As honorary director of the National Museum of Victoria between 1899 and 1928, Baldwin Spencer enriched the museum’s ethnographic collections. This paper examines the extent and nature of the Australian collections which he initiated. It discusses the role of collectors; how items were acquired from Indigenous owners and methods and extent of payment; criteria for selection of items and consideration of those aspects of material culture which were ignored.

Mulvaney spoke of the issue of trade in relation to collection, and that payment for not only objects but also photographs was given in trade goods. This was most often tobacco – something used to purchase bark paintings in particular (the size of the painting would determine the size of the tobacco portion).

A little strangely, Spencer and Gillen felt that sacred objects were “fraud”, they had no real power and their makers didn’t believe in them – but would use them against other people if they could be persuaded to believe in their power. Turinga (sacred stone objects) were displayed in the Melbourne Museum, but note was made that women and children shouldn’t see them – oddly, considering S+G didn’t actually believe in their sacred status.


Kate Kahn, Australian Museum: W.E. Roth - the man who collected everything
In 1898 Roth was appointed First Protector of Aboriginals for North Queensland, under the Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act of 1897. Today Roth is best known for his 18 Bulletins and collections, the greater part held at the Australian Museum, Sydney. Most of his material came from Cape York and the Gulf country of North Queensland, but the Museum also holds a collection of stone tools from NSW, Victoria and Tasmania. Nearly all the skeletal material has been repatriated. Roth was interested in everything at every stage of manufacture, from identifying raw materials through to the finished product and its use, together with relevant Aboriginal and scientific names where possible. He took photographs, sketched objects in varying stages of manufacture, recorded Aboriginal languages and kept an extensive skeletal collection. My paper will focus on this aspect of his life.

I’m a bit ashamed to say that I knew little to nothing about Roth before this talk, which is pretty bad on my behalf, having studied anthropology in Queensland. It was reasonably interesting hearing the history of his collecting, though.

Roth was originally a biologist (like Spencer), and also a surgeon. He was appointed Northern Protector, then eventually became Protector of the whole of Queensland. He had no anthropological training. Some of the material he collected is held in the Queensland Museum and University of Queensland Anthropology Museum, but a lot of it is down in the Australian Museum in Sydney.

Roth collected all over QLD except for Thursday Island. H was interested in raw materials as well as finished objects, as he was fascinated with process. It is interesting to note that as well as noting scientific/Western names for things, he would record indigenous language in relation to the objects.

Roth was interested in women’s and children’s activity, and did collect in relation to these – especially children’s games and toys. He also collected secret and sacred objects.

Roth collected extensively, and also wrote prolifically on the information he gathered; he received a reasonable amount of information from missions. Roth didn’t see introduced material as a “detractor” [bless him!]. There was never any official mention of payment for items.

I wonder exactly what the extent of his collections are here at work? Hmm. Maybe I should pick Jane’s brain, when she’s right into her PHD :D


Anne Perusco, Independent scholar: Only sticks and bark - Ursula McConnel, women's material culture and museums
The Wik material culture collected by Ursula McConnel represents a rich source on data on both the subjects of her ethnographic study and the ethnographer herself. McConnel worked in Cape York Peninsula in the late 1920s, and was a contemporary of Thomson. Both research students of A. R. Radcliffe-Brown, they had a complex relationship, united in their outspoken opposition to inhumane mission policies at Aurukun, yet rivals for ethnographic ‘territory’ in the Peninsula. We can detect in the presence and absence of artefacts in McConnel’s collection, when juxtaposed with Thomson’s, the influence of her gender, which frequently restricted her to the company of women and children. This gives us a conduit into the lives of Wik women, so often excluded from historical and early ethnographic scholarship, and a broader perspective for interpreting her both as an anthropologist and ethnographer. This in turn is filtered through the treatment of the collection by the museum fraternity.

Ursula McConnel seemed to be one of the few collectors mentioned at the conference who had anthropological training! Amazing, that. She was among the first women ethnographers – and perhaps her gender influenced her collecting [maybe along with her training?] Apparently she collected similarly to Donald Thompson.

The objects she acquired were generally paid for with trade goods (fishing line and tobacco, for example). Some were collected after having been used in ceremony, some were gifts, and some were commissioned pieces. Each artefact was marked with the collector’s name, along with reference numbers.

Interestingly, McConnel had access to both female and male secret and sacred objects. She had a good connection with informants and closeness with families. There was a touch of salvage methodology behind her collecting – that is, trying to gain a representative sample of the material culture of Indigenous groups thought to be dying out.


Ian Coates, National Museum of Australia: Beyond biography - a contextual approach to understanding museum collections of Indigenous objects
In Australia, biographical approaches to the history of ethnographic collecting have predominated. Prevailing within our understandings of Australian Indigenous collections are a series of unexamined assumptions about the context from which such collections have been derived: collecting is somehow ‘rational’ or commonsense; Indigenous objects are limited to ‘ethnographic’ material; the museum is a paragon of order; and collectors are primarily motivated by a desire to contribute to the development of imperial knowledge, such as anthropology and natural history. Whilst there are elements of truth in each of these, they are only partial understandings. Johannes Fabian (2003) has written of the need to acknowledge the ‘irrational’ in the colonial encounters from which many Indigenous collections derive. Acknowledgement of this requires a broader contextual approach to understanding Indigenous museum collections. Such a shift offers a potential for enriching our understanding of collecting and these partial truths. Drawing on examples of a range of collectors from South Australia, Western Australia and the Northern Territory, I use this approach to develop a narrative which incorporates the complexity of relationships between non-Indigenous collectors, Indigenous people, and objects, and the complexity of their engagements with museums.

Interpreting the actions and motivations of collectors can help gain a little insight into the makeup of collections. Relationships between collectors and indigenous people - knowing the collector’s background and employment really helps to understand this connection. For example, missionary collectors would gather items like idols, and things that could represent “savagery” (weapons, etc) to show that the willingness to relinquish these objects meant the missions had succeeded in converting the indigenous groups.

All aspects of collecting – all objects, not just ethnographic – help understand motivations for field work. (i.e. if there was a lot of natural history collection at the same time.) The collector’s occupation does influence, but collecting is cultural “performance”, and the audience (e.g. Australian indigenous cultures) is the important thing.


Sally May, University of Adelaide: Charles Pearcy Mountford and the Art of Collecting
Charles Pearcy Mountford (1890–1976) is often underestimated as an anthropologist and museum collector. His, almost accidental, involvement in the disciplines of anthropology and archaeology, and his contribution to the formation of museum collections of Indigenous Australian objects was extensive and controversial. In particular, his focus on the collection of works of art by Indigenous artists has meant that today most Australian capital city art galleries and museums hold and exhibit examples of the so-called Mountford paintings. Yet, given his non-anthropological background (as a tram conductor and post office mechanic in Adelaide) his research and collecting was always destined to attract controversy. Mountford was ostracised by the anthropological fraternity for being an untrained amateur anthropologist – really just a collector. He did, however, have his supporters in the Commonwealth Government of Australia, the National Geographic Society and numerous overseas institutions. The mutually beneficial relationships he formed with these institutions led to a long career as photographer, anthropologist, archaeologist, expedition leader, and collector. In this paper I will discuss Charles Mountford’s career and use the 1948 American-Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land, of which he was leader, as a case study of Mountford’s collecting strategies and the ongoing impact of these events on present-day institutions and Indigenous communities.

Charles Mountford was a mechanic by trade, and anthropology was just a hobby for him. He travelled with his father, and discovered indigenous engravings, which were of interest to him. He developed a relationship with Norman Tindale, and went on an expedition to Arnhem Land with him. Mountford stood out as a collector who fairly treated indigenous groups.

His collection strategies were pretty broad – salvage ethnography, individual research needs, institutional prerogatives, getting items to sell, or just collecting items without context full stop. He would also request bark painting with certain subject matters.


Lindy Allen, Museum Victoria: ‘Tons and tons of valuable material' - the Donald Thomson
Collection from Arnhem Land

Donald Thomson collected around 4,500 objects, took 2800 still images as well as moving film, and wrote over 3,000 pages of field notes during his Arnhem Land fieldwork between 1935-1942. This paper will address his motivation for making such a large collection of artefacts at a time when professional anthropological interest in material culture was very limited. An analysis of the Collection not only provides a profile of his collecting activities, such as the places and dates at which objects were obtained, but also helps establish his rationale for collecting. Unlike Spencer and othersinterested in establishing museum collections, this was not the basis of Thomson’s collecting. This paper will address Donald Thomson’s motivation for amassing a large amount of material.

Thompson was originally a biologist and field naturalist. He was told he could get funding for trips if he got himself a diploma in anthropology – so here is another rare creature that had training before heading out into the field!

His first trip saw him take on biological specimens as well as ethnographic stuff, and his first published paper was on birds. He didn’t take the typical stance of salvage ethnography and amassing material, but he was influenced in what he collected by his studies and the school of structural functional anthropology. His collecting was never meant specifically for public museums, but private research needs.

During the 1960s, the Yolgnu people actually had access to the collections during their visits to the museum – a step toward some kind of indigenous agency. After his death, his wife insisted the collections stay together rather than being filtered out into different places, so they became a collection in Victoria. It includes artefacts, field notes, photographs, tags, transcriptions, language notes, diaries and genealogies – as well as natural history specimens.

When the collection was brought to Museum Victoria, it was catalogued and all stored together. The material was collected primarily in Arnhem Land and Cape York, with a little from PNG and the Solomons. Objects were paid for up in Cape York, and the costs for these were considered core costs for the funding of the trip.

He had quite a focus on material culture, and documented the manufacture and use of objects, as well as the social/gendered order the objects were used within. It’s not sure whether he started with information and collected objects according to this, or collected objects and then sought information about them, but he did engage with indigenous people to seek information. He got a lot of “type specimens” and representative samples from cultural groups, and the collection showed technological distributions of items.

Over half the items from Arnhem Land are spears and tools, or items of adornment. He felt that overall, the bark paintings were the most important pieces he could collect.


Ross Chadwick, Western Australian Museum: ‘Your Obedient Servant’ - the John Tunney collection at the Western Australian Museum
In December 1895 John Tunney was offered the role of Museum collector for an initial period of three months. Ten years later he had collected almost 1700 objects from Western Australia and the Northern Territory. Tunney had no training as an anthropologist and was engaged primarily to collect natural science specimens. The acquisition of Aboriginal cultural material developed at the suggestion of the curator, Bernard Woodward, almost as an afterthought. Using the correspondence between Tunney and the Museum, and the objects that were collected, this paper examines the role of a collector in the field under the direction of a curator and museum committee. It will investigate the perceptions of Aboriginal people at the time, the attitudes towards what was considered important to collect and the way in which curators and collectors can shape the development and content of collections.

Tunney collected quite broadly, including natural history, geological and ethnographic specimens. He had no scientific or anthropological training. He was sent by the WA Museum’s director to just plainly acquire specimens – “get everything you can.” (Occasionally he would be a bit more specific in terms of types of specimens, or places to collect.)

Due to being sent around so much, he never spent a lot of time in one place to make connections with communities, which will obviously influence collecting. His travels were limited to coastal regions over the years, with very few trips to collect in remote areas. While he did photograph people, costumes and ceremony, there was little documentation to accompany his collecting.

The Director maintained he only wants traditional items, “genuine” articles that weren’t made for sale. His aim was to gather things for display only, or exchange with other museums. Some items were paid for in tobacco or cash. A lot of the indigenous items were collected incidentally while the natural history fieldwork was being done. There was quite a bias on his behalf toward men’s items (tools, weapons etc.)


Val Attenbrow, Australian Museum: Ethnographic and archaeological collections by F. D.
Mccarthy in the Australian Museum

Fred McCarthy worked in a number of research areas relating to the life and material culture of Australian Aboriginal people – stone tool classification and analysis, recording and analyzing rock art, and recording and excavating archaeological sites, as well as organizing exhibitions, managing museum anthropological collections, and pressuring for protective legislation for Aboriginal sites and artefacts. He was involved in social anthropological research, but to a lesser degree. Throughout his work at the Australian Museum, where he was employed from March 1920 until October 1960, he made many collections of both archaeological and ethnographic materials and it is these that this paper focuses on. Amongst the many ethnographic objects he collected, those obtained during the American-Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land in 1948, are some of the most significant. However, his major collections are of archaeological materials gained from his own collecting and excavation fieldwork. McCarthy worked with wide network of collaborators who came from many parts of the world – ranging from local amateur collectors/archaeologists with whom he collaborated in fieldwork in NSW to researchers in academic institutions and other museum in America, Europe and south-east Asia with whom he had discourses on the classification and nomenclature of Aboriginal stone artefacts.

McCarthy began studies in anthropology while working in an anthropology department (uni or museum? Not sure.). He had previously studied zoology, geology and physical anthropology. The makeup of his collection breaks down into 3 areas: Indonesian (ethnographic and archaeological), Eastern Australian, and ethnographic and archaeological material from the Arnhem Land expedition.

The Arnhem Land (Australia and US joint expedition) aimed to document subsistence and nutrition, the chronology of prehistoric times, and to collect artefacts. McCarthy wanted to collect things to fill gaps in existing collections, as well as things he saw being manufactured. [Filling gaps in collections is quite an interesting approach to collection, and is almost a little reflexive – examining the flaws in the work done by Australian collectors so far and looking to more broadly represent cultural material.]

McCarthy wanted the Australian Museum to establish a complete representative collection of Arnhem Land material culture, not just for documentation purposes, but also for exhibition.

McCarthy collected objects incorporating introduced materials. He also focused a lot on archaeological stone tool material. It was compared to the technologies of other areas of Australia. The stone tool collections were used to examine classification, geological distribution, and regional industries.


Jarno Coone, National Gallery of Victoria: H.A. Heinrich and the trade of tjurunga from
Hermannsburg mission

H.A. Heinrich was schoolteacher at Hermannsburg mission in Central Australia from 1917. He taught the young T.G.H. Strehlow. He accompanied Pastor Carl Strehlow on his legendary and fateful journey to Horseshoe Bend. Upon Pastor Strehlow’s death he became virtual superintendent of the mission for four years until the arrival of Pastor F.W. Albrecht. Tjurunga and other traditional Aboriginal artefacts were traded from the mission during Heinrich’s time at Hermannsburg. This paper aims to investigate the extent to which Heinrich participated in this trade to collectors and museums.


Daniel Leo, Northern Land Council: An Ark of Aboriginal Relics: the collecting practices of Dr.
L.P. Winterbotham under the imprimatur of the University of Queensland’s Anthropology Museum from the 1940s to 1960s.

This paper explores the philosophy, techniques and results of the massive and systematic collecting by Dr L.P. Winterbotham of objects, and knowledge about them, as derived from Australian Aboriginal and Papua New Guinean peoples and communities. Winterbotham was a Medical Doctor, a lecture of Medicine at the University of Queensland (UQ), a founder of the Anthropological Society of Queensland (ASQ), the inaugural Curator of UQ’s Anthropology Museum (UQAM), and a professional
antiquarian focused mainly upon Aboriginal culture and history. The results were that within the space of two decades Winterbotham amassed approximately 18,000 objects, and nearly 5,400 letters that detail his collecting practice and methods. As based on an analysis of both these objects and letters, it can be demonstrated that Winterbotham was part of the ‘relic mentality’ zeitgeist that gripped twentieth century anthropology. Christianity, Doomed Race Theory, a fetish for material things, and salvage ethnography also underpinned the founding philosophy of Winterbotham, the ASQ and the UQAM. In regards to techniques, Winterbotham mainly employed the Network Method, in contrast to either the Local Method or Circuit Method. Winterbotham is also a textbook case study of professional antiquarianism in Australia, in contrast to either anonymous, active or historian antiquarianism.

During the period of 1948 – 1965, the QM deferred its role of anthropology to the UQAM. The main source of information about the collecting done by Winterbotham is a collection of correspondence with a lot of people (Tindale, government officials, companies, church-based) mostly in QLD (some in WA and NT). Just over half of his correspondence was with donors to the UQAM – the ‘network’ method of collecting was in full force for the UQAM.

Most of the items were collected through middlemen who had acquired things from indigenous groups directly. In later times, Winterbotham collected directly under the authority of the UQAM. He was interested in “authentic” items, and also drew up lists of things he was after to fill gaps in the collection to send out to those doing collecting.

Collection motivations included enjoyment, filling a vacuum of collecting/expertise in QLD, belief in a doomed race (salvage ethnography), relics mentality, and sense of place.


Richard Robins, Independent Scholar: Reflections in a Cracked Mirror - What collections representing ‘them’ can say about ‘us’ and the role of museum collections
Museum ethnographic collections and their histories are social documents that reflect complex relationships between the community at large and indigenous people. These relationships are reflected in a number of ways including the types of collectors, the time at which the collection was made, number of objects collected, collections emphases and types of objects collected, motives for collecting, and attitudes towards indigenous people. Examination of trends and patterns of collection through time can reveal much about the society of the collectors as well as that of the collected. The history of the anthropological collections of the Queensland Museum provides an insightful illustration of the nature of the relationship between Indigenous people and the broader society. The collections are relatively small, there are few major donors, few professional ethnographers are represented, the most significant collections relating to Queensland Aborigines are in museums from other States and collection curation has been sorely neglected. This paper examines perspectives of Queensland society’s attitudes towards Aboriginal people through an examination of patterns of
collecting and research to question the role and relevance of Museums in society.

Robins sees the major influences on collecting as political climate, museum administration (directors and boards), staff and curators, and indigenous people themselves. In the Queensland Museum’s case, the most obvious influences on collecting were directors (or lack of) and government policy. The QM has always had natural scientists as directors, and small anthropology staff numbers (none of whom had a collecting history).

Much of the QM’s collecting was passive, and poorly documented. Details of makers of items are generally absent. A lot of material came in via donations from land owners, government officials, protectors, etc. There was a drop in activity when the new museum was constructed, and it spiked again when the JCU museum closed (items had to go somewhere). Very little indigenous voice in the collection and what is there is muted. There was never really any direction for collecting (to specify what was wanted or where from) as most of the material was passively collected.

Looking on the collection now, is there regret of lost opportunities for properly organised field work and collecting?


Philip Jones, South Australian Museum: The ‘idea behind the artefact’ - Norman Tindale’s salvage ethnography
This paper explores Norman Tindale’s regard for ethnographic objects as key elements within a broader cultural and environmental milieu, integrally linked to his other, varied field data. The paper explores whether Tindale’s commitment to salvage ethnography obliged him to adopt a static ideal of Aboriginal culture, circumbscribed by notions of authenticity. I suggest that that the scope and depth of Tindale’s collections, together with his continental project of documenting cultural boundaries and shifts, enabled him to evade that constricted model. Instead, the multiple meanings and associations retained by Tindale’s objects offer an appealing fluidity of museological interpretation.

Tindale (or “Tinny” as John Stanton fondly called him!) began his academic life as an assistant entomologist in 1917. His ethnographic collection work was quite strong on provenance information, but not necessarily on the maker. He also documented the process of manufacture, and the “degeneration” of material culture for the tourist trade. He was influenced by the notion that collections should be a complete representation of a culture, and also the method of natural science, the taxonomy of types of items.

His first expedition was to Groote Eylandt – he collected mainly men’s weapons and tools, and dress and ornament. Spencer told Tindale to keep a daily record of his travels. Tindale has a rudimentary grasp of literature on the people and their culture; he had gone to and returned from Groote a naturalist.


Louise Hamby, Australian National University : The Arnhem Land Collection of Lloyd Warner
Lloyd Warner was the first anthropologist to complete long fieldwork in eastern Arnhem Land during 1927–1929. Many know of his publication A Black Civilization: A Social Study of an Australian Tribe but not much is known about his collection of objects mainly from Milingimbi. These objects are now spread between various institutions in America and Australia and virtually disappeared from sight. This paper will examine how his collection and attitude to material culture relates to Donald Thomson’s collecting made in the same area some six years later?


Chris Nobbs, South Australian Museum: Collectors on the Cooper Creek – 1890-1910
An examination of Aboriginal artefact collections from the Cooper Creek region in north east South Australia reveals complex and overlapping histories. A series of vignettes drawn from these collections will illustrate how collectors engaged with Yandruwandha, Wangkangurru and Diyari people in quite different forms of exchange which were premised on paradigms that were poles apart. Beginning with Alfred W. Howitt's Relief Expedition in search of Burke and Wills in 1861, ethnography played an increasingly significant role in the encounters between explorers, pastoralists, police and missionaries on the Cooper Creek. Howitt's encounter with the Yandruwandha people near Innaminka kindled his ethnographic interest in the Cooper Creek region and culminated in his partnership with Otto Siebert and the publication of The Native Tribes of South East Australia in 1904. The Lutheran 'bush missionary' Otto Siebert lived at the Bethesda Mission which overlooked Lake Killalpaninna between 1894 and 1902. He worked closely with Diyari and Wangkangurru people in the area and made detailed records of their language, beliefs, ceremonies, and family histories. Siebert photographed the Mudlunga ceremony performed at Lake Ngalangalani ca 1900, produced a map of South Australia showing tribal boundaries and collected approximately 120 artefacts which are now housed in the Frankfurt Museum der Weltkulturen. Siebert's ethnographic work will be compared with that of other collectors who visited or worked on the Cooper Creek including his missionary colleague Pastor Johann Reuther and Dr Erhard Eylmann. Siebert collected approximately 120 artefacts while working as a bush missionary on the Cooper Creek between 1894 and 1902 and also collected natural history specimens for A.W. Howitt. Two thirds of his artefact collection was destroyed in the Second World War, but the file card documentation was saved. His collection is currently housed in the Frankfurt Museum fur Weltkulturen in Germany and reflects the breadth and depth of his interest in collecting and documenting Aboriginal people’s traditions and beliefs, which had been drastically affected by the impact of colonial settlement and successive droughts in the region. In some cases this is reflected in the form of the artefacts made, and the use of European materials.


Margot Smith, University of Virginia: Aesthete and Scholar - Two complimentary influences on the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection of the University of Virginia
John W. Kluge and Edward L. Ruhe were two American collectors of Australian Aboriginal art whose vision, methodology and means could not have been more different. A self-made billionaire, Kluge encountered Aboriginal art in 1988, when it was achieving recognition in the international art world. He funnelled millions into his collection, purchasing works through galleries in New York, Los Angeles and Australia, as well as setting up six-figure commissions with Aboriginal communities. Kluge’s interests in Aboriginal art were primarily aesthetic. He enjoyed his collection privately until donating it to the University of Virginia in 1997. Ruhe began collecting Aboriginal art with thirty-five paintings purchased in Australia while on a Fulbright Scholarship. Within a year, he was offered the highly
regarded Spence Collection after the owner was unable to sell it to an Australian institution. Ruhe had to find investors in order to make the purchase. He spent the next 24 years studying Aboriginal art, creating a comprehensive index on Aboriginal artists and corresponding widely with anthropologists, collectors and art historians. Both men viewed Aboriginal art as fine art, although for different reasons. Their joint efforts are reflected in he largest public collection of Aboriginal outside Australia the Kluge-Ruhe Collection.

The Kluge-Ruhe collection is the only public collection of indigenous art in the US. Ruhe was very interested in studying the art and artists, rather than just amassing material; attribution and documentation were very important. Kluge acquired Ruhe’s collection and continued to add to it. It was kept private for quite a while, but he eventually realised its research potential. After this, a symposium was held.

Ruhe visited Australia and met many scholars, becoming quite interested in the paintings, purchased many in SA from the Department of Aboriginal Affairs. (From Geoffrey Spence, who tried to sell it to the NT gallery who didn’t want it.) He also acquired items from collector Jim Davidson. Ruhe held exhibitions at the University of Kansas, as well as hosting lectures by Tindale and visits from indigenous leaders and artists such as Wandjuk Marika. Ruhe felt that the art was art and should be housed and displayed along with Western art.

Kluge started collecting when aboriginal art was “big” the world over. He had a lot of corporate money behind home, and collected all sorts of art. He also commissioned a lot of art. His motivation was to build a complete collection; he had been advised to build on strengths, rather than branch out too much.


Janice Lally, Independent Scholar: The Australian Aboriginal collection and the Berlin ethnographic museum
The Berlin Museum für Volkerkünde was founded by Adolf Bastian in 1873 and significant collections of objects from many countries outside of Europe were assembled. Bastian’s objective was to urgently create a “library” of mankind as represented in cultural artifacts before cultures were changed forever by the forces of civilization. Factors influencing collecting by the Museum included the science of the study of mankind; fostering pride and public education in relation to nation building; acquisition of booty obtained from colonial exploits and the investigation of foreign cultures so as to support colonial development abroad. Collectors were motivated by many concerns and objects were both sold and gifted. Some collectors were dedicated scientists, others collected for financial gain. Amateur collectors sought to gain prestige by institutional acknowledgement of their efforts. Missionaries often promoted economic benefit for their communities at the same time as being scientifically curious themselves. The Australian Aboriginal collection provides a document of German - Australian relations since the first contact. The earliest objects derive from one of James Cook’s Pacific expeditions. German geologists and botanists exploring Australia also collected Aboriginal artifacts that were sold to the Museum. Some were scientifically motivated collectors as with Amalie Deitrich and Baron Ferdinand von Mueller. Mueller also encouraged the collection of objects by others as did the German government representatives in Australia. Scientific interest drove the collection of large numbers of particular types of objects. This paper will expand upon the collectors of the Australian material in the Ethnographic Museum and their motivations.

The German collection of Australian material culture was influence by scientific inquiry in the late 1800s, and included ideas of the “stages of civilisation” and Indigenous people as primitive. 60% of the Berlin museum’s collection was acquired in its first 40 years. The artefacts reflected the ideas of mental and cultural development.

There was some interest in the influence of European culture on Indigenous material culture, interestingly. Also, it wasn’t just ritual and ceremonial items that were collected, but also everyday items to illustrate trade and environment. A lot of interest moved into PNG after this, but came back to Australia in the 1960s. While many of the collectors were in Australia for their own fields of work (mining, etc), they contributed research notes on flora, fauna and Indigenous Australians.


Elizabeth Willis, Museum Victoria: Gentlemen Amateur Collectors in Port Phillip, 1835–1854
This paper focuses on the actions and motivations of some of the earliest Europeans who collected examples of Indigenous Australian material culture in the Port Phillip district, later the colony of Victoria. It will discuss the collecting practices of members of the Melbourne Athenaeum, and other early Melbourne societies. It will present information about the provenance of the Indigenous collections that were donated from Victoria to the British Museum and other English museums in the 1840s and 1850s. It will discuss the collecting work of John Hunter Kerr and other Victorians who displayed Aboriginal material at the 1854 Melbourne Exhibition. Some comparisons with ‘gentlemen collectors’ in Tasmania and New South Wales in 1851 and 1854 will be made.

There are over 40 thousand items of Australian indigenous material culture in overseas collections. These “gentlemen amateur collectors” were hobbyists with a high commitment to collecting items to send home to Europe. Their other motivation was to collect for aesthetics.


David Kaus, National Museum of Australia: Herbert Basedow and Edmund Milne - professional versus amateur collecting in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries
The National Museum of Australia holds a number of collections of Aboriginal artefacts made in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Included are collections made by both formally -trained and amateur anthropologists. My paper will look at two of these collections, one made by possibly Australia’s first academically trained anthropologist, Herbert Basedow (1881-1933), and an amateur, Edmund Milne (1861-1917). Basedow’s main collecting period was between 1903 and 1928. He was involved in a number of expeditions to the Western Desert, the Kimberley, Lake Eyre Basin, Victoria River district and Arnhem Land. He made a substantial collection of Aboriginal artefacts on these expeditions. Milne was a railways official in New South Wales and was collecting between the 1880s and 1917. Although his collection has a strong representation from New South Wales, Milne assembled a collection of artefacts from all over Australia and elsewhere, most notably the South Pacific and Prehistoric Europe and Egypt. I will examine how both men assembled their collections and consider what evidence there is for their motivations in doing so. I will also look at what is in their
collections and examine any similarities and differences.

Looking over my notes, I didn’t get much out of this except for “yes, amateur collecting is different to professional collecting”. Mostly in the areas of documentation, and opinion (i.e. wanting authenticity).

That’s that, then.


John Stanton, Berndt Museum, University of Western Australia: Today for the Future - the
Ronald and Catherine Berndt Collection at the Berndt Museum of Anthropology

The late Ronald and Catherine Berndt assembled an unparalleled collection of Indigenous Australian art and artefacts over shared career spanning fifty years. Working principally in Arnhem Land and the Western Desert, they founded the Berndt Museum of Anthropology in 1976 to house their collection of 2246 items, along with those of associates of the Department of Anthropology. Now holding over 11,500 items, the Berndt Collection remains the jewel in the Museum's, indeed Australia's, crown. In 1950, they wrote with foresight 'Aboriginal art need not be allocated to the shelves of the past, nor lose its context when removed from its Indigenous and traditional setting. It can, and should, take its place alongside other great schools of art.' This paper explores the creation of this collection, and something behind the rationale for it.

The Berndts had two collections – a public one of Australian Indigenous material, and a private one of Asian cultural material and art. They didn’t ever publish about their collecting methods, but Stanton says that of course the personal histories and institutional knowledge of collectors influences collection processes.

Interestingly, the Berndts stipulated that the collections weren’t for adorning the walls of academia – they wanted people to learn from the collections and not just come in for a rubberneck (they didn’t let bus tours come into the museum, for instance). They had a clear audience in mind. I’m not sure I entirely agree with this thinking. Sure, it’s fair enough to not just want to whack pieces up so they look pretty; but I think if artefacts are exhibited well, they can help everyone learn.

The Berndts collected contemporary objects (nothing more than a year old, generally). They felt the makers of objects and their reasons behind manufacture were significant, and they had a preoccupation with documentation of collection items (both material and verbal). Their view of indigenous art was interesting for the time – they viewed it solely as “art” and not more generally as part of Indigenous material culture as a whole.


Leonn Satterthwait, Anthropology Museum, University of Queensland: Collections As Artefacts

Collections are artefacts - constructions that come into being when objects are physically or conceptually brought together. As artefacts, collections have properties, among the most obvious of which are the kinds of things they contain and their proportions. Rarely, however, do these properties reflect in a statistically representative way what it would have been possible to collect. A collection consequently both reflects the situation from which is was derived, and presents a distorted image of that situation. The latter, however, can be highly informative, if only we can determine its character. Since most collections represent samples from unknown universes, this is no easy feat - it requires that we give a prsence to the non-present so that what was collected can be compared to what could have been collected to establish the nature of the biases in a collection. Although often difficult, there are nevertheless several ways in which this can be attempted, including through linguistic comparisons. Such an exercise provides the basis for reflecting on a number of matters, theoretical and practical, relating to collections and their creation. These include the processes by which an assemblage of items becomes a 'collection'; the 'collection' notion itself; collections as mental constructs, as mentally conceived categories made manifest; and issues not only of representativeness but also of representation.

[Now, I’m not biased at all because Leonn’s my former boss and was my honours supervisor, but I thought this was a fantastically engaging paper, and the theory behind it interests me no end.]

It is the associations (can be any number of things) between items that link them together as a collection. Collections have formal properties as artefacts, and come into being in many ways. They can be structured in many ways, by types of objects, materials, manufacture or even gender association, among others. On top of this, it’s not just types of things, but also their frequency in collections that can say something.

Importantly, you can categorise a collection by what it does and doesn’t contain. The information about what’s not in a collection comes from outside the collection itself (of course) – diaries, papers, personal accounts, comparisons with other collections, and languages. (The last one works in that you compare language terms for items to items existing in a collection and see what language terms aren’t represented.)

The Roth collections (from the late 1800s in Normanton) contains objects in their own right, plus objects used in manufacture. They were acquired from a frontier town in the context of colonialisation, from a socially heterogeneous population.

The fields of possibility for a collection are larger than what’s been collected. There is a focus on what’s been collected rather than the whole field. Collections are broken down into types, things, or even places. They are a list or an interpretation which we’re always making – which is why collections are always influenced by curators and collection managers, too.

(My notes on this really don’t do it justice, sadly – if there’s anything better I’ve written when I look at the actual paper, I’ll amend this too.)


Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Article repost - Museums in legal bind as terror victims sue

Museums in legal bind as terror victims sue - article and comment after jump:

By Ron Grossman
Published March 13, 2006
From: http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/chi-0603130157mar13,1,3559584.story?coll=chi-newsnationworld-hed&ctrack=1&cset=true

A Rhode Island lawyer has pioneered a new legal front in the war on terrorism, turning to the collections of major American museums to seek compensation for victims of Middle East suicide bombers.

Among the museums and institutions being pursued by David Strachman is the University of Chicago. He wants the university to surrender a treasure trove of ancient Persian artifacts to survivors of an attack staged by Hamas, the militant group that won the recent Palestinian elections.

The request was recently sustained by a federal magistrate in Chicago.

The reasoning was as straightforward as the implications are far-reaching: Supporters of terrorism should be punished. Hamas is partially financed by Iran. Therefore, Hamas' victims should be compensated by confiscating Iranian property, making Persian artifacts in American museums, such as the U. of C.'s Oriental Institute, fair game for federal marshals and a moving truck.

Should that logic hold up on appeal, it would further complicate life for an American museum world already under pressure to acknowledge that some artworks and artifacts got to their collections via shady circumstances. Floodgates could be opened for myriad similar lawsuits, said Joe Brennan, general counsel and vice president of Chicago's Field Museum, where the Persian collection is also at risk in the lawsuit.

"If you can impose modern standards on acquisition methods of a hundred years ago," he said, "I'm going to be in the business of litigating permanently."

The University of Chicago has several lines of defense before having to turn over its Persian artifacts.

Several institutions threatened

But behind the courtroom maneuvers lies a tangled tale, and the maneuver has put several American cultural institutions under a legal gun: the U. of C., the Field Museum, Harvard University, the University of Michigan, the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

U. of C. officials and their attorneys have declined to comment on the case--Jenny Rubin, et al vs. The Islamic Republic of Iran, et al--except to express their confidence in prevailing.

"We are sympathetic with the victims of the terrorists, but the law does not allow recovery under these circumstances," said Beth Harris, the U. of C.'s vice president and general counsel.

In making that argument, the university has been put into the position of defending Iran's legal rights, pleading poverty for the country's fundamentalist rulers, who aren't contesting the case. In its court papers, the U. of C. states, "Iran faces numerous `practical barriers' to [the] suit in the form of extensive defense costs."

The next round of U. of C.'s legal entanglement is scheduled for a federal court in Chicago this week.

Attack that launched suit

The suit's origins date to Sept. 4, 1997, when three suicide bombers set off explosives studded with nails, screws and broken glass at the Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall in Jerusalem, a popular tourist destination. Hamas claimed responsibility for the attack, which killed five bystanders and wounded 192.

Several survivors, Americans visiting Israel at the time, filed a federal suit against Iran and Iranian officials in the District of Columbia. When the defendants didn't show up in court, the plaintiffs won by default.

Judge Ricardo Urbina ruled that the victims and their relatives were due $423.5 million in damages.

In his opinion, Urbina noted that Iran has a ministry for terrorism that "spends between $50 million and $100 million a year sponsoring terrorist activities of various organizations such as Hamas."

The decision was a victory for Strachman, the plaintiffs' lawyer.

"This case is about inflicting economic damage and punishment on the terrorists," he said after winning a similar suit.

Strachman declined to comment on the current proceedings, and Daniel Miller said he and other plaintiffs have been counseled not to speak about the matter while litigation is in process. But the judge found that the bombing left Miller, who had just graduated from high school, with glass in his eye, with bolts and nuts in his ankles and unable to walk for more than short periods.

Like other winners of damage suits, Strachman set out to collect his clients' awards from among the losers' assets.

Strachman saw deep pockets in museums housing Iranian objects, among them U. of C.'s. Its archeologists excavated Persepolis, the fabled capital of ancient Persia, between the two World Wars. Among the collections of the university's Oriental Institute are thousands of clay fragments with cuneiform writing, priceless records of a vanished civilization.

When a process server showed up at the U. of C., university officials didn't deny having Iranian property.

U. of C. invokes principle

"These antiquities are undeniably owned by Iran," U. of C. said in court papers. But the university's lawyers invoked a legal principle known as sovereign immunity, which holds that governments can't be hauled into court like the rest of us.

Though Iran hadn't asserted that right, the university wanted to do so for the government.

"You can sue the sovereign nation, you can get a judgment, but you can't collect it against any of their property unless they agree, right?"

Magistrate Martin Ashman asked during a hearing last November at the Dirksen Federal Building in Chicago.

He answered his own question by rejecting the university's argument in a decision rendered in December. It is under appeal.

The United States has sided with the museums, although it insists it is not "defending Iran's behavior."

Strachman's case against Harvard University and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston is working its way through another federal court.

Officials at those institutions declined to comment, except to express sympathy for the terrorists' victims.

In parallel proceedings against the Field Museum, both sides have exhibited fancier legal footwork.

The museum has ancient Persian artifacts, known as the Herzfeld Collection because they were purchased in 1945 from Ernst Herzfeld, the U. of C. archeologist who excavated Persepolis.

Strachman alleges Herzfeld doubled as a dealer in stolen and smuggled antiquities.

If the museum's artifacts were among his loot, then they really belong to Iran--and thus his clients have a claim to them, Strachman argues.

Thomas Cunningham, the Field Museum's lawyer, dismisses that theory.

Against U. of C., Strachman argued that someone else can't argue Iran's rights in court, but in the case of the Field Museum, he has done just that

"We take the position that the plaintiffs don't have standing to bring a claim of Iran's right to the property," Cunningham said. "Only Iran can."

Like others involved, he predicts that the story has many chapters to come.

"There'll be a lot more technical stuff before we get to the meat of it," Cunningham said. "The juicy part, the public loves."

Just a couple of thoughts on the issues this article brings up - it's very interesting, and obviously very touchy stuff. This is my initial reaction to it.

This is a case that's going to be very tricky, and i'll be interested to see what the outcome is. What the tricky thing is, is that much of the cultural material has been acquired by less-than-honest means at a time when it was commonplace for visiting scholars in other countries to bring items home with them to donate/sell to museum collections. Some museums are starting repatriation processes which is kinda cool - and I guess it can only really work with things that have decent documentation of their provenance, and have a cultural institution to be kept in in their country of origin. The majority of material will stay where it is, as property of the Museums they've been taken in by.

Legally, this means they can only be deaccessioned by museum management/museum boards. Lawyers can not walk in on behalf of their clients and take cultural material from museum collections as means of compensation. It just doesn't work that way. It makes me boggle a little that anyone could think this could happen. While the pieces have originated from the Middle East, they are owned by museums, and the museums have the control over what happens to them. The circumstances here are not that the American museums are "keeping places" for cultural material, they aren't custodians for what they have. By whatever means, they've come to own the material - so I figure it's out of reach for victims wanting compensation.


Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Article repost - Theme parks with old stuff

Theme parks with old stuff
Leigh Dayton
From http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/printpage/0,5942,18226303,00.html (Higher Education)

HERE'S a quick question. What appears in your mind's eye when you recall a childhood visit to a natural history museum? Dinosaurs, an Egyptian mummy? Maybe a moon rock or a case filled with creepy crawlies?

For me, as a southern California kid, it's sabre-toothed tiger skulls at the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles. They're quickly followed by visions of dusty dioramas at the LA Natural History Museum which displayed stuffed animals alongside spear and basket-wielding Indians.
Dated? Yes. Tacky? Unquestionably. Effective? You bet. When it comes to grabbing the attention of children, there's nothing like the real thing. That holds true even in today's world of interactive experiences. There's something compelling about an honest-to-goodness object that can never be replaced by hi-tech gimmicks.
Of course, yesterday's displays need rethinking. What's new, scientifically? How can the significance of this fossil or that ancient tool be better presented? Can old objects stir new meaning? Can collections and expertise shine light on debates, public or scientific?
Still, rejuvenation isn't an excuse to lock away objects in the 21st century equivalent of a 19th century cabinet of curiosities. After all, that's what museums are, collections of curiosities, objects that are studied and displayed. Museums show us our world and help us consider our place in it.
Even those ageing cabinets and antiquated presentations are part of the story. Look at the Victorian cabinets and galleries of the country's first natural history museum, Sydney's Australian Museum. They reflect a 19th century passion for collection and observation that culminated when Charles Darwin boarded the Beagle.
And speaking of Darwin, old exhibits can sometimes tell a new story. The AM, for instance, recently dismantled its evolution exhibit, Tracks Through Time. The plan is to make way for a new dinosaur exhibit. Nothing wrong with dinos. Nothing wrong with spring-cleaning. But look at the timing.
The long-running exhibit, widely used a teaching aid, was ditched just as American-style creationism in the guise of intelligent design is gaining ground in Australia.
Surely, the exhibit could have been rejigged to good effect. After all, last year even then federal education minister Brendan Nelson muddled scientific theory and religious belief, deliberately or otherwise.
"Students can be taught and should be taught the basic science in terms of the evolution of man," he said. "But if schools also want to present students with intelligent design, I don't have any difficulty with that. It's about choice, reasonable choice."
Choice? The mind boggles. The point here is that the out-with-the-old attitude can be a tempting siren to new administrators, anxious to make their mark. It also fits neatly with another plague on our houses of science: bottom-line leadership. You know the buzz words: benchmarking, accountability, external funding.
It's the type of thinking that turns museums into products, ones that must compete for the entertainment dollar. Long gone are the days when a museum visit was a public good, paid for from the public purse, and knowledge had inherent value.
Frankly, I'm weary of politicians whose penny-pinching ways are forcing museums to become razzle-dazzle fun houses, places where cash and customers are separated at the ticket wicket, gift shop and in-house cafe; where visitors are encouraged to make donations and take out memberships; where galleries are hired out for functions, catering included. Where's the wonder? Where's the science? For that matter, where are the scientists? Right now, the AM and the University of Sydney's antiquities and natural history museums are getting a shake-up that leaves researchers at other institutions wondering if they're next. The cause of the anxiety is a well-meaning, but misguided exercise in managerial best practice.
For instance, new brooms at the university museums are sweeping staff out the door, while AM bigwigs are squeezing research scientists into administrative pigeonholes, regardless of their expertise and reputation. If, say, your work on trilobites doesn't contribute to museum-wide goals, it - and possibly you - won't be supported.
Surely, this kind of thinking is back-to-front. We're talking creative institutions here, places where people are as much a treasure as are collections of skeletons, beetles and bronze figurines. Scientists, as with collections, may have been acquired in an ad hoc manner, but if they're good so what? A museum isn't a theme park. It's a place of ideas and inquiry. It's a cultural institution. It's part of an international web where quality counts. Back the best and you'll reap rewards. It's obvious.
Or is it? In January, Dennis Tourish wrote a piece for the HES headlined Management Bent On Worst Practice. Although he was writing about Australian university management, it could easily have been a piece about the new crop of museum bureaucrats.
Tourish's point was that managerialism - defined as "the wholly unreasonable conviction that those at the top always know better than those they manage" - is creating problems, not solving them. How true.
That's why leading universities - and museums - build organisational structures to serve their people, not vice versa.
Case in point: the La Brea Tar Pits. The haphazard display of my childhood is gone. Visitors now enjoy sophisticated exhibits, a gift shop, gardens, theatres, the lot.
But best of all, scientists are still pulling sabre-toothed tigers out of grubby pits of oozing tar. It's fantastic and it's free.


Article repost- Museums: Why Should We Care?

Museums: Why Should We Care?
For the study and understanding of mankind.

Wednesday, June 1, 2005 12:01 a.m.
From: http://www.opinionjournal.com/la/?id=110006760

NEW YORK--We all know art and art museums are important. But when it comes to articulating our reasons for this belief, we find it very difficult. We'd love to simply say, like our children, "Just because." When we try to be more specific, we end up with something rather abstract, such as: They are the repositories of precious objects and relics, the places where they are preserved, studied and displayed, which means that museums can be defined quite literally and succinctly, as the memory of mankind.
Yet the fact is, through your reaction to two recent events, you, the public, have already demonstrated that you understand why the tangible vestiges of our artistic past are so important. Recall the world's reaction to the Taliban's destruction of the monumental Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan in 2001. So many who had never even heard of these monuments expressed their outrage at this act of iconoclastic vandalism. Then came the looting of the museum in Baghdad in the spring of 2003. Again, even among people with only the vaguest notion of Ancient Mesopotamia, Akkad, Sumer, Assyria, there was still a sense of outrage and loss.
What the world was telling us is that on some level people realized that the cylinder seals and statuary taken from the museum were not just mute bits of matter that they would never miss, but the vital testimonies of the people who had made them thousands of years ago. As such, they were integral parts of mankind's history--our history.
The fact is, in the rooms of our museums are preserved things that are far more than just pretty pictures. These works of art, embodying and expressing with graphic force the deepest aspirations of a time and place, are direct, primary evidence for the study and understanding of mankind.

For the study and understanding of mankind. These are key words that explain a critical function of the art museum. It is the place where curators--the experts--sort out our artistic past. For if we find our identity through works of art, then we have to identify them correctly, and works of art are not easy to decipher. They don't come with installation kits, lists of ingredients, and certificates of origin. In order to determine the time and place of their genesis, we have to ask of them: Who made them, where, when and why?
The answers to these questions are anything but obvious, because very few artistic traditions are pure--that is, uninflected by outside influences. So, confronted with a work of art, we must be sure of its origin. And even when that is clear, since so much art is the result of interconnections, then the inclination of most of us to believe that our own culture is the true and dominant one is shown time and again to be arrogant and misguided. The art museum then plays a key and beneficial role in teaching us humility, in making us recognize that other, very different yet totally valid civilizations have existed and do exist right alongside our own.
Let me give you an example. In the museum we have a pyxis that was once a container for the Eucharist and stored in a church treasury. Yet it was made under the Ummayad dynasty, the Muslim rulers of North Africa and Granada until the late 15th century. It is decorated with birds and various animals set against a lush pattern of arabesques--intricate patterns of interlaced lines. Although this is a typical Islamic motif, it traces its origins to the vine and acanthus scroll ornament of the late antique classical world, and the pattern itself refers back on the other hand to early Syrian textiles.
What objects such as this give you is an idea of the degree to which the world's cultures, diverse as they are, reveal astonishing and often unexpected similarities due to interconnections that are often the result of the movement of peoples and artifacts across great spans of the globe.
Another reason art museums matter is that, unlike historical facts and events, works of art exist not only in the present, but also in the past, the past that transmitted them to us. Events, on the other hand, can be retraced but they have no presence; we can't experience them. Archives and documents refer to events but are not they. However, the work of art, as Bernard Berenson put it, is the event.
So we can read about a historical event in, say, 15th-century Mantua, but we cannot experience it. On the other hand, we can experience its art and thus in a very real way enter into Renaissance Mantua by looking at a painting by Andrea Mantegna, court painter to the Gonzagas, the rulers of Mantua; the very painting that their eyes actually rested upon.

But in attempting to answer the question "why should we care?" I'd like to suggest a final, more broadly significant lesson. It is mankind's awe-inspiring ability, time and again, to surpass itself. What this means is that no matter how bleak the times we may live in, we cannot wholly despair of the human condition.
Let me illustrate this by citing just a few of the museum's masterpieces from around the world: An astonishing Egyptian portrait of a royal figure, dating to the second millennium B.C.; an idealized portrait in ivory, from the court of Benin in 16th-century Nigeria; the exquisite Madonna and Child by the great Sienese master Duccio that we recently acquired; a splendid portrait of an ecclesiastic by Jean Fouquet, one of the finest 15th-century drawings in America; the 17th-century portrait of Juan de Pareja, by Velázquez, one the most convincing physical presences in all of painting; and Jackson Pollock's "Autumn Rhythm" of 1950, a work both brutal and elegant.
My question is: Who made these things? The answer: We did, our species did. Isn't that reason enough to maintain our faith in humankind? Especially when you consider that wars, massacres and nature's indiscriminate destructive forces have occurred throughout recorded history, and always will, and that through it all, men and women of genius have managed to give us their vision of the moment, at the highest level of inspiration. What we learn is that no matter the degree of chaos and adversity surrounding him, man has shown his capability to excel, to surpass. That is the ultimate assurance of renewal and survival. And it is one of the great lessons of the art museum.
Mr. de Montebello is director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This is adapted by the editors from a lecture he gave at the museum in April, for which he relied on scholarship from many sources.