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Descendants protest museum's removal of Pacific treasures

Richard Parkinson
Richard Parkinson – descendants of the world-renowned anthropologist warn his ''gift of history'' will be marginalised

LINDA MORRIS | Sydney Morning Herald | Extracts

SYDNEY - The Australian Museum's decision to move a world-class collection offsite to make way for a touring exhibition has sparked protests from descendants of a distinguished Danish anthropologist.

After the Garden Palace fire of 1882 destroyed all but a handful of museum artefacts, the Australian Museum turned to Richard Parkinson, his wife Phebe and her sister, Emma Coe Forsayth, known as Queen Emma, to rebuild its collection.

Between them, the pioneers - who established plantations in the New Guinea islands in 1879 - provided more than 4,000 items from 1882 to 1884 alone, and continued donations until 1911, forming a core part of the 60,000 objects that are currently housed at the museum.

The objects would become records of times past that would astonish and inform future generations, the museum's then head of anthropology, Jim Specht, predicted.

But the Pacific collection is to be ejected as a result of a $57.5 million expansion of Australia's oldest museum to stage the blockbuster Tutankhamun exhibition and accommodate peak predictions of nine new visitors every minute.

In a submission made to the Department of Planning's Environmental Impact Statement, 157 descendants of Parkinson and the sisters now residing in Australia, Japan, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States have protested the relocation and warned this ''gift of history'' would be further marginalised if it is boxed and moved offsite.

''We recognise the obvious lack of floor space at the museum but lament the Pacific - our region, our geographical location, our home - has been on a lower priority rung to other areas and so-called blockbusters," the submission said.

“Commercial values should never trump cultural values. Pacific communities especially should have more, not less, access to objects sacred and spiritual to them."

But the museum contends that the current storage facilities at the Australian Museum's William Street site did not provide the optimum environment for the collection.

Existing space was inaccessible to visitors, provided no area for examination, research or privacy, and low ceilings and narrow aisles meant it was difficult to view or retrieve objects, the museum said.

Many larger objects from the Pacific collection were already housed offsite at Castle Hill due to space constraints.

Manager of Pacific and International Collections Dr Michael Mel said the move to the new facility would enable greater access and opportunities for community workshops, visits, and discussion.

"We will also be encouraging more collaborations and partnerships with Pacific researchers, artists, and community leaders to develop the knowledge and information relating to the Pacific collection so that these can become accessible for all for our shared future," Dr Mel said.

“We want to collaborate more with communities and elders, the holders of knowledge and wisdom from the Pacific, and we are committed to developing partnerships with these communities and their elders.”


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John Greenshields | Adelaide

In 2013 the Australian Government sought public input into a new National Cultural Policy. My submission is summarised here:

Australia has a deficit of publicly available cultural material.
Australia has the largest Aboriginal, and some of the largest Pacific, collections in the world.

Most of this is never seen, and will never be seen with current funding.

Australia should be showcasing these collections to the world. This would promote high value tourism and spending.

There are geo-strategic reasons to promote Australia as the major cultural power of the region.

Australian Government funding to assist the States in recording and digitisation of collections for online access is urgently needed.

An ageing knowledge base makes this work increasingly urgent.

The divisions between public art galleries and museums needs reforming to promote new joint initiatives.

Australia is entering a construction downturn. The Australian Government should assist the States to fund major new galleries across the country. These should take new forms to unite art and ethnography, culture and history.

NATIONAL CULTURAL POLICY 2013 [Australian Government]

Five policy goals.

Recognise, respect and celebrate the centrality of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures to the uniqueness of Australian identity.

Ensure that government support reflects the diversity of Australia and that all citizens, wherever they live, whatever their background or circumstances, have a right to shape our cultural identity and its expression.

Support excellence and the special role of artists and their creative collaborators as the source of original work and ideas, including telling Australian stories.

Strengthen the capacity of the cultural sector to contribute to national life, community well-being and the economy.

Ensure Australian creativity thrives here and abroad in the digitally enabled 21st century, by supporting innovation, the development of new creative content, knowledge and creative industries.

Note there is not one mention of our role in the culture of the Pacific. It reflects an inward-looking Australia, ignoring our neighbours, and their rich cultures, whose artefacts we hoard.

In the words of Sir Charles Lepani, then PNG High Commissioner, when opening the Sepik exhibition at the NGA: "The people of Papua New Guinea entrust Australia to look after our artefacts on our behalf."

The Australian Museum is to spend $57.5M on an exhibition of a dead culture, and send the largest Pacific collection in Australia to a remote store in the urban wilderness.

At the very least, some of this $57.5M should be spent in low-res digitisation of this collection for public online access. Then Pacific people and scholars around the world would be able to view this priceless heritage. However this would expose the Museum’s complete disregard for proper cultural priorities and fiscal responsibilities.

In 2018, Australia finally awoke from a 40 year slumber to rediscover the Pacific.

The re-introduction of Radio Australia shortwave and other media to the Pacific is good policy.

So is DFAT’s Soft Power Review.

Surely someone in Canberra can see the huge advantages in digitising Australia’s museum collections, and sharing them with the world?

The Australian Museum’s Pacific collection would be showcased in France, Germany or the USA, where people understand such cultural masterpieces.

In the words of Dr Barry Craig, ex Curator of Foreign Ethnology SA Museum: "If you don’t share it, why do you have it?"

Philip Fitzpatrick

The Pacific Cultures Gallery at the South Australian Museum is, in fact, the largest display of Pacific material in Australia, with around 3000 bows, arrows, spears, shields, utensils, ornaments, masks and ritual objects on display.

It showcases artefacts from the Pacific Cultures region – Papua New Guinea, the Solomon and Santa Cruz Islands, Vanuatu, New Caledonia, Fiji and New Zealand.

This remarkable display of material cultures from the Pacific had its origin when the North Wing of the Museum opened in 1895.

The display cases along the walls and their contents are heritage listed and were returned to their former glory in 2006, which included major renovations to reveal the Victorian lantern ceiling.

This gallery is being preserved as an example of 19th century museum displays and forms a striking contrast to other galleries in the Museum.

This truly astonishing gallery is a must-see, for its cultural significance and old-world charm.

It did, however, briefly become a target for the bean counters and trendies who wanted to use the space for their monstrosities.

As far as I know they lost the battle.

Martin Hadlow

Could we dare to imagine that, in 2019, Australia might make a move to establish the world's finest 'Museum of the Pacific' (working title) on our shores?

This could be a stand-alone entity dedicated solely to the cultures, social mores, artefacts and histories of our region.

Not only would the museum display 'the best of the best', it could be a globally significant research centre, as well as a training base for Pacific curators and archivists, not to mention being a temporary holding facility and conservation centre for objects under threat in the region.

This year, our government spent over $100m on an audio-visual museum in France to commemorate General Monash and Australia's WWI efforts on the Western Front. No doubt a worthy contribution to remember great sacrifice.

But how about a special Pacific museum in Australia to recall the huge history and prominence of this part of the world? $20m? $30m? $50m? Half the cost of one new RAAF fighter aircraft and a mere drop in the Government funding bucket.

Oh and by the way, a 'Museum of the Pacific' doesn't have to be based in Sydney or Canberra or Melbourne. There are places called Brisbane and Townsville and Cairns which all have closer affinities with the Pacific and its peoples.

Let us dream of what could be...

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