Peabody Museum Indigenous Australia Curatorial Fellowships

The Peabody Museum stewards one of the most significant collections of Aboriginal objects outside of Australia. The Fellowship program aimed to expand documentation for objects in the collection to enhance the Museum’s online public collections database. The program also helped forge connections among the Peabody, descendant communities, and global networks of Australian scholars.


The Fellowships were generously funded by the Harvard Committee on Australian Studies.

On the Australian Collection:

Spotlight on the Australia Collections: Dr. Anne Best
By Christina Hodge, Coordinator, Academic Partnerships

The Peabody Museum, with the support of the Harvard University Australian Studies Committee, initiated an innovative curatorial program to bring experts from across the globe to study its Australian ethnographic collection. These nearly 1,200 items reflect all facets of Aboriginal Australian life from the late 19th century through today. Peoples living across the Australian continent in diverse environments and circumstances created these items, which range from iconic boomerangs to unusual twined fiber shoes, and 19th-century wooden containers to 20th-century bark paintings. The collection is one of the largest and most significant in the United States, and the work of the museum’s visiting Indigenous Australia Curatorial Fellows (IACFs) is already yielding significant insight into this important material legacy. 

A photo of Anne Best smiling at the camera. She wears beaded red dangly earrings and a patterned shirt, her caramel colored hair swooping across her forehead.
Dr. Anne Best's research on the museum's Australia collections will benefit researchers and scholars all over the world.

“The collection is really beautifully managed by a very dedicated professional team,” said current IACF Anne Best. She just spent three months in residence examining objects and archival records relating to collections from Queensland, Northern Territory, and unknown locations in Australia. “The Peabody is extraordinarily lucky to have the galleries, storerooms, the archives, and conservation all in one place. That is quite rare.” Her work was meticulous, involving deep looking, close reading, and an expert knowledge of Aboriginal material culture. Trained as an archaeologist, Dr. Best brings a keen focus on material, technique, and aesthetics to her study of the social context of Aboriginal objects and their regional variations, exploring the multiple ways museum collections reflect the complexity of Australian Aboriginal cultures. Dr. Best earned her PhD from the University of Southampton in the U.K. and recently, her research was based at the University of Queensland in Australia. She has also worked with collections at the British Museum, the Australian Museum, and the Pitt Rivers Museum, among other world-class collections.

A long wooden shield with rounded edges stands alone. What appears to be a handhold sticks out of the middle of the shield. It is painted with triangular patterns, outlined in thick black lines. Some shapes are filled with white and some with red.
Queensland shield. 96-25-70/49483.

In her time at the Peabody, Dr. Best made enormous strides in studying ethnographic items and improving museum documentation. "Our first and most important task was to enhance what already existed in terms of documentation," she explained, ading drily, "It's a form of ethnographic housework." She examined over 350 individual items in great detail, correcting and enhancing records for each. Among her favories was a large, brightly painted shield from the rainforest region of Queensland (PM 96-25-70/49483). She explained to a visiting class of Harvard undergraduates that its shape, elaboration, and evocatively marred surface carried information on its owner's regional origin, social status, clan, and more. Another was a necklace of luminous nautilus shell, which Dr. Best brought to the attention of the Peabody's Conservation Department. Its finely graduated beads are now stabilized as it rests in a custom container (PM 67-9-70/133). In collaboration iwth the Peabody's other current IACF, Dr. Shawn Rowlands, Dr. Best used her expertise to reclassify more than a dozen items from the "Australia-unknown location" group into specific cultural and geographic groups. She also uncovered stories of collectors and collecting that are as fascinating as the objects themselves. 

Dr. Best will spend the next few months writing up her findings. "Where I can, I'm going to connect Peabody objects with sister objects in other collections. For example, if somebody wants to do a research project on wood containers, they may want to know there are more wood containers in Pitt Rivers, linking this collection to the wider community of other collections. And then I will also link the objects to the sound ethnographic references. And there are some very good ones for Australia." Dr. Best's work promises to make a lasting impact on her own scholarship as well as studies of Australian museum collections more broadly.

The ASC and Peabody aspire for fellows not only to enhance museum understandings, but also to create a community of scholar-ambassadors for the Peabody’s Australian materials and Harvard University. Dr. Best and her fellow IACFs will integrate the Peabody’s collections into their own research, sharing their findings with both scholarly and public audiences in the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia itself. The Peabody is tremendously appreciative of their efforts and collegiality, as well as the support of the Australia Studies Committee for this important work.

For more on this program, please see Inside the Peabody Museum-June 2013 edition. The Peabody will share reports from future IACF scholars here. The Peabody's work is ongoing; over the course of the next year, the museum will begin integrating the results of the IACFs' work into the Peabody's records and Collections Online.

Focus on the Australian Collection: Dr. Louise Hamby
By Christina Hodge, Coordinator, Academic Partnerships

The Peabody Museum has one of the most significant collections of Aboriginal objects outside of Australia, and it is getting some well-deserved attention. Over 1,000 items represent diverse Aboriginal peoples from Australia's Northern Territory. Most were collected between World Wars I and II. This material legacy is gaining new vitality through a partnership between the Peabody Museum and the Harvard University Australian Studies Committee to bring expert Indigenous Australia Research Fellows (IARF) to the museum. Fellows will refresh museum understandings, glean new insights, and forge connections among the Peabody, source communities, and global networks of Australian scholars. The first IARF scholar, Dr. Louise Hamby, recently completed a month-long research visit in the innovative program. Focusing on collections from Australia’s Northern Territory, she was both moved and motivated by what she found. 

Louise Hamby sits at a table wearing a white coat, holding a camera with both hands. Her left hand rests on the lens, as if deciding which object on the table in front of her to photograph first.
Louise Hamby studies Australian materials at the Peabody.

Dr. Hamby is an expert on Aboriginal fiber arts and the material culture of Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory. She works closely with both people and things, combining Aboriginal and anthropological understandings of museum objects. Her work is about “making links, making those connections” to produce a “meaningful product.” Dr. Hamby lectures at Australia National University in the Museums and Collections Graduate Program. Among her many exhibitions is Women with Clever Hands, a touring exhibition of fiber work from the women of Arnhem Land (past and present). Its next stop is the University of Queensland's Anthropology Museum in August 2013, where it will include items from that museum’s permanent collection.

Dr. Hamby reports that the Peabody’s collection is little known in Australia, despite ties to influential anthropologists of the pre-World War II era. One of these men was W. Lloyd Warner, who attended graduate school at Harvard’s Anthropology Department in the 1920s and 1930s. Warner is of special interest to Dr. Hamby because of his iconic work in Arnhem Land. She finds his collection illuminating. It is well documented, includes both beautiful and mundane objects (all made with masterful skill), and reflects life during an era of colonial transformation.

“I’ve been looking at Warner’s collections all around the world,” said Dr. Hamby during her research at the Peabody. “The collection is all from the same place and same time, and that’s what makes it special. This is an ideal opportunity to do a bit more intense work with not only Warner but the Northern Territory.”

A boomerang against a black background. Most of it is patterned like a snakeskin.
Non-returning boomerang. 30-54-70/D3454

Warner’s is the most significant collection within the Peabody's Australian collection, but there are other collectors whose early work shaped anthropological understandings of Aboriginal Australian people (D.S. Davidson, Joseph Birdsell, and Norman Tindale, for example). Such collections are important to present-day Aboriginal communities, offering an important resource for education and revitalization. Dr. Hamby believes that “you need people with memory of those who made these objects” to share their knowledge. When she speaks with Aboriginal people about collections like the Peabody’s, they speak of caretaking, shared memory, and passing skills and knowledge to their children. The trip from Australia to America is a difficult one, so Dr. Hamby is an ambassador, driven to connect collections with communities through her work.

A long oval-shaped food tray, pointed at both ends, sits alone. Its material is terracotta colored, and it is patterned by dots, with three equidistant vertical stripes interrupting horizontal dotted lines.
Food tray. 32-68-70/D4031.

In November 2010, she accompanied Dr. Joseph Gumbula to the Peabody to explore the Australian collection. Dr. Gumbula is a Yolngu elder and an authority on the material culture of Arnhem Land. "Joe coming here was a really fantastic thing because he was actually seeing the objects with his own eyes," enthused Dr. Hamby. "What I’m doing is to actually try to get some feedback from the community back to the museum. It’s going to happen here faster than other places, because we actually brought Joe here."

The Peabody’s IARF program also offers Dr. Hamby the luxury of time to delve deeply. “It's a good opportunity to contextualize what is here," she said, "and an opportunity perhaps to link some of your collections with the other collections from the same people and same expeditions” which are dispersed in museums across the globe. “The possibility of linking these objects up so they can talk to each other again would be a fantastic thing to happen, whether it’s virtual or perhaps real in the future.” She speaks enthusiastically, for example, of a project to co-develop a smart phone application with Dr. Gumbula, so that people in home communities have easy virtual access to things made by their ancestors. She believes the IARF program will raise the profile of the Peabody’s collection, so that more people in Australia will know about these important objects.

Engraved shell pendants, hafted axes, boomerangs, and baskets are animated in dialogue with each other on museum shelves. The IARF program helps the Peabody Museum to become a better steward, connecting us not only with scholars, but also with descendant communities. Through such work, we are seeing our Australian collections again for the first time. We’ll be sharing reports from future IARF scholars here--two more are expected next year--and more information about our Australian collections can be found on the Peabody's Collections Online website.

Culture Swaps and the Australian Collection: Dr. Shawn Rowlands
by Dr. Shawn Rowlands

The Peabody Museum of Ethnology and Archaeology at Harvard University holds a remarkable collection of Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander material culture. The ethnographic side of this collection has recently undergone intense study by three research scholars—Dr. Louise Hamby, Dr. Anne Best, and myself—Dr. Shawn Rowlands. This collection encompasses a little over a thousand objects collected from a diverse range of cultural groups and geographic regions in Australia. Primarily collected in the years between the two World Wars, there are still a great many objects dating as far back as the 19th century, and some of which have been collected more recently.

Excluding myself, each research fellow attached to the project chose to focus on a particular collection or regional representation in the material culture. As I worked on the project for a year, I instead chose to research the entire collection of Australian Aboriginal material culture, as well as the photographic and small, but significant, film archives. My own research interests have focused on the links between cultural identities through the material world, the ways in which this is perceived by observers, and the process of social construction and control, particularly as it relates to national identity.

A major area of interest for me is the phenomenon of what may be described as entanglement, which is the process of cross-cultural interaction within a frontier space as evidenced in the material culture. This may take the form of the creation of new objects to deal with foreign materials—such as the numerous tobacco pipe-tubes in the Peabody Museum made by Aboriginal people to smoke European tobacco—or it could involve using new materials as a substitute for old ones. There are numerous examples of the latter held at the Peabody, such as glass and iron spear points substituting for stone, wood, or bone; or commercially-manufactured thread being used instead of hand-woven indigenous plant fibers or human hair. And it may also manifest in less immediately obvious ways, such as on baobab gourds in the collection which show artistic carvings of animals which are not indigenous to Australia.

The incidence of this entanglement in the Peabody, after a preliminary examination of the data on the entire collection, appears to be the same as other museum collections I have examined (about a quarter of the collection), with the same allowances for temporal and spatial differences. The vast majority of the European observers of Aboriginal material culture in the colonial and Federation period in Australia tended to downplay, ignore, or deride this entanglement. Instead, they characterized it as degradation and degeneration of culture. They argued that Aboriginal culture was static and incapable of adaptation and, according to prevailing social and scientific views on race at the time, inadaptability meant eventual extinction.

The reality was that the Aboriginal material culture these observers were collecting and commenting on showed ample evidence of adaptation. Australian Aboriginal people suffered disease, starvation, loss of land, and violence in the face of European expansion in their traditional country. Yet they were able to survive, adapt, and innovate. Their remarkable culture has endured, and will continue to do so. Collections like the Peabody’s are important to provide an historic and social link for Aboriginal people. But the collection is also crucial in exploring a facet of the European past, scientific and social curiosity, and the growth of anthropology as a discipline.

This research has already begun to inform several future publications, and will be incorporated into my own teaching in the future, and made available to Aboriginal people in Australia. Having had the opportunity to examine the material culture collection of Aboriginal people at the Peabody Museum has been an incredible experience, as has been the opportunity to work with scholars of international renown, and forge relationships between institutions.