Aboriginal Communities Bring The Berndt Museum To Life

Jessyca Hutchens, curator at the Berndt Museum of Anthropology discusses her role and the work of the Berndt Museum. She reflects on the most recent exhibition by Arlpwe Arts held at Japingka Gallery.

Can you tell us about your role?

I'm currently the curator at the Berndt Museum, which is a museum at the University of Western Australia. It has a very large collection of Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander artworks and materials. My role is to curate exhibitions as well as some teaching and community access work.

What sort of things do you do on an average day?

It really depends on what we have coming up. Often I'll be working on exhibitions. This might be consulting with artists or researching parts of the collection. I'll also be helping with requests from people who would like to come and see the collection or to assist with research. During the semester, I teach in a few different courses like Art History or Indigenous Studies. These students like to talk to us about the work of the museum.

What is the most enjoyable aspect of your work?

Definitely I enjoy the work of putting collection items back in touch with communities. This might be directly with the artists who made them, or with families who have connection to the materials. We don't have a large physical space for display, unlike a typical museum. We arrange small exhibitions drawn from this vast collection. Every time we're able to put communities back in touch with their materials, it feels like those parts of the collection really come alive and hold a lot more meaning.

Top Image: Warrick Japangardi Miller | Ngapa – Water Dreaming | Jap 019554 | Arlpwe Artists

Do the materials go back to those communities or is the work primarily helping to set up that connection?

Certainly in some cases the materials are returned and that's something we're interested in. Mostly people just want to see what's in the museum. This is especially true of artists who either made the original work or who have had family members make the work. That's very special. They might be interested in seeing that work again and understanding how it's being looked after.

What's an assumption people often get wrong about your sort of work?

I suppose people would assume that as a museum, we would be a physical museum with large spaces for display. We even get people knocking on our door, expecting to find a large scale display. Instead, they discover that we are all the other parts of a museum. Think of this vast warehouse with the collections and archives. I think most people aren't really aware that there's such an important and extensive collection of this nature held at UWA. That is part of our role, to keep communicating with communities, to let them know what we have and that this important collection exists.

Since you've come into this role, what's the thing that's taken you by surprise?

It's surprising that the collection isn't that well known. A lot of the work we do is communicating what we have. Items were collected at many different times and it's such a vast collection and we're a small team. It's simply a big part of what we do, to get back in touch with communities. I think I continue to be astounded by what's actually in the collection. I've only got to know a small percentage of it. Sometimes you just find things that are completely surprising. So, I think it's always an exciting thing to be in the collection and find out what's there. There are definitely things that I think, in the coming decades, will be really important to exhibit and get those stories out there.

Have you noticed any recent changes in your sector? Are there trends emerging or ideas that are getting stronger?

Well, I only came to the museum last September. This is my first role within a museum of this nature. Up until now my background has mostly been in contemporary art. I have always been interested in Indigenous artists who have made works about historic collections or engaged with the archive in some way. It's quite interesting to see how museums have taken on some of that critical work that is increasingly done by Indigenous artists and curators. While I think we have a long way to go, I do think there are positive changes in terms of there being more Indigenous led decision making and control over collections. We're seeing more Indigenous curators coming through.

The museum has a history as an anthropology museum, but since the end of 2020, it sits within the School of Indigenous Studies. Although we have a lot of room to grow in terms of being a small team, I think it's very promising that we are now coming under this essentially Indigenous institution with a growing number of Indigenous staff here. We're able to navigate working within a Western style of museum framework while maintaining a more Indigenous perspective. We're seeing promising signs of that across the sector.

You were recently at the Japingka Gallery to see the exhibition from Arlpwe Arts. What is your connection with Arlpwe Arts and Ali Curung?

There are a couple of connections. I worked on the 2020 Biennale of Sydney. Part of that show was led by an Indigenous Artistic Director, Brook Andrew. There was an incredible group called Tennant Creek Brio, and through them I came to know Marcus Champhoo whose work is included in the current exhibition at Japingka Gallery. It is very bold, graphic and really exciting. The Brio absolutely blew my mind. I think everybody felt that way about the work. It was very original and expressive work.

My second connection is with Levi Maclean, who is the Art Centre Manager at Arlpwe. He is also ex-UWA or maybe a current student at UWA. We were both mentored by Darren Jorgenson. Levi got in touch with me to show me some of the works that were being created at the art centre. I found the body of work remarkable, and that's how I came to get involved and attend the opening night of the exhibition.

How important is your connection with Aboriginal communities?

I think the museum doesn't exist without the Aboriginal communities that give the collection meaning and context. Everything we do is based on consultation. Even if I'm just doing a small exhibition, as I did recently a small print-making exhibition - I made sure I was in touch with anyone that had important links to what we were planning to show. I want to understand how people want to be represented. I think across all of our work, Aboriginal communities bring the museum to life and give it meaning. It’s often very meaningful for communities to be in touch with their cultural heritage and to feel like they have a say over how it gets represented and what gets done with it. That's definitely the main reason why we all want to work here.


Sarah Nabangardi Holmes  |  Sandy Hills |
Jap 019546
Sarah Nabangardi Holmes | Sandy Hills | Jap 019546

The art centre in Ali Curung is famous for artefacts rather than contemporary art. What was your impression of this new art exhibition at Japingka?

I thought the new exhibition was absolutely astounding. I guess it's just a testament to how much innovation there still is out there. It's a very diverse exhibition. You see quite a range of styles from Marcus's really bold work to this really fine and detailed hypnotic work to this work by Warwick Miller. His work is so connected with his knowledge of Warlpiri culture and his family's legacies. I think you're seeing a lot of different viewpoints in that exhibition and at the same time, it works really well telling different stories from different areas. I thought it was remarkable.

Were there any particular works that stood out for you and why?

I could stare at those Judy Napangardi works for hours because they're so hypnotic and incredibly detailed. I think the style of Sarah Napagandi Holmes’ work is really unique. You know, you've got these joined up lines that create these really undulating kind of effects in this golden light. It was very special that Warwick Miller was there for the opening. Warwick also came to visit the Berndt Museum and shared a lot of his deep knowledge of Warlpiri cultural and artistic production with us. It was a really special experience. Hearing Warwick talk about his works was a real highlight of the exhibition.

Why do you think things are changing so much for that arts community?

I think sometimes you just get that confluence of factors of having a few artists who are particularly committed and passionate about making work. I think that triggers other people's interests and it sounds like they've got a really devoted team out there. Having spoken a bit to Levi, it sounded like even when he started there, there was already so much activity going on. I think sometimes it's just a matter of which artists are working and how they're able to mentor others that creates momentum. You can definitely see that from this exhibition. You have older artists in their seventies and the younger artists in their thirties. I think that the cross generational cross section is always important to the vitality of a functioning art centre.

How did you feel when you left that exhibition? How did you feel about the future of those artists in that art centre?

I think with Levi and Warwick coming down and sharing their stories about the art centre, it just seems like there's an enormous amount of energy out there at the moment. My feeling is that it will go from strength to strength. I think the works speak for themselves and I'm sure that they'll continue to get a lot more attention from the art world. It looks like a very positive future for art production there.

What would you like people to know about the Berndt Museum?

If people are interested in what the museum’s doing, we're always happy to have visitors. We are particularly keen for people from communities to connect up what is in this incredible collection. We saw the benefit of that when Warwick came to the museum. It's artists like Warwick who are continuing their cultures through this important work and carrying forward these links from the past. So it's always fantastic for us to have those close relationships between the museum and art centres and artists who are continuing their cultural practices.


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Off the Beaten Track: The Artists of Ali Curung


UWA - Berndt Museum : Cultural Precinct

Screen Australia - Arlpwe Art: Ali Curung