Museums as storytellers: Speaking up and out in NAIDOC Week

I’m often concerned about the kind of stories I’m telling and the kind of narrative I’m contributing to. Not just in a vague existential way (although, guilty), but as a millennial working in a museum.

There’s a common idiom that the victors write history.

Cultural institutions are finally beginning to respond to criticisms that this informs not only a toxic and dangerous approach, but one that pushes away a public that cultural workers fight so hard to engage and share with.

If cultural institutions want to fight a reputation of being stuffy, boring spaces filled with old, white people; its time not to look to technological ways of telling stories, and musing on what marketing might entice the ‘youth’ –  but rather reflect on how they are telling stories.

This paradigm shift has already begun within museum spaces, with what we choose to tell often being one of the most under-the-radar and subverted forms of activism by beginning to choose to tell something different.

Throughout history, museums can be held responsible for telling an incorrect, harmful and at times politically motivated narratives.

Inherently the art of ‘collecting’ is a process of selection. Although best practise guidelines exist in an attempt to make objective the definition of ‘significance’ and institutional procedures doctor how relevant it could be to an organisation’s collection statements – at the end of the day something must be missed.

For too long there’s been a pattern in what hasn’t been selected. Selection, while a way of hiding or dismissing a narrative by prioritising one over the other, can be used in the opposite too.

Museums are increasingly using their unique storytelling ability to be a power of activism, a tool of change, and a channel for simultaneously uplifting history while also saying it sort of sucked for the most part too.

This time rather than ‘victors’ it’s a new wave of thinking that isn’t ‘re-writing’ history, but rather re-telling it.

We’re all familiar with how street artists like Banksy have attracted global attention through critiquing the limits of art and art institutions.

Similarly, there’s been a rise in exhibition material showcasing literal stories of rebellions, revolutions, protests and other ‘unconventional’ ways in which communities have brought about ‘change’, including at the Museum of Australian Democracy.

Many Australian cultural institutions participated in National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee (NAIDOC) Week in July, a week of celebration and recognising the history, culture and achievements of Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Moving away from treating Indigenous collections as ‘other’, these breathed life into spaces meant for their story.

Although meant to be ‘objective’, cultural institutions cannot be so at their core nor should they be – observing is for the past, community is for the future.

Many cultural institutions used NAIDOC week to open conversations and invite discourse by hosting talks for local Elders, story time, and special exhibitions rather than depicting just one side of a narrative.

Art From the Margins’ exhibition Listening, Healing, Connecting had Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists collaborating to create art surrounding the week’s theme of Voice, Treaty, Truth, utilising the unique ability of art and galleries to connect both artists and viewers.

Melbourne Museum ­– in addition to hosting a performance by Briggs – allowed visitors a unique opportunity to hold and touch the objects in their First Peoples gallery.

This idea of using objects to physically demonstrate stories was also used by the Australian Museum, which presented a variety of their collection in Hyde Park, allowing free access to cultural objects.

While there’s still great progress to be made in the ethics of collection provenance and acquisition, this kind of commitment to NAIDOC week has become the standard in recent years.

This demonstrates not only the capacity museums have to speak up and out, but also the fun and exciting ways in which they can use their collection to change the story.  

Of course, none of this sharing of knowledge and experience could be done without Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander people working in, and collaborating with, these institutions – which has arguably had the greatest positive impact.

By showing up for local Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander communities, cultural institutions have also thrown their support behind love, humanity, compassion and decency – something that, unfortunately, has become political.

By presenting the stories of a whole community that was once actively silenced by these very institutions,  – and actively opposing their own role in doing so – museums are becoming increasingly transparent, people-powered and more relevant than ever.

Lucy is a Museums, Conservation and Heritage graduate from the University of Canberra and works as an Objects Conservator at the Australian War Memorial. All views expressed are her own.

Image by Rachel Darling