Written by Fiona Roberts. Collaborative ESRC PhD student, Cardiff University and Amgueddfa Cymru-National Museum Wales Decolonising biocultural curation of South Asian medicinal plants.
Monday 7th November, National Museums Collections Centre
In early November, a group of academics, researchers, curators, artists and knowledge holders gathered at Edinburgh’s National Museums Collections Centre. The second workshop of the year-long AHRC-funded ‘People and Plants’ project focused on ‘reactivating ethnobotanical collections as material archives of Indigenous ecological knowledge.’
The People and Plants Project
Led by National Museums Scotland, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and the Powell-Cotton Museum, the project investigates current debates on decolonising museum practices, including the interplay between natural history and ethnography collections, creating a conversation about these among varied experts.
The project’s previous workshop, held at the Powell-Cotton Museum in March 2022, brought together Somali knowledge holders from UK diasporic communities and was run in partnership with the University of Kent’s School of Anthropology and Conservation and the NOMAD project, which engages Somali communities in heritage projects. To read more, see this previous blogpost, and view workshop talks on YouTube [People and Plants – YouTube].
Workshop Two: Australian Collections
The workshop we attended, led by National Museums Scotland, focused on Australia, looking at objects collected by Dr Emile Clement (1895-1900) from Ngarluma and Yindjibarndi communities. The day-long event explored how ethnobotany collections can be used as resources by Indigenous communities in cultural revitalisation projects, for teaching and artistic practice. The day began with an introduction to the project by co-organiser Dr Ali Clark, Senior Curator of Oceania and the Americas at National Museums Scotland. Ali discussed how collections like Emile Clement’s were sometimes known as orphan collections, unable to be categorised as either art/ethnography or natural history, and historically often moved between museums because of this. Bringing out an initial theme of the workshop – dissolving binaries between ‘nature’ and ‘culture’ in museum curation – Ali suggested that ‘biocultural collection’ is the preferred holistic term, describing intimate relationships between people, the environment and culture, and how museum categorisation should match this.
Following this, Gerry Turpin discussed his work at Perth’s Tropical Indigenous Ethnobotany Centre, assisting Traditional Knowledge Owners in recording, documenting and maintaining ethnobotanical knowledge, through research, training and education and providing information on intellectual property rights. Gerry also explained how databases, free for and held by communities, store ethnobotanical knowledge, including audio-visual information. This prompted an interesting discussion about digital data sovereignty, another theme of the day, and the intricacies and issues of who should be allowed to own or access knowledge. Dr Ali Clark (National Museums Scotland) and Professor Alistair Paterson (University of Western Australia) then discussed Emile Clement’s collection in more detail, setting the scene for the object handling occurring later. They described the global networks of exchange Clement’s collections were embedded within and how his displays and practices reflected his particular colonial lens. Moving to the collection’s management, Ali shared insights from a recent research trip to Western Australia where she began the process of connecting the collection to place, hoping now to refresh galleries which currently flatten Aboriginal cultures.
The final talk was by Kerry Churnside, Kevin Guiness and Kate Oosterhof (Ngarluma Yindjibarndi Foundation). Kerry and Kevin shared their wealth of knowledge as community leaders and Indigenous knowledge holders, and Kate’s experiences as a lawyer and Chair of the Cossack Activation Committee. They informed us about their work in the UK so far, visiting museum collections and their experiences of encountering these. They described how past dispossession of land in Western Australia, forcing cultures and language groups together, felt mirrored in the treatment of artefacts being grouped together in collections, and so was difficult to see.
We began the afternoon with a tour of the Collection Centre’s stores, hearing about the Aboriginal Australian collections and how they were curated. Following this, we attended an object handling session on the Emile Clement collection, led by Kerry and Kevin (Ngarluma Yindjibarndi Foundation). Building on their earlier talk, they began by teaching us in detail about their family system, the Galharra-skin group system, with four different groups within this, particular expected behaviours for members, and each related to particular aspects of the environment.
Building from this, they then used this base of knowledge to explain more about the objects in turn, how they were made, who could make and use them, and what they were made from; the intricacies of which related strongly to their family system. Kerry and Kevin spoke about their connection with the collection, and how they saw the objects as homesick and interacted with the collection in particular ways, singing or speaking out to the artefacts on meeting and departing from them to remove any cultural danger. This session brought out a third theme of the day; the importance of listening carefully to First Nation voices, with the depth of entwined knowledge between Kerry and Kevin’s culture and the objects themselves illuminating the objects in ways impossible before.
Reflecting on the day during a closing discussion, attendees brought out the importance of engaging in careful listening and dialogue with knowledge holders. The objects we saw spoke through Kerry and Kevin, illuminating what is currently missing from collections; nuanced understandings of culture, family, ancestry, cultural safety, ecology and stories, which we were only able to touch on in the short time together. Further, it brought out issues related to the digitisation of knowledge within museum databases, whether knowledge needs to be held or accessible by everyone and how to manage this in a digital space. Finally, how Emile Clement’s ‘orphan collection’, historically moved between natural and cultural museums, in fact holistically combined both ‘nature’ and ‘culture’ into a biocultural collection; highlighted by stories about the integration of ecological and cultural knowledge which wove their way through the day.
In January 2023, the final workshop focusing on Brazilian collections at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew takes place, run with the Department of Cultures and Languages, Birkbeck, University of London and Museu Goeldi. This focuses on the interaction of western botanical nomenclature and traditional knowledge which forms the basis of an existing British Academy Knowledge Frontiers project and the Richard Spruce collection (1849-1864). To stay connected, visit: www.natsca.org/people-and-plants.