Collections in the Expanded Field: Relationality and the Provenance of Artefacts and Archives

by Michael Jones

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In 2017 archaeological evidence was published which indicates that modern humans first arrived in Australia around 65,000 years ago. Through the countless generations since, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples built deep connections to the landscape, developed rich material culture infused with story and myth, and used oral and ceremonial traditions to transmit knowledge over thousands of years. Yet, since European invasion at the end of the eighteenth century, the provenance of ethnographic and institutional collections has largely been documented with reference to white collectors and colonial institutions. Attitudes are starting to change. Recent decades have seen significant moves away from the idea of the authoritative institution toward relational museums and the co-creation of knowledge. But the structure and content of much museum documentation continues to lag behind contemporary attitudes. This paper looks at the documentation of Australian ethnographic and anthropological collections through the lens of changing perspectives on provenance, including archival notions of parallel and societal provenance. When placed in the context of recent developments in material culture theory, these collections help to highlight the limitations of existing documentation. The paper concludes with a call for community involvement and a more relational approach to documentation which better encompasses the complexities of provenance and the entangled institutional, archival, oral, and community perspectives that accumulate around artefacts in museums.