Red clay pot

Artefacts as markers in museums

Written by Imelda Miller, Curator, First Nations Cultures

What is your mark?

Have you ever thought about marks or mark-making? From a mark on a page like a cross or a fingerprint, a carving on an object or into the earth, a photograph or digital moving image, an heirloom passed down generation to generation, or a story passed from one person to another about an event, person or place in time. The collections of objects at the museum are like marks or mark-makers in time. Objects are like containers of stories and messages, a legacy from the past and present to the future. Have you ever thought the marks or messages you are leaving for future generations, in your family, school or community? Members of the Australian South Sea Islander Community are working with researchers in museums and archives to find physical markers of their ancestors.

Black and white image of a group of people standing in front of a building with a thatched roof

A group of South Sea Islander men near a grass hut in Burrum Heads. c1863-1906. Image: Queensland Museum Collection, R. Trevor.

Working together to uncover new and old marks

One of the many privileges of being a curator in the First Nations Cultures team is the opportunity to work on projects with, in and for communities. One of our recent projects is the Archaeology, collections and Australian South Sea Islander lived experiences research project. Like many of our projects, priority is given to working with community to develop a project with meaningful outcomes.

Queensland Museum staff with our researchers from our partner organisations have been working with Queensland Australian South Sea Islander communities in Ayr, Mackay, Rockhampton and Joskeleigh to create a greater awareness about the communities’ achievements, experiences, and the landscape in which they live. The team are looking for markers left by South Sea Islander ancestors in collections and archives as well as in the physical landscape – a fingerprint, statue, names, places, and events of the past. It is important to acknowledge that the Australian South Sea Islander story is not one homogeneous story, voice, or experience – there are in fact many.

image of post it notes on white board

Australian South Sea Islander community workshop in Mackay, Queensland, 2021. Image: Queensland Museum.

Australian South Sea Islander community marks in landscape

In a bid to uncover or unveil some of the communities experiences our team has been conducting workshops on material culture (objects), cultural landscape mapping and archaeological excavations in regional communities. The collections-based workshops, facilitated by museum professionals, create spaces for conversations with, for, about and by the Australian South Sea Islander community. The aim of the workshops is to encourage the community to engage and share a conversation about identifying the important people, places and events that connect to, or have shaped, their Australian South Sea Islander identity or experiences in the world. It is important to know there are not many markers left in the landscape referring to this history nor is it well known in the wider community.

As a team we work together to build connections between the artefacts in the collections in major collection institutional, in regional, state, national and international public collections and private collections. Some of the key finds in these collections include, documents, photographs, maps, petitions, old and contemporary artefacts of more recent histories. Through the disciplines of archaeology and museology we are working to connect these marks or artefacts, with people and place, allowing us to create a narrative that is representative of the community today. Do you have any artefacts connected to the histories of the Queensland Australian South Sea Islander community?

Australian South Sea Islanders steel headed axe from the collection

Steel headed axe with shell inlay from the Solomon Islands. Image: Queensland Museum Collection E310

Leaving a mark

Already through the workshops and the archaeology exploration we can see some new markers in the landscape and in the archives. By connecting Queensland’s Australian South Sea Islander community with artefacts in the larger cultural landscape, a re-telling of this narrative begins to develop that is more representative of community’s experience, achievements, and contributions to Queensland. In turn, we are leaving a special marker, for Queensland’s future generations.

Imelda Miller looking through collection material related to the Queensland Government’s Recognition ceremony

Curator, Imelda Miller looking through collection material related to the Queensland Government's Recognition ceremony memorabilia from 7 September 2000. Image: Queensland Museum.

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